Before the gap year, one idea I wish they’d thought about was to have the Doctor crop up in other shows, but only ever in the background, rather like the knitted toy from Harry Hill’s TV Burp. So we’d see the timelord, screwdriver in hand, running down the corridors of Holby City, chatting with the gardener in Jane Austen’s Hartfield, looking slightly annoyed as part of the studio audience on Strictly (presumably keep an eye on her sargacity) and the TARDIS sitting once again in Albert Square (finally canonising, once and for all Dimensions in Time). A scheduling nightmare for David Tennant perhaps, but a great way of keeping fans watching the BBC when their favourite show isn’t on television.
Eventually it would become apparent that all of these appearances aren’t simple cameos but connected together to form a story, the various bits and bobs eventually becoming part of a slightly larger drama leading into one of the specials perhaps or standing alone. Great as I thought this idea was, I had feared that the Doctor’s appearance in The Sarah Jane Adventures would just be a miniature version of it, a vague appearance in the middle of the story, perhaps to sort out the cliffhanger ala Angel turning up at in the last couple of episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Silly me. For months this crossover had been trailed as a proper adventure for the Doctor and so it was, in a brilliant, brilliant way.
Don't expect this review of The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith to be the most coherent piece of writing you've ever seen. I'm too excited. There will be repetitious use of prop words, tiresome hyperbole and as many synonyms of the word excellent as my word processor and synonym.com can muster.
More than the first two stories this series, each of these episodes had a distinctive flavour. The opening instalment, the set up, was a funny, sweet, tender in place and hilarious. By spreading the story out over a couple of weeks, we were finally able to see the attic team within a rather more realistic context, instead of the artificially short timescale bursts of action that make up much of the rest of the series. There’s something about this kind of experimentation that immediately makes the drama more substantial, more like a family series and it’s a credit to writer Gareth Roberts that he felt that he could sustain it within just twenty-odd minutes.
The scenes in which the kids were curious about Sarah Jane’s new man but had to hide the alien elements of their lives were hilarious, the potential double bluff of the package which we might presume would be a Graske turning out to be a cartoon alien, a good choice. Well directed too, with the clever use (patented by the Zucker Brothers) of slapstick occurring behind a perfectly reasonable conversation happening in the foreground. During a story in which characters like Clyde or Rani could be sidelined and might have been in other series, Roberts was careful to keep them in the story from the off and remained active participants right through of the conclusion (even if we missed out on a double take from the Doctor in relation to her name).
I also love the way that the two “novelty” characters with essentially the same narrative function (what was Mr Smith if not a K9 substitute?) bickering about who gets to engage the catalytic plot converter. It’s certainly brought out the best in Alexander Armstrong, who began playing his character in a disconcerting monotone but has brought a sardonic deadpan quality to his lines of late. The integration of K9 has been less of a jolt too, the robot dog becoming an extra confident for Sarah Jane on those subjects she can’t talk to the kids about. This is K9 and Company done properly and certainly preferable to the moribund K-9 which is looking more horrific with every new preview clip (tag line "WHO's a good dog?" -- ugh).
The episode clearly had some money spent on it. Look! People! In cafés and streets! The kids running around places that don’t look like they’ve experienced a 28 Weeks Later zombie clearance! Nigel Havers mustn’t have been cheap either, but worth every Flainian pobble bead. Who else but Havers could turn his character, beige Peter Dalton, into the kind of man this older version of Sarah Jane could convincingly fall in love quickly without any suspicions that he was some alien terror bent on sucking out her brains etc, but that some of the kids might be a bit apprehensive about because he’s so charming?
There were some beautifully played moments between him and Tommy Knight, who excelled as Luke tried to come to terms with the possibility of a having a proper father figure, something he didn’t even have in the Bane. But everyone raised their game here as though, with the impending appearance of the Doctor, they realised that their series finally had a proper shop window for their wares and they’d better get themselves in order, dust down the wooden brushes and plastic fruit. Sam Watt’s music was some of the most heartfelt the franchise has produced – has K9’s theme always been the middle-eighth?
And what an appearance. The extra million who bothered to turn over from the repeat of Midsomer Murders on the other side might have been a bit perturbed that the Doctor didn’t appear straight away, but the grunt and growl of the distressed TARDIS whispering through the episode perfectly teased his emergence, even if there was a certain panto element to us kids shouting “It’s the Doctor, he’s trying to get through…” to our heroes, going about their business, unaware of what the Type 40 even sounds like.
