It’s October 15th, 2007. Sugababes remain at number one, with Britney Spears, Timbaland, Sean Kingston, and the Freemasons also charting. In news, James D. Watson, the discoverer of DNA who didn’t ever advocate for using LSD, apologizes for advocating scientific racism. J.K. Rowling announces that Dumbledore is gay, and Benazir Bhutto returns to Pakistan to reenter politics, a decision that ends poorly for her.
While on television, we have the odd duck of the first season of The Sarah Jane Adventures: Warriors of Kudlak. Indeed, it’s the odd duck of The Sarah Jane Adventures as a whole – the only time the series ever hired a writer who wasn’t steeped in Doctor Who material (although Phil Ford basically used SJA as a way into Doctor Who, his later career makes it hard to argue that he’s not well steeped). Phil Gladwin, the writer, is instead a fairly normative television writer – he’d worked on Grange Hill, The Bill, Casualty, and Holby City. On paper this should be fine – he’s got children’s telly experience and is a basically capable writer, so he should be able to turn out a basically capable script. And he does. Warriors of Kudlak is, in point of fact, a basically capable script.
There are high points. The decision to have Kudlak not actually be an outright villain saves the entire first season’s blushes; for a show about the wondrous things in the universe, it sure does fail spectacularly to show any of them. If any Doctor Who-related show needed to do the “the monsters aren’t actually monsters” story, it’s The Sarah Jane Adventures, and yet it doesn’t, making Kudlak’s late turn towards non-villainy a significant hedge. The detail of having a black girl among the “great laser tag players” kidnapped by Kudlak is one of the most significant and substantive moments of diversity casting the show engages in. It manages to not get the relationship between kids and video games completely wrong, which is impressive in general, and doubly so in a Russell T Davies show.
But all of these crumble under much further inspection. Kudlak isn’t a non-villainous monster. All we actually get is “the monsters are actually monsters, they’re just mildly more sympathetic than they initially appeared.” Beyond that, the setup for that twist is shambolic. Gladwin makes no move to hint that Kudlak might have noble intentions in the first episode. It’s shoe-horned into the second episode, effectively making the second episode one that’s working from a subtly different premise from the first. It’s one thing – and a very good thing – to have a cliffhanger or a twist that alters what the audience thinks they know about a story. It’s another to just lazily swap premises without setup.
And this is a larger problem with the story – the human henchman, for instance, drops out of the narrative completely once he’s done providing his not-actually-all-that-essential plot function of teleporting Sarah Jane and Maria up to the spaceship. Instead the whole thing feels like two distinct episodes, one of which exists to get to the cliffhanger (which comes several minutes too late in the episode – the henchman menacing Sarah Jane with a gun is much scarier than Kudlak), and the other one of which exists to get to the ending, but which are not actually intended to link together to tell a new story. The Ultimate Foe actually holds together better than these two parts do.
Similarly, as nice as the token black girl on the spaceship is, she doesn’t erase the underlying fact that the plot splits between the boy plot (playing laser tag) and the girl plot (chasing after the boys who are playing laser tag). The single hedge just serves to underline how much the story simply assumes that laser tag is a boys activity, and that the girls in the story need to be doing something else. The degree to which the story would have been improved by having Maria be the one to take Luke to Combat 3000, leaving Clyde to investigate with Sarah Jane is absolutely massive. Add to that the spectacularly cringeworthy “can you explain girls to me” joke at the end and you have a story that everyone involved in should feel a pang of shame for, primarily because it just would not have been hard to make this better.
The story also falls afoul of a more basic principle underlying The Sarah Jane Adventures: it’s smugly moralizing. From the shoe-horned in “bullying is bad” message in the first episode to Maria falling into outright “this week the moral of the story is” mode for the late speech about the difference between violent video games and real violence, this story is didactic in a way the rest of the season avoids. Beyond that, it’s didacticism is just weird. Bullying is bad, but not actually bad when Luke does it because he thinks he’s just being funny. Violent video games are… good, apparently? That seems to be the major moral message of Warriors of Kudlak, actually. Hooray for violent video games. Which, I mean, I’m certainly willing to defend a measure of violence in video games, even those for children, but, well, first of all, The Sarah Jane Adventures is just preaching to the choir there, and second of all, it’s just a bizarre point to focus one sixth of a season of television on.
But failure is often instructive, and Warriors of Kudlak is no exception. On the surface, at least, it can appear that The Sarah Jane Adventures is something of a bland or straightforward show; it just does normal adventure stories of the sort that were popular thirty years earlier. It should be easy – this is, after all, the task that Big Finish manages to accomplish with twelve or more releases a year. It’s not that it’s a bad show – I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone get passionately upset about The Sarah Jane Adventures. It’s just that it doesn’t really inspire passions among the (largely adult) fandom that the other two series do, largely because it’s not trying to be complex in the same ways. Perhaps Lindalee Rose has some insights (though if so, she’s not recorded them), but for most of the usual fan perspectives, it’s hard to work up more than an “awww, bless.” (Notably, I’ve lowered my minimum wordcount for Sarah Jane Adventures posts because, well, they just don’t support two thousand words the same way.)
Frankly, writing a 1970s-style Doctor Who story is dead easy. This is the dirty secret of the bulk of the wilderness years – all the oft-praised “trad” writers who cranked out good old-fashioned Doctor Who had it profoundly easy. Writing a Hinchcliffe-era clone of a story is fairly trivial. You find a horror movie concept Doctor Who hasn’t done before, you come up with some technobabble as to why it’s aliens, and then you just have to learn to imitate the voices of Tom Baker and Lis Sladen and you’re good to go. It’s doubly easy if you actually have Tom Baker and/or Lis Sladen working for you, because then they’ll helpfully imitate their own voices.
This isn’t to knock Robert Holmes, or any of the other Hinchcliffe-era writers. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to imitate the Hinchcliffe era than it was to come up with it. Doing it in 1977 is harder than doing it in 2007. Nevertheless, doing it in 2007 is dead easy. And the same goes for the Letts era: come up with some mundane aspect of the modern world and have aliens take it over. Instant Pertwee story. In that regard, The Sarah Jane Adventures should be able to take any halfway decent writer and let them have an episode without any difficulty. There’s just not a lot of moving parts here.
But it’s telling that of the myriad of traditionalist writers from the wilderness years, only two ever made it in the new series: Gareth Roberts and Mark Gatiss. And the reasons for this are not difficult to surmise. Roberts – the one more relevant to The Sarah Jane Adventures, after all – did a trio of Williams-era imitations along with a Dennis Spooner historical, yes. But he never slavishly imitated those styles. Instead he updated them, picking out the bits that worked best, and either replacing them or slightly fine-tuning them. Much as Roberts did not reinvent the Slitheen so much as he played down the bits that were most annoying and brought the more interesting bits to the fore.
Which is another way of saying that The Sarah Jane Adventures isn’t just a remake of thirty-year old television; it’s a love letter to said television. And this is crucial to understanding why Gladwin’s script doesn’t quite work. Gladwin writes a straightforward adventure script in the style of old Doctor Who, yes. But what he doesn’t do is write something that comes out of love for those stories and a desire to give children of 2007 stories that work for them like The Time Warrior did for them. And in not doing that, he reveals what the key ingredient of The Sarah Jane Adventures always was – the thing that elevates it above generic children’s adventure stories and makes it something special. Notably, as we said, it’s a lesson the production team seems to have taken on board.