"I saw amazing things, out there in space. But there's strangeness wherever you turn. Life on Earth can be an adventure, too. You just need to know where to look."
IN THIS ONE... Sarah Jane Smith fights the Bane's Bubble Shock Empire, gets a new neighbor, and a son!
REVIEW: While I eventually came to love the Sarah Jane Adventures, I have to admit I originally found the pilot hard to get through, and dreaded having to relive the experience. But it's a lot better than I remembered. There are still two major flaws. One is Kelsey Hooper, the one character in Sarah's new Scooby Gang that did not make it to the series. She's obnoxious, irritating, rude, materialistic, makes sexually-charged comments that seem too old for her, and matches a mumbling accent to pop culture references that don't play outside the UK. Russell T Davies and his team seem to have realized the character didn't work during production, because she's not in the final scene, as if to prefigure her absence from the ongoing series, still months away. She was never to be seen again despite presumably going to the same school as Maria. The other problem is the A-plot. While pitching a Whoniverse show at younger viewers is fine, the whole Bubble Shock thing just reads like all those terrible made-for-kids programs and films that characterize corporations, parents, schools, the government or Hollywood as cartoon villains, with no reality behind how such things actually work. Not only does this sort of thing reinforce a child's misconceptions, but it's all so very trite and stupid for the adults watching along. I've seen worse, mind you, but having an ingredient named Bane (not a "good" word) in a product that's taken the world by storm overnight, with round-the-clock factory tours, an arch CEO, and, ugh, having it turn people into zombies that merely walk around saying "Drink it" (sometimes I think RTD learned the wrong lessons from Moffat) seems to be very much in that mold.
Thankfully, that's mostly background to introducing the characters, gadgets and themes of the show. We're of course very happy to see Sarah Jane Smith again after the events of School Reunion, and using that episode as a template, we might have had a program not dissimilar to K-9 and Company or Sarah's Big Finish audios. Instead, Invasion of the Bane starts with just such a Sarah Jane, but presents a turning point where her world changes. I find it completely charming and on point to make a show that's supposed to be clean family viewing actually ABOUT family. Sarah Jane the loner adopts the Bane's Archetype, Luke, in the end, but in a way also other kids in the neighborhood (Maria Jackson, but others once SJA goes to series). And they're more tightly knit that we realize. Luke is the product of scanning some 10,000 people from the area, so he's got a little bit of Maria and Sarah Jane in him. Instant sister and mother, though he's theoretically related to thousands of other Londoners. This is transformative for Sarah, who starts the story as unwelcoming, tight-lipped and even a little bit callous. She's alienated from her community, which means we're introduced to her from Maria's point of view (she's Rose to Sarah's Doctor, or Gwen to her Captain Jack), as this mad woman living across the way from her new house. Is she, in fact, the "strange woman" Jackie feared Rose would turn into? And Maria too has a non-traditional family arrangement, divorced parents who get along fine, but she's living with her dad and not her mom. Luke's adopted. Clive will live with his single mother. If SJA's idea of corporate behavior is disconnected from reality, the show's representation of modern family is much more accurate. And that makes sense, because you're trying to get kids to watch and this is the world they KNOW. I suppose using cell phones as weapons against aliens is also part of that.
So while I'm not a big fan of the Bane plot - though I did enjoy the CG monsters, cool Cthulhoids, well animated - I found a lot to like in the stuff that sticks around for the rest of the series. Lis Sladen is of course wonderful, thoughtful, charming, as good a surrogate mum as she is an adventuring loner. Sarah faces off against the villains with bravery, even elbows an alien in the gut, and has lots of kit to make her more Doctorish. Sonic lipstick, a watch with a scanner in it and a giant computer in the attic (nice set, in fact the whole house is iconic) that seems to know everything... It comes dangerously close to deus ex machina, but basically replaces the Doctor's abilities in his absence (opening doors, scanning and omni-knowledge). Maria's a fresh-faced girl who questions and doesn't take things as given, perfect for this kind of series. Her parents are comic foils, making faces at the strangeness Sarah Jane has brought into their lives, the mom particularly oblivious and Jackie-esque. Luke looks like a mini-Spock, a savant who, not unlike Susan in An Unearthly Child, is too smart for his own good, yet doesn't really know anything about the every day. The comedy they draw from this is cute and amusing. The direction is fun and bubbly, with slick camera angles and jokey editing, lots of colors. The effects look cool, especially the Bane monsters and RTD's now cliché approach to Earth (for once, an original sequence, not the same old one from "Rose"), and there's some smart reuse of older effects, like the Mary alien from Greeks Bearing Gifts and the black hole from The Impossible Planet. K-9 is given a strange mission and even stranger position (around a black hole accessible through Sarah's wall safe - uhm, what?), but keeps him from being underfoot (obviously, it's all about his creators' plans for him). I'm quite glad he isn't a regular cast member. He's better used in small doses. And for Doctor Who fans, there are some nice references, like the name of the computer, Mr. Smith, and Sarah's address on Bannerman Road.
REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - The "plot of the weak" is rubbish, and there's one cast member that needs to GO (and does), but otherwise sets things up quite well, and is filled with charm and promise.