It’s October 29th, 2007. Leona Lewis is at number one with “Bleeding Love,” and remains so for both weeks of this story. Take That, Westlife, Britney Spears, and Oasis also chart. So that’s depressing. In news, substantial wildfires break out in California, the UK announces that it will begin requiring passports for Irish people wanting to visit the UK, and a strike breaks out among American screenwriters, effectively ending television production for the 2007-08 season.
On television we have what is clearly designed to be one of the marquee stories of the first season, Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? The basic premise is a standard – an It’s a Wonderful Life number, only mostly staying in the world in which Sarah Jane has been removed instead of on Sarah Jane herself. This conceit is woven around a newly revealed secret origin for Sarah Jane, in which we find out that as a child she was unable to stop her friend Andrea from drowning while they snuck onto a pier during a school trip. Under the machinations of The Sarah Jane Adventures’ signature villain, the Trickster, this is reversed so that Andrea lives and Sarah Jane dies as a child, leading to a world in which only Maria knows what was supposed to happen and tries desperately to set things right.
First and foremost, then, this becomes a showcase for Yasmin Paige, who sparkles in it. Paige is in many ways the secret ingredient of The Sarah Jane Adventures’ first season, proving adept at both the plucky young female adventurer role and at selling real emotional content. She was in many ways the best thing about Eye of the Gorgon, and here she’s left with most of the first episode to anchor on her own, which she manages with aplomb. But in many ways more interesting is the second episode after Maria is similarly taken off the board (this time via a Graske, since the costume was presumably just lying around), leading to the rather charming spectacle of Alan having to save the day.
There are quibbles to be had, certainly. There may never be an entirely persuasive argument for the claim that Sarah Jane really needed a traumatic origin retconned into her life, or that the addition of a dead childhood friend she failed to save adds anything to the character. The central event here, Andrea’s death, doesn’t really fit with Sarah Jane as we know her. Secret tragedies don’t quite become Sarah Jane. It’s not that the actual idea is terribly off – it’s not. It’s just that in introducing it, the fact that Sarah Jane is really, at her core, a Doctor Who companion from 1974 introduced at a point when the female companion was being treated as a profoundly interchangeable part, and elevated to classic status more because of Elisabeth Sladen’s skill than because she was ever intricately conceived or full of nuance. Secret childhood traumas just aren’t things that fit organically with the sort of character she is.
And yet to some extent this is the point; that Sarah Jane has moved on from Andrea’s death, leaving it wholly in the past. In an odd way, this makes Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane a more unnerving and bleak rumination on death than even Doctor Who usually manages. What jumps out about it is not merely Andrea’s acceptance of death, a plot point that is, let’s be fair, more than slightly similar to Father’s Day. Rather it is the way in which Andrea’s death is more all-encompassing. Pete was defined by his visible absence before Father’s Day – there was always necessarily going to be some sort of story to explain what happened to Rose’s father. But Andrea was, coming into Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane, inessential to the narrative for the simple reason that she is introduced alongside the gap into which she’s inserted. Accordingly, the return of the status quo – Andrea being dead and Sarah Jane being alive – is ultimately a world in which Andrea does not exist even in the form of her absence. And sure enough, unlike Pete, once her death is squared away, she never really impacts the story again.
But in its own way this is a more chilling take on death. Father’s Day is, in a variety of ways, about the possibility of holding back death. It’s only a spot of bad luck (Jackie pushing baby Rose into adult Rose’s hands) that prevents the Doctor from being able to save Pete. And even though he fails at that, Pete is ultimately back next season, and restored to Rose’s life. The Doctor can bring back the dead, at least in this case. And even in the ways he can’t, the absence of Pete, under his influence, becomes a site of healing and reconcilliation. It’s ultimately Rose’s invocation of her father that persuades Jackie to help her in Parting of the Ways. But whatever traces Andrea’s life leaves behind, they are ultimately invisible. It is not so much that Andrea’s death enables us to have Sarah Jane and her adventures as that her life and presence prohibits them. (In an odd but not entirely inappropriate coincidence, Andrea shares her name with a Texan woman who was back in the news in 2006/07 as she successfully appealed her conviction for drowning her children on the grounds of mental illness. Inadvertent as it may be, the symbolism is potent.) This parallels well with the Trickster’s motivations, which are at once straightforwardly evil (destroy the planet) and oddly impersonal. The Trickster is destructive not out of malice, but because that is the Trickster’s nature: destructive chaos. Its very presence harms the narrative.
This is reflected in the most interesting aspect of Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane, which is just how absent most of the cast is. Luke is almost completely eliminated from the plot. Sarah Jane is barely in the first episode and, in the second episode, is mostly there to have the plot explained to her. Clyde gets little more than a cameo. Even Maria, ostensibly the focus of the first episode, is aggressively sidelined in the second, such that the bulk of the actual worldsaving duties fall to Alan, who isn’t even a regular. Andrea functions as the exact opposite of Pete – a character not defined by the traces of her absence but by the problems of her present. Yes, the end of the episode’s claim that Andrea’s death inspires Sarah Jane to be the adventuring hero we know is in some sense true, but it’s true not because Andrea’s death provides necessary background to understanding Sarah’s motivations (which were perfectly clear in 1974 and never really clouded) but because Andrea’s life erased them. In this regard death becomes unnervingly like what’s suggested in Torchwood: nothing, save for whatever traces you may have left in the world.
The use of Alan as the end hero also highlights the real effect of Sarah Jane, and represents one of the bolder moves the series has made. It would have been terribly easy to keep Alan in place as the hapless dupe – the well-meaning adult who’s too comically thick to realise the blatantly obvious fact that every time he appears he’s menaced by aliens. He’s already been possessed by a soft drink and turned to stone, and so we’re just a third iteration of this away from a running joke that would be perfectly standard within the genre context. But instead The Sarah Jane Adventures swerves and takes the more series-altering option of having Alan step in, save the day, and find out the extent of what’s going on. Yes, it gets derailed before long because Yasmin Paige leaves the series to focus on her schooling, but it’s a fantastic move for what it is.
There’s also an inversion of the usual order of things within The Sarah Jane Adventures, which has typically been about adults initiating children into the world of the magical. Here we get an adult initiated by the children. This provides an interesting expansion of the show’s themes thus far. Previously it has been a love letter to the Doctor Who that adults remember, and a vehicle for preserving that sort of show and passing it to a new generation. But here we get something different – a story in which adults are given permission to enter the world of Doctor Who by children. Which is, of course, just as true an account of The Sarah Jane Adventures as the first one. The reason that adults are in a position to have these love letters to the series’ past is, in the end, that there’s a new Doctor Who for children. It’s the fact that the show is popular enough to sustain a children’s spin-off that allows for this celebration of the past.
In this regard it’s fitting that Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane is the first time that the Doctor plays into the narrative in a meaningful sense, with the Trickster planning to move on to him after defeating Sarah Jane. (And indeed, that’s what the Trickster ends up doing in Season Four of Doctor Who) Here The Sarah Jane Adventures makes its first play at narrative collapse, threatening the entire structure of Doctor Who and its spinoffs. And it does so in a way specific to The Sarah Jane Adventures, by attacking the intergenerational connections over Doctor Who. The result is a story of odd poignance – one in which the real emotion is not the contrived tragedy in Sarah Jane’s past, but the scenes in which Alan rushes headlong into a world he doesn’t understand out of nothing more than love for his daughter. A story that pretends to be about its lead character’s past is, in reality, about a father and his daughter, and the way their relationship is mediated by Sarah Jane. It is, on the whole, rather beautiful.