It’s October 29th, 2009. Cheryl Cole is at number one, with Whitney Houston, Black Eyed Peas, Michael Buble, Jay-Z, and Robbie Williams also charting. In news, Morrissey collapses while performing “This Charming Man” in Swindon. Zine El Abine Ben Ali wins 90% of the votes in Tunisia and a five-year term of office, which seems like a sure bet that he’ll be around for ages. And footballer Marlon King is sacked from Wigan Athletic after a sexual assault conviction.
On television, meanwhile, we have The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith. The biggest thing about this story is, of course, that the Doctor is in it. That this is demonstrably the most important thing about it is also in many regards the fundamental challenge of it: how does one do an episode of a spin-off to Doctor Who that features the Doctor and not have it become a de facto episode of Doctor Who instead of an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures.
The first trick is a relatively obvious one: make the Doctor’s absence a tangible part of the plot. After teasing his appearance repeatedly in The Mad Woman in the Attic, we have a first episode here in which the sound of the TARDIS is in effect used as a sort of accent and punctuation: something that repeatedly teases the eventual arrival of the Doctor. It’s only the second episode in which Tennant features at all, and even there he effectively drops out of the climax so that Clyde can save the day instead. Tennant, in other words, is deliberately treated as something to use sparingly, so that this feels unmistakably like an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures and not like an episode of Doctor Who that went out with the wrong opening credits.
It is, of course, questionable whether or not this was necessary. There is in the end nothing that would have effectively made this anything other than a story where the guest star overwhelms the show. And in some ways that’s the real point of it: a private episode of Doctor Who for the kids. There is, after all, something thoroughly delightful in that idea. The usually not actually true statement that Doctor Who is for children (as opposed to the reality, which is that it is a show that carefully avoids not being for children) here applies wonderfully. The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith is a secret treat for kids – something that feels a bit like staying up past your bedtime.
In something of a concession to this reality, the second episode of The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith revels in these possibilities. Indeed, much of its runtime is devoted to a longer sequence of the Doctor running around with Clyde, Luke, and Rani than the plot actually needs – a sequence that exists mostly, if we’re being honest, to set up things like Clyde actually calling the Doctor out on an “I’ll explain later.” Which is wonderful and worth doing, to be fair. Indeed, it’s almost enough to cover up the fact that the resolution to this story is blatantly just the resolution of Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane done at high speed.
This gets at the one serious problem of the episode, however, which is that so much of it hinges on the idea that Sarah Jane and Peter really are in love. This is to say the least uncomfortable. Sarah Jane and Peter really did only know each other for, by the timeline in the episode, five weeks before getting married, with the engagement happening on what seems to be the seventh date. In a show that is usually impeccably good at presenting a moral and ethical world to kids, this comes uncomfortably close to fairy tale romance and unrealistic expectations of love.
And beyond that… Peter is the sort of person who will try to mind control his fiancee to make sure she does what he wants. No matter how much you handwave away the “but she wasn’t mind controlled when she agreed to the proposal,” you still have Sarah Jane professing her genuine love to someone who fucking sci-fi raped her, which, no. Just no. We’ve praised The Sarah Jane Adventures in the past for its ethics, but this is absolutely horrific. There is no standard whatsoever by which knowingly attempting to covertly mind control your bride to be is not horrific abuse, and this story normalizes it so that the abuser can get a stirring speech about how Sarah Jane made him into a better person. It’s absolutely appalling.
But this is, in the end, a symptom of the second episode and its Doctor problem. Because it has to spend so much time larking about with the Doctor, the actual plot gets short-changed. Sarah Jane does almost nothing over the entire episode just so we can get more Doctor. And so a resolution that needed to be a lot more nuanced than it was got short-changed.
Which gets at the funny thing in the story: the first episode is far better than the second. As fun as it is to see David Tennant, even in the course of a gap year one more chance to see Tennant’s Doctor in action is not that rare or exciting a treat. Especially because, if you really wanted to get into extended universe stuff, you were practically drowning in Tenth Doctor material in 2009. Between Journey’s End and The Eleventh Hour there were twenty-three novels, six audios, and a smattering of comics and video games to boot.