Even so, with all the build up, these two episodes had a lot to live up to, and in a way it would have been, like Christmas and World Championship Boxing in Las Vegas, completely understandable if it didn’t quite live up to expectations. Then to have the Doctor burst through the doors during “lawful impediment” was just perfect. There’s that word again. Perfect. But it was, it just was. I applauded right through the credits, which I know is perfectly possible these days since they last about three seconds, but totally unheard of at The Sarah Jane Adventures.
The intellectual exercise of writing the Doctor into this story must have been immense. As we’ve been told time and again, and we’ve seen, he’s an all powerful wandering god and in the person of David Tennant one of the most famous people on television at the moment, an immense presence who if you’re not careful could like Sean Kingston in that leaked Sugababes track overpower your regulars and make them look stupid. But then, if you deliberately try and handicap the character so that he’s around but isn’t really much use in the story and doesn’t have some part in the resolution even though he’s the most capable one there you’re going to look stupid.
Gareth Roberts’s intricate solution was indeed to handicap the Doctor somewhat with one of the main sources of his power, the TARDIS phasing in and out, but to have the character himself voicing the fact that he needs the kid’s help to succeed, saying how important they are to the whole processes of saving the world or more specifically their place in it once again, and then turning them into his companion figures for the duration, offering them hints to the situation so that they could work everything out for themselves, which in production terms meant that they weren’t just standing around being lectured at by the all knowing timelord buzzing about. The climax recalled the original first series of nuWho (Moffat is renumbering), in that the Doctor, and in this case Sarah Jane, convinced the not necessarily as special Dalton to sacrifice his potential happiness for the good of the universe.
It must have been quite weird for Tennant to complete filming on his final story chronologically, The End of Time (or whatever his last episode is called), with the regeneration. But it wasn’t noticeable in the episode, and he simply seemed to be relishing the opportunity to take the character around the block one last time (his final recorded line as the Doctor was "‘You two – with me. Spit spot!"). All of the ticks that most of us know and love were there, the bit were he talks epically in a lower voice, the shouty friendly introduction, "K-niiiine!", and the stuttering. He was even gifted a proper stand-off with the Trickster (Key To Time. Squee. Eternals. Squeeeee. Hmm, that was a good one.) with a bit of foreshadowing for the future specials (what’s this about a gate?).
Budget wise (not that I'm obsessing) trapping the regulars in second long pockets of time meant that the wedding extras didn't need to be around for most of the shoot but also lent these scenes an justifiable and plausable intimacy (unlike, say, pretending that it's a Sunday). This kind of time trap is actually a fairly untapped sci-fi concept as far as I know -- only Star Trek's Wink of an Eye springs to mind (though a couple of other Treks featured pockets of time being sped up and down) -- and the rendering -- the repeated shot of a horse race -- tastefully concise if slightly surreal.
From a film studies perspective I was very impressed with the way that, while the Doctor remained an active presence in his scenes, the point of view mainly stayed specifically with the regulars. I was also pleased that Sarah Jane wasn’t simply relegated to companion status in her own series, realising herself that the ring was the source of the Trickster’s power and that Dalton wasn’t all there. There we odd moments in there in which we saw a return of the character as an independent figure with proper moments of wit rather than mumsy musings, and when the emotional suckerpunch came in knowing she was going to have to sacrifice her man for the good of the world Elizabeth Sladen was just devastating.
As if you hadn’t realised already, I’m fairly convinced this was the best story The Sarah Jane Adventures has produced since the first series and, yes, the perfect expression of what the series is capable of when it stops worrying about trying to keep down with its supposed target audience and just tells a proper story. I would be interested to know what kids made of the climax with Havers the one to properly beat the trickster and Sarah Jane’s teary march from the altar. I was in tears. The Sarah Jane Adventures never does that either.
I complained that after Children of Earth that the production team didn’t seem have brought the same sense of occasion to the kids spin-off. The Wedding of Sarah Jane proved that it is possible, but instead of the darkness of Torchwood, this spin-off can be infused by a sense of wonder, the wonder in the eyes of the kids as they toured the console room at the end (a perfect commemoration of the soon to close Blackpool exhibition where thousands of children in the real world must had the same expression as they stepped through the TARDIS shaped door for all these years).
Now, let’s keep it up shall we?