It’s October 11th, 2010. Cee Lo Green is at number one with “Forget You,” with Bruno Mars, Kings of Leon, Katy Perry, and Robbie Williams also charting. Since Sherlock wrapped its first season, Lord Pearson of Rannoch stepped down as the leader of UKIP saying that he is “not much good” at party politics. Ed Miliband proved rather good at party politics, becoming leader of the Labour party and beating his own brother to the job. And the US removed its last combat troops from Iraq.
While on television, The Sarah Jane Adventures are back. But The Nightmare Man sees The Sarah Jane Adventures arriving in a very different world. It’s still ostensibly a spin-off of Doctor Who, something that will be stressed loudly in two stories’ time but the Doctor Who of which it is a spinoff is gone. It’s still overseen by Russell T Davies, but Davies no longer has the big show. And the big show has done its farewell to Sarah Jane. While one assumes – or at least, one assumed at the time, before Sladen fell ill – that Sarah Jane was an obvious choice of people to have show up in Doctor Who again, The End of Time went to great lengths to make sure that there was no obligation for any Davies-era characters to return.
So it’s a fundamentally strange thing when, following this, the entire Davies era returns like it’s never been away. This is, of course, a short-lived transitional period. The combination of Miracle Day failing to quite generate the expected audience and Lis Sladen’s unfortunate passing meant that the Davies era shuddered to a halt not too long into the Moffat era. Nevertheless, for the first two years the continued presence of the Davies era exerted an odd pressure on the Moffat era. And The Nightmare Man represents the start of that.
Equally, we should note that this is the nineteenth Sarah Jane Adventures story and the start of the show’s fourth season. It is, at this point, a known quantity with relatively little to do other than show up and be itself. Except, of course, for the detail that the other original member of its child cast, Tommy Knight, is dropping down to a recurring role, so it also has to rejig the cast in the first episode. The sensible way to do that, of course, is to focus the episode on Luke. This being Season Four it doesn’t have to go to great lengths to reintroduce the cast – it can just do a Luke-centered episode and then show him the door.
What’s interesting, then, is the nature of the episode. On the one hand, it’s solidly in children’s television territory, with a villain largely modeled off of a clown and a resolution that amounts to the power of friendship blasting the bad guy into submission. But as with the program’s high point, Lidster’s previous The Mark of the Berserker, there’s a second sense of a program grappling with relatively sizable issues. Even in Lidster’s Season Three misstep, The Madwoman in the Attic, attempts a grounding in more mature concerns. These are not, to be clear, adult concerns – The Mark of the Berserker was brilliant precisely because its concerns were genuinely those of pre-teen children. Rather, they’re weighty, sizable concerns, as opposed to trite morals. Lidster has a genuine knack for capturing a young person’s existential crises in monster form.
Here, though, he really does go for a slightly older sort of crisis. The Nightmare Man is about being afraid of going away to college. The central premise is that Luke’s anxieties over leaving for college a year before his friends channel and bring a force of nightmarish darkness to Earth through his mind. There is, of course, content here for younger audiences – fear of change and the nature of nightmares are hardly unprecedented territory for children’s television. But the central premise of the episode puts Luke, and indeed the entire cast at a bit of a remove. If Luke’s off to college and Clyde and Rani are just a year behind then these aren’t kids anymore – they’re people on the cusp of adulthood.
Another way of looking at this is to note that The Sarah Jane Adventures is a program that’s aged with its audience. That’s fair, and even good practice. If we imagine the target audience of The Sarah Jane Adventures when it started to have been ten, then by this point anyone who’s been watching the whole time is thirteen or fourteen. That’s not a small gap. In many ways one of the paths J.K. Rowling took to make sure that Harry Potter never lost steam was to age the books with their initial audience, so that the last book felt like a book for people about ten years older than the ideal audience for The Philosopher’s Stone. Because getting teenagers to still like something that they liked when they were ten is, by any measure, difficult.
