Doctor Who #856: The Nightmare Man Part 1

"Oh K9, I can't wait. Luke was the biggest mistake of my life."
TECHNICAL SPECS: All stories from this one to Goodby, Sarah Jane Smith Part 2 can be found on the Sarah Jane Smith Season 4 DVD set. First aired Oct.11 2010.

IN THIS ONE... Luke will soon be leaving for university, but first he get alien visits in his dreams.

REVIEW: Though there's a creepy clown figure somewhere between the Joker and Freddy Krueger (effectively played by Julian Bleach) tormenting Luke in his dreams (and escaping them), the threat is entirely secondary to the cast's human drama. Or perhaps I should call it subservient instead of secondary, because the Nightmare Man is a symbolic manifestation of Luke's anxieties about leaving home a year early for university. His nightmares, which the monster feeds on, are all about being replaced (as Maria was, after all) or his friends and mum breathing a sigh of relief that they won't have to endure his freakishness. Though heightened by Luke essentially being three years old and never knowing any other life, this isn't that far afield of what real teenagers might feel in these circumstances. And that's really SJA's sweet spot, translating the very real anxieties associated with growing up into Doctor Who monsters.

The episode even plays to that idea, starting on yet another Slitheen sliming, and Sarah Jane showing a kind of fatigue with that scenario that somehow says Luke is getting too old for this type of thing. As is the series. We may be leaving the more childish elements behind as both the actors and the audience have grown past them. Sarah Jane seems more adult, less a purveyor of over-explanation and more a real mother, juggling pride and terror at the thought of her son moving away. The less overtly emotional Lis Sladen makes her, the more poignant is all feels. Clyde is openly bitter that his best friend is moving on (his emotional barrier is quickly becoming his greatest flaw), and before leaving, Luke tries to push him in Rani's arms. Old enough for romance now? Natural for kids this age, but it's a also a sign that the production believes its audience is also old enough to enjoy those kinds of subplots. Similarly, the episode structure using title cards to pace out the scene is a more mature form of story telling.

The subject matter obviously lends itself to a dark atmosphere, but this is support by contrasting moments of comedy. I absolutely love it when Sarah Jane is allowed to be funny. A highlight for me is Sarah dismissing the craziness in their lives when Luke reminds her his first day of school WAS in fact scary. Her bad cooking, the moment he chooses to tell her he's been offered an opportunity to go to Oxford, K9 and Mr. Smith cattiness... all fun little moments that give the episode that extra oomph.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - My favorite season of SJA starts off strong, putting the characters first and slaving the plot to their lives.

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