This story in a nutshell: Androvax, the Destroyer of Worlds, has returned to plagued but he has some sinister customers on his tail...
Now Luke is off at university she has to get her kicks damaging Mars Rovers...or at least the ones that are heading into trouble. Sarah Jane makes a very mature decision to help Androvax find and free the remaining hundred of his fellow citizens, regardless of what her feelings towards him are. Sarah's little gag before sabotaging Mr Dread's car is a scream. Sladen had the knack for making me smile with her line delivery right up to the end. She underplays her possession this time round, having another (and much more successful) crack at playing Androvax.
Sarah's Gang: I may have mentioned in the past how much I am in love with Clyde and Rani (and you can shove Luke into the mix, the shows most impressive achievement - the boy genius that you don't want to grind into powder). Season four was the year that the writers decided to stop playing about with their oblique romance and start to drop some serious hints that this was leading somewhere (all within the very safe, sex-free environment of SJA of course...had this been Torchwood that would have been shagging each others brains out on the attic floor as soon as Sarah Jane was out of the house). There's a gorgeous moment in The Vault of Secrets where they find themselves holding hands in a moment of stress and then awkwardly realise how close they suddenly are. These little moments are peppered throughout the season and would continue to flourish until the series end. Had season five continued as planned, there would have been an astonishing tale that would see them (through insane science fiction means) live an entire life together and have a child. It would have been gorgeous to see them consummate their relationship. The Thirteenth Floor (for that would have been its title) was ultimately made on Wizards vs. Aliens because it was far too good a story to waste and turned out to be the highlight of the first two seasons of that show. On that show it shows a burgeoning romance between Tom Clarke and the lead villainess and did manage to tug successfully at the heartstrings when they had to leave the never realm and undo their relationship and sacrifice their child. Imagine if this had played out with Clyde and Rani with all the shared history they have on SJA? It would have been properly devastating. It shows the willingness of the writers on this show (and along with The Curse of Clyde Langer, it was also written by Phil Ford and shows how he was emerging as an accomplished writer on the show) to take risks with their characters and it would have been a phenomenal chance for Anthony and Mohindra to show what they are capable of. I love the fact that Clyde, whilst still remaining very calm, is always willing to show that he is afraid Not many young male protagonists would be willing to show their anxieties.
The Parents: How can you fee anything but pity for poor Haresh who is dragged along to every astrological show, nanotech institute and social group for alien encounters by his clinically insane (but technically often right) wife? It is good that we get to see the gentle domestic moments where their love for each other shines through because otherwise you would have to wonder we he suffers these humiliations. And it is true that you sometimes have to suffer embarrassments in order to support your loved ones. Gita shoving a wrench in Haresh's hand and locking herself in the