The real fun, to be honest, is in the feuding between K-9 and Mister Smith, and in the wonderful comedy bit of trying desperately to hide an alien that arrived in the post from Peter. Gareth Roberts is absolutely on fire in the first episode, and as good as the Doctor and Clyde are, they actually can’t quite live up to the manic glee of the beginning.
Which brings us back to the underlying problem of having the Doctor in this story at all, which is that it necessarily means that a portion of the story isn’t really a Sarah Jane Adventures story. Hold the Doctor out of the narrative for as long as you want, put in loads of scenes with him and the supporting cast, do what you want, but fundamentally, every second the Doctor is on the screen is a second that the show is doing “Doctor Who bonus episode” and not The Sarah Jane Adventures. In which case, given all of that, it seems fair to ask if it’s even worth having the Doctor in it.
And yet for all that one can argue, it’s kind of tough to say no. Certainly, when next this comes up, it’s going to be downright absurd to say no. There can be few Doctor Who fans who are going to begrudge the only opportunity there was to see Matt Smith and Elisabeth Sladen share a screen, or the one time that Russell T Davies wrote for the Eleventh Doctor. But the Tenth Doctor and Sarah Jane had three other meetings, two of which were substantive, and the third of which damn near single-handedly justifies the “Doctor’s Reward” section of The End of Time just for how amazing Sladen is in it. And so it’s tough to say that there’s a hole for completists that would be left unfilled if this didn’t exist.
Perhaps the more important argument, then, is what this does for the rest of The Sarah Jane Adventures. The Doctor didn’t appear in K-9 and Company. He’s never appeared in Torchwood. He’s never appeared as the Doctor, in a straightforward adventure with no winks at the audience about a larger joke in any show other than Doctor Who. Even when he’s appeared in other things like Children in Need, Davies ended up fighting tooth and nail to have there be no jokes and to have, for the length of Pudsey Cutaway, Children in Need just turn things over to Doctor Who. That’s how big Doctor Who is – it’s a show that simply does not bow to any other show. Ever. Until this story.
It would be very easy, especially in the year where Torchwood managed its moment in the cultural sun, to declare The Sarah Jane Adventures the third show. You have your main show, you have your adult drama that just did a challenging and sophisticated political thriller, and you have the third show developed that’s for kids and thus, by the obnoxious logic of television, clearly not as good or important as the real shows. The budget certainly points towards this – Davies writes in The Writer’s Tale about how things got tight enough on The Sarah Jane Adventures that they almost had to abandon the idea that individual stories would get their own directors and just start shooting out of order with directors assigned to locations for the season. This sort of letting up on the creative details would be unthinkable on either of the other shows, and only came close to happening on The Sarah Jane Adventures because, culturally, that show mattered less. It’s the show that didn’t get aired on US television before the DVDs came out. It’s the runt of the litter.
And now it isn’t. Now it’s the one that has the extra David Tennant story in it. It’s the show that the Doctor appears in. That’s an emphatic declaration of the show’s importance. Even if it’s cheaper and less flashy, it’s the one show that can actually, even if only for part of one half hour episode, be Doctor Who itself. And that’s why to do it: because it’s a profound vote of confidence in the series. It’s a declaration that this series matters and is important to pay attention to. And more weeks than not, it is. Yes, this episode had a major ethical bungle, but most weeks The Sarah Jane Adventures is doing genuinely important work – the sort of important work that got a big name “serious” actor like Christopher Eccleston to do a silly show like Doctor Who. It’s producing good, intelligent fare for children. Something The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith is for more of its runtime than not.
That’s important. In fact, it’s so important that the biggest show on television, Doctor Who, will do something for The Sarah Jane Adventures that it simply does not do, for any other show: lend them its lead character.