But equally, there’s a sense of the audience starting to fragment here. With the series having lost at least some of its direct connection to Doctor Who, its reason for existence is fraying. The Doctor Who to Sarah Jane Adventures pipeline isn’t an entirely straightforward one, which, again, there’s a more obvious place to discuss this coming up, but is still worth noting. And the original audience of The Sarah Jane Adventures is getting older. The show’s raison d’etre is fraying. Which is fine – it’s the fourth season. This is the territory in which good shows often start to falter and need to reinvent themselves because they’ve already used up 80% of the brilliant ideas that come from their premise.
There are, of course, options available – a second generation of Bannerman Road residents, for instance, could reinvigorate the show for a year or two. This is the point in a series where nobody would be surprised if Sarah Jane upped and left Bannerman Road. It happens. The wisdom (or lack of wisdom) of any of these options is of course up for debate, and one imagines that they were. But that is in many ways besides the point. Even without Lis Sladen’s untimely death, The Nightmare Man would still visibly mark the point where The Sarah Jane Adventures entered its autumn years.
Given this, there’s something genuine to applaud here. The decision to start using the plots that an aging cast opens instead of running from the consequences of everyone growing up is brave. And the results are good. Julian Bleach, in his third fabulous outing, delivers a well-tuned performance that elevates a commonplace villain to something properly interesting, lurching between being genuinely disturbing and being a broad and silly comedy villain. The decision not to focus too much on where the villain comes from and to let Bleach’s performance carry things pays dividends, with the script being able to spend a proper amount of time on Luke’s fear instead of on the monsters. The detail of Luke not being able to tell anyone is marvelous, and pushes this to a real and satisfying sort of horror.
So what we get is a story about how growing up is actually really hard, done in the context of a show that is, for better or for worse, doing just that. It’s an episode that only could exist in the context of a children’s show in its dotage, and one that uses the nature of the show to effect. Plus it has the last and culminating set of gags about how Mr. Smith and K-9 don’t like each other, including a moment of unexpected sentiment that frankly makes it worthwhile to blame and hate the entirety of the BBC for never giving us a Mr. Smith/K-9 spinoff. Surely we at least deserved a holiday special.
It’s difficult to find a way to finish this without sounding vaguely dismissive – I am, after all, essentially suggesting that The Nightmare Man works because The Sarah Jane Adventures is getting near the point where it should be brought to an end. But endings aren’t bad things, and in some ways the existence of a bit of the Russell T Davies era that has a thoroughly healthy and reasonable relationship with the idea of endings is a welcome tonic after what was kind of a rough denouement to the era. The Nightmare Man is exactly what an aging spinoff from the previous regime of Doctor Who should be doing, and it does it with satisfying aplomb.
It also marks the last time we’re going to end up looking at anything by Joseph Lidster, and that deserves at least a brief comment. Lidster is never going to be one of the great and heralded writers of Doctor Who, I fear. But what’s TARDIS Eruditorum for if not having the expansive space to take a moment to give credit to unexpected people. He’s only got four stories – three Sarah Jane Adventures and the episode of Torchwood that pissed my wife off so much. (She was, entertainingly, similarly peeved by the handling of death in Master, so at least she’s consistent.) It’s not a haul of utter classics, although writing a solid contender for the best episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures deserves more applause than it gets. But Lidster is an odd writer – one who came to television through Big Finish. Indeed, he’s the only writer to take that path outright – Rob Shearman may have been hired because of his Big Finish work, but he didn’t jump straight from Big Finish to television. Lidster did, and serves as a pleasant reminder of what discovering a skilled new writer and giving them a chance can do for a show. And although he (tragically, frankly) has never made the jump to writing Doctor Who proper, he’s also an advertisement for one of the real benefits of having spinoff shows, which is that it gives new writers a place to break in while allowing Doctor Who to maintain its on balance sensible policy of not being anyone’s first TV credit. So hooray for Joseph Lidster, and welcome back to The Sarah Jane Adventures.