Sarah Jane Adventures - Invasion of the Bane Review
I was always suspicious about Sunny Delight. A bright orange drink that appeared out of nowhere, enjoyed incredible sales and soon occupied acres of shelf space up and down the country, there was something very uncanny about the story of Sunny D. Then people's faces started turning orange and if it seemed an odd product before, it looked downright alien thereafter. Clearly, I wasn't the only one as Russell T Davies writes Invasion Of The Bane with an eye on Sunny D, its television likeness being the orange, fizzy and highly addictive Bubble Shock.
Bubble Shock is the drink that's taking the nation by storm. Or at least a very small part of the nation in an anonymous looking part of suburbia through which a Bubble Shock-sponsored bus runs free trips to the Bubble Shock factory where free samples of Bubble Shock are handed out to customers. It is in this quiet part of the city that Maria Jackson (Yasmin Paige) has moved into with her recently divorced father, Alan (Joseph Millson). As the removals men leave, Maria notices the woman who lives opposite, a rather attractive woman who rushes in and out of her house, drives a natty little Nissan Figaro and introduces herself as Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen). But what's most interesting about Sarah Jane is what happens that night. Seeing a bright light outside her window, Maria creeps out of bed and out into Bannerman Road. Hiding in the bushes, she sees Sarah Jane talking to what appears to be an alien creature, one who glows a bright pink and who leaves Sarah Jane a gift as she departs. Maria rushes back to bed, locking the front door behind her.
The next day, a local girl, Kelsey Harper (Porsha Lawrence Mavour), introduces herself and invites Maria into town on the Bubble Shock bus. Arriving at the plant, Maria learns that not only is Bubble Shock not to her taste but very little about the plant is, not least their being so unfriendly to her. Believing the plant to be a front for something terrible, Sarah Jane sneaks in after the bus but when the alarms sound, the gates slam shut and the evil Mrs Wormwood (Samantha Bond) offering a search of the factory, Sarah Jane and Maria discover the unpleasant truth behind what makes Bubble Shock so addictive. That and a young boy (Tommy Knight) who in spite of looking to be aged fourteen, appears to have been born mere moments earlier.
One of the biggest criticisms of the Russell T Davies-era of Dr Who is that it is childish. To be fair to those who are loudest in their accusing him, this claim hasn't been made without good reasons. As well as the fart gags that accompany the Slitheen, we've had a pig in a space suit, hubble-bubble-toil-and-trouble witches and villains who often couldn't be any closer to panto than had they arrived with an offscreen shout of, "He's behind you!" It makes perfect sense, then, that to draw out a bigger audience for Dr Who, Russell T Davies took one of the most popular characters in Dr Who, who had enjoyed a brief return to the screen in School Reunion, and brought her to CBBC, the BBC's channel for older children in an adventure series that mixes alien invasions with the red-bricked surrounds of modern suburbia.
Davies had dismissed an earlier idea of portraying a young Time Lord on Gallifrey and no wonder given that it was no doubt pitched as an M.I. High with added sonic screwdrivers. Instead, this brings the well-liked character of Sarah Jane Smith to the screen in her own show, one that she deserved after 1981's K-9 And Company but which she was never to enjoy. This episode of what would become The Sarah Jane Adventures was first shown on CBBC on New Year's Day 2007 and works much better than many episodes of Dr Who. Without needing to work for the millions of Saturday night viewers, Invasion Of The Bane can do all the things that work for the youngest part of the Who audience and make them do so all over again in a dedicated show. Where a teenage sidekick would have been dreadful in Dr Who - worse even than Catherine Tate has been and promises to be - it works well here, with Maria being an old-head-on-young-shoulders alongside the more adventurous Sarah Jane. The two actresses have a good rapport with one another and though this is interrupted all too often by the, "Talk to the hand!" strut of Kelsey Harper, it's by a character who's meant to be annoying and so is a great deal more true-to-life than many other companions that Dr Who has seen come and go.
Again, without having to work with an older audience, who make demands on the why of a villain in a way children do not, Invasion Of The Bane gets on with making a terrifying monster seem real. Dr Who often takes a vicious, bloodthirsty monster and by reason, wit or wile, defeats them. Aimed at a younger audience, The Sarah Jane Adventures simply has a giant, one-eyed octopus smash down Sarah Jane's front door and threaten to kill her and the three children alongside her. The Bane Mother is a somewhat disappointing creature, being a close relative of the Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe - yes, I did have to look at up - who ruled Satellite 5 in The Long Run but the moment when Sarah Jane, Maria, Kelsey and Luke come under threat in Bannerman Road is particularly effective. And, for a five-and-two-year-old, scary, who hid behind the cushions in a way that they hadn't since Blink.
