It’s November 1st, 2010. Cheryl Cole is at number one with “Promise This,” with Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Cee Lo Green, and Nelly also charting. In news, eruptions of a volcano in Indonesia kill hundreds and force hundreds of thousands to evacuate. The Independent launches a tabloid called simply i, a title designed to drive autocorrect mad. And on the second day of this story’s transmission, the Republican party makes massive gains in the midterm elections, taking control of the House of Representatives and winning six Senate seats.
On television, meanwhile, The Empty Planet. It is, in many ways, the exact episode that The Sarah Jane Adventures needed in the immediate wake of Death of the Doctor. As majestic as that story was, it required moving the focus away from the actual cast of The Sarah Jane Adventures and towards the larger legacy of Doctor Who. Here, then, is the counterbalance – a story in which Sarah Jane (and indeed the entire rest of the cast) drops out early on, allowing the adventure to focus essentially exclusively on Clyde and Rani. Unlike the previous Sarah-lite story, the sublime Mark of the Berserker, this is not a story in which Sarah Jane’s absence is filled by the other major supporting characters. There is no return of Maria, nor Luke and K-9. Not even the extended supporting cast – Haresh, Gita, or Mr. Smith – make significant appearances, and although there’s a welcome return of Jocelyn Jee Esien as Clyde’s mother, that too is essentially a cameo. Perhaps more importantly, whereas Mark of the Berserker hinges on the return of Sarah Jane at a crucial moment to put everything right, The Empty Planet really does leave her on the sidelines for the entire actual plot (she has three scenes and seventeen lines in the whole thing), allowing Clyde and Rani the opportunity to resolve things on their own.
That this is even possible as a thing for the show to do speaks volumes of how much effort has been put into building a supporting cast, and how strong that cast is at this point. To follow up a joyous homage to everything that the show originated from with a story that casually throws everything that the show didn’t invent for itself out the window is tremendous. Doubly so because it works. The Sarah Jane Adventures doesn’t need a trace of Doctor Who to work – it can and does get by on nothing more than the characters it’s built for itself. It may be a show that launched as a spinoff, but that’s not what makes it work. All of this is very much worth emphasizing. As is the basic fact that for much of this story’s runtime it is in effect a two-hander with a non-white cast. For kids. This is a show worth having.
So much of this, however, comes from the basic dynamic of Clyde and Rani. The Empty Planet plays at a romance plot between them, settling pleasantly in an ambiguous space into which a relationship can easily be read, but in no way has to be. Roberts splits the difference perfectly, writing a story that is first and foremost about how these two characters are best friends. And not one that crassly essentializes them as any sort of odd couple relationship. Their backgrounds are certainly on display – Clyde’s lackadaisical approach to school is contrasted with Rani’s studiousness, for instance. But just as quickly as that stereotypical relationship is established it’s casually inverted, with a glimpse at Clyde’s studious focus on his artistic skills and dreams for the future, in pleasant contrast to Rani’s being inclined to blow her father off.
Instead of writing their friendship as a theme, Roberts takes the much more wonderful approach of just writing it as a friendship. This isn’t a story about why two people get along, but instead one about two people who absolutely do get along, and who are, even if they’d never admit it, each other’s first choice for who they’d like to be stuck on a completely abandoned and empty Earth with. They do compliment each other, clearly – Roberts is good at picking which one should notice a given detail or make a given deduction, in a way that stems nicely from their characters. Rani is better at observing the world they’re in, whereas Clyde is the one who does things like remember the Judoon declaring that Clyde and Rani aren’t allowed to leave Earth. But this is just an elaborate way of saying that they’re effective characters in the first place.
Also impressive is the way in which the episode manages to make an intricate backdrop out of only a few elements. The empty planet becomes the occasion for some Dalek Invasion of Earth-esque wandering through empty streets, which is always a satisfying visual, as are the two bright and colorful robots, who show up just as things are starting to seem predictable. On top of that, they’re just terribly well-designed robots, which really does help a lot. The actor playing Gavin, the third person on Earth and the key to everything that’s going on, is a bit weaker, but the overall premise, which casually weaves together the conceit of Delta and the Bannermen with a pun nicked from “How Soon is Now,” is delightful and unraveled at exactly the right pace. And, of course, that’s it – this is an episode with very few elements, and Roberts wisely gives them space to breathe, trusting in the chemistry between Daniel Anthony and Anjili Mohindra to keep things moving. And, sure enough, it all comes off.
This is, in other words, the flip side to much of what we’ve been discussing so far with this season of The Sarah Jane Adventures – the sort of episode that relies on the fact that everybody has been doing this for a while and knows what they’re doing, so that an episode that changes things up a bit will work. This is the sort of episode that fourth seasons of television shows exist for – one that involves contorting the premise a little so that people get to do something slightly new. Which is worth stressing, in particular, in the wake of three stories worth of suggesting that the natural endpoint of The Sarah Jane Adventures is already visible from this point. True as that might be – and I do stand by it – that in no way means that there aren’t still some absolutely fantastic episodes to be had.
All of which is worth crediting specifically to Gareth Roberts. The Empty Planet is not an easy brief, and Roberts is probably the only regular writer of The Sarah Jane Adventures who could pull it off. This is partially due to Roberts’s specific skill set – it’s a story that’s going to live or die by its casual banter, and if you need an hour of pleasant banter Roberts is one of the two best writers of the new series (and the other is too busy running the new series to write for The Sarah Jane Adventures). But it’s also because Roberts is a solid, high-quality writer who’s written for over half the seasons of the new series. He’s very good. And the fact that he’s been given stories in every season of The Sarah Jane Adventures (and in most seasons more than one) speaks volumes about how seriously the show is taken.
It would have been easy to throw in another fairly generic alien invasion plot. It would have been easy to pick a no-name writer because it’s only children’s television. It would have been easy to make this story and this show a lot less good than it is. Instead we have a children’s show that does a smart and entertaining story that focuses on a majority minority cast, uses a top drawer writer for it, and does it with an inventive premise and some quite entertaining robots to boot. Whatever one might say about when The Sarah Jane Adventures would or should have wrapped up if not for Lis Sladen’s untimely death, stories like this make clear why it’s made in the first place. This is what the show is for. And it’s absolutely marvelous.