It’s September 29th, 2008. Kings of Leon are at number one with “Sex on Fire,” with Rihanna’s “Disturbia,” Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” and songs by Pussycat Dolls, Sugababes, and Faith Hill also charting. In the last three months the world has gone barking mad. Over the course of September what has come to be called the global financial crisis or the great recession broke out properly, with John McCain essentially torpedoing his already dubious Presidential campaign with a vacillating and erratic response. At this particular moment in time the world is an unusually scary place – a sense of unease hanging over everything in a way that has only occasionally gripped it in the past history of the program.
It is, in other words, a complex and downright interesting time into which The Sarah Jane Adventures launches its second season, and its first story, The Last Sonataran, is fittingly busy. It’s reintroducing the cast, as a second season opener should do, while simultaneously showcasing a Big Name Monster (as any monster inherited from Doctor Who is) and dealing with writing out the central character of the first season (along with two supporting characters). This is accompanied by a familiar problem of stories with a lot to do, which is that any notion of thematic unity drops out. At the end of the day, there isn’t a clear reason why the Sontarans have anything to do with Maria moving to America. There’s no way you’re going to make a solid connection there. So instead you have a big, flashy episode with lots of discrete parts that at least don’t clash.
So instead of a thematic unity we get a unity based around anticipation. The role of the Sontarans, or, rather of the Sontaran, since this is a return to the idea that they have characters instead of being a race of interchangeable monsters, is in many ways to allow the story to work from shorthand. It’s a big Doctor Who monster that doesn’t need any additional introduction or explanation. Accordingly, the story has time to focus on the added weight of writing Maria Jackson out while still getting to have a big first episode with a suitably major villain to kick off the season. And that lets the story take an easy shape – a remote radio telescope, a monster, and lots of corridors to run through. There’s little to set up here, and the expectations come almost automatically.
And the biggest expectation, which comes in almost from the start, is that the Sontaran is going to have to to be whacked in the probic vent. The weakness was stressed so heavily in The Sontaran Stratagem, and, more to the point, it’s a very children’s television weakness in the first place. Though not originally designed in that milieu, to a modern audience it’s self-evidently a piece of video game logic. The probic vent is a classic example of the little weak spot you target on the heavily armored enemy to damage them. Its only flaw is its failure to flash and to open and close according to a pre-established pattern carefully synchronized to the Sontaran’s attacks. And so to a childhood audience in 2008, it’s self-evident that the piece of information everybody is looking for is the fact that you hit the Sontaran in the probic vent. Because that’s how big villains work – you find out their weakness. (Sarah, of course, can be forgiven for forgetting this particular bit of Doctor Who trivia.)
By the end of the story, in fact, it’s turned in part into a story about getting this piece of information to the characters. Alan and Chrissie know about the weakness, and are trying to get to Sarah Jane and company in order to tell them before the world ends. This isn’t the explicit tension – that’s whether or not they’ll be able to stop Kaagh from crashing all of the satellites around Earth into nuclear power plants. But it’s still very obviously how this is all going to resolve. Eventually someone is going to thwack Kaagh in the probic vent and stop him.
In this regard the key dynamic of the story is simple: it’s the fact that it’s Chrissie who gets to. Chrissie has been lightly antagonistic for the entire run of The Sarah Jane Adventures, being portrayed both as a pretty thoroughly rotten mother and as someone who unknowingly gets in the way of the main characters. She’s the classic example of the comedically dense parent. And so in Maria’s last regular appearance of course she’s the one who gets the big hero moment at the end, because that’s what ties up Maria’s arc.
And yet in all of this there’s an unstated issue, which is the fact that Chrissie is the bad parent in the first place. Much of Maria’s character has been something to properly treasure; she’s a well-written child of divorce, and there’s a lot to be said for a positive portrayal of a single father. Equally, however, it means that Chrissie has become yet another instance in the long parade of Russell T Davies writing awful mothers. Or, as he calls them in The Writer’s Tale, “funny” mothers, but the underlying point is the same: throughout Davies’s time on the show there’s an awful lot of unpleasant mothers.
At the end of the day, much of this comes out of Davies’s love of soap operas. Davies loves putting soap opera mothers into shows where they don’t belong. And his mothers, from Jackie Tyler on, broadly fit into that tendency – they’re the sort of hard-nosed and slightly domineering female characters of which Hilda Ogden is one of the original templates, albeit often many generations back. Even Chrissie feels in many ways like she’s just on a quick holiday from a soap opera to check in on her ex-husband and daughter. All of which is to say that Davies’s mothers are fundamentally loving sorts of characters. Davies’s description of them as “funny” mothers is apt – it’s a particular character role that Davies enjoys writing.
It’s also worth noting that in almost every case Davies goes to lengths to redeem his funny mothers. Chrissie’s eventual role in defeating Kaagh puts her in the same context as Jackie and, ultimately, Francine. Only Sylvia fails to ever get this sort of redemption, instead becoming, as Series Four wound on, an increasingly unlikable and, ultimately, staying that way. The funny mother may be an initially off-putting character, but she’s not a malevolent or malicious one. Given that all of Davies’s Doctor Who-related work is metafictional and about its own success, the funny mother becomes a figure to be won over. She starts as hostile to Doctor Who and from outside the frame of reference of the series, and is steadily won over. And Chrissie is in many ways the best example of this, in that she becomes a proper “team member” by the end. Indeed, it’s perfectly plausible that she could have stuck around as a recurring character – the ending she gets leaves open the possibility.
Meanwhile, The Sarah Jane Adventures finds itself having to reinvent itself. This isn’t the story for that, of course – this story had to be about giving Maria a proper send-off. But Maria has been at the heart of the show. Lis Sladen is the nominal star, but Maria has been the character who gets the world explained to them – the show’s equivalent to Gwen Cooper. And just as John Barrowman is the star of Torchwood while Eve Myles is the main character, Maria has been the main character of The Sarah Jane Adventures. Her removal is a problem in a way that the removal of other characters wouldn’t be. Clyde, for instance, is wholly interchangeable – indeed, he was basically a second attempt at the sort of character Kelsey provided for Invasion of the Bane. And while Luke isn’t as easily replaced (it gets odd to give Sarah Jane a second adopted child, although to be fair, that’s exactly what they end up doing), his plot function is. Luke’s status as the genius character can easily be handed off to Sarah Jane and, in a pinch, Mr. Smith. (Indeed, in Season Four the show goes several episodes without Luke or an equivalent character.) But Maria is more fundamentally irreplaceable. The show cannot simply create a second character who we discover its world alongside. Any replacement character is going to have to fill a fundamentally different plot role.
And so it is worth pausing and reflecting on just how much of The Sarah Jane Adventures’ early success is down to Yasmin Paige. Paige was tasked initially with holding together the entire emotional resonance of the series. Maria was the only character with a set of relationships separate from Sarah Jane Smith, and thus the only one who could readily be a real, ordinary person responding to the world. Her role in getting the overall plot of The Sarah Jane Adventures going meant that she had a particularly close relationship with Sarah Jane, who, with Chrissie being Chrissie, served as an almost foster mother to her. And so she was the only character with lots of emotional stuff to play instead of plot stuff. Sure, Luke had lots of misunderstandings and awkwardness in his plot, but nobody ever asked Tommy Knight to anchor an episode the way Yasmin Paige had to anchor Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane. She’s alone among the initial set of child actresses in that, watching her, you expect a future career – she’s strong in many of the same ways Julia Sawalha was in Press Gang.
And now the show has to replace her, which is, to say the least, a considerable bother.