But in saying that, I must stress that this is very much aimed at a young audience. Those with complete collections of Who on VHS, DVD and in books may pick this up regardless but Invasion Of The Bane plays to children who would have enjoyed Dr Who but who might have found it a touch complex at times, perhaps too frightening or simply talking above them. That said, Samantha Bond and Elizabeth Sladen do very well, one as the villain and the other as the hero, and there is a lovely bit of character development at the end as Sarah Jane Smith, still in love with the Doctor, learns to let someone else into her life. These last five minutes don't quite make up for all the gubbins that Russell T Davies springs out of teen culture - The Jeremy Kyle Show gets a mention, Kelsey's love of Hollyoaks is confused with a worshipping of the 'holy oaks' while she also wonders if James Blunt is an alien - but they're much more touching than the romance between the Doctor and Rose Tyler ever was. And a good deal more believable as well.
Dr Who has always looked fairly good on DVD, perhaps not as crisp as it ought to be but certainly proving the BBC could do a fair job with their recent television shows. This looks almost identical to how it did when shown on CBBC, with an anamorphic 1.78:1 presentation, a picture that's soft and a touch too bright but otherwise, with a higher bitrate on the DVD, much less artefacted than it was on its Freeview broadcast. That brightness is a problem on a lot of recent Who with the picture losing background detail and a tendency for colours to bleed into one another, with the two night-time scenes that bookend the show looking much better than the running about on Bannerman Road that happens in between.
The DD2.0 audio track isn't particularly noteworthy but it's otherwise fine. There is some separation of the dialogue and a little sound from the rear channels with a Pro-Logic decoder but, more than that, there's just the feel of this being a suitable track for the kind of show this is, not outstanding but fair.
There's a very impressive number of extras on this set, which are subdivided into three sections. These begin with two Trailers, one for Invasion Of The Bane (1m47s) and the other for the Dr Who Series 3 (1m57s) boxset that will be released later this year. Next up is Sarah's PC, which includes Character Profiles for Sarah Jane Smith, Maria Jackson, Luke Smith and Kelsey Hooper, pages of text on Sarah Jane's Investigative Tools, including Sonic Lipstick, Sonic Watch and her Nissan Figaro car before being rounded off with a series of Alien Profiles on Mrs Wormwood, Bane Mother and the not-at-all-evil Star Poet.
The final section takes the viewer to Mr Smith and the best of the bonus features included in this set. These begin with a look back at Sarah Jane's adventures through space and time. From 1973 (The Time Warrior) through 1974 (Planet Of The Spiders), 1975 (The Sontaran Experiment), 1976 (The Hand Of Fear) and 1983 (The Five Doctors) before ending up in 2006-2007 and the adventures in School Reunion, this uses clips from each episode to illustrate Sarah Jane's previous adventures, alongside the Doctor and, in 2007, on her own. I am, however, disappointed to note that they forgot to mention K-9 And Company. This is followed by a Web Interview (7m20s) with Elizabeth Sladen for BBC Norfolk and a Blue Peter Feature (5m14s), both of which cover much of the same ground, that being the making of the show, the character of Sarah Jane and how Russell T Davies has taken Sarah Jane Smith out of 1970s Dr Who and into a CBBC science-fiction show in 2007. Finally, there's a Behind The Scenes feature, which is not, as I had expected, a making of but is instead a photo gallery of the sets and characters.
K-9 And Company will be out in the New Year on DVD. Phoenix Media are working on extras for the release and have announced that it will be available early in 2008. About time too as I have very fond memories of that one-off special, which brought in a tone of murder and Satanism in a creaky country village most effectively and in a way that Dr Who never did. I would have preferred it had it been included as a bonus feature on this disc, or indeed the rest of the episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures as at only 61 minutes, this does feel very slight. Even the standalone Dr Who discs offer three or four episodes, which leaves this a rather slim looking feature bolstered by a reasonable selection of extras. A complete series set would have been much better value, particularly for kids getting by on 10p a week pocket money. Or has it gone up since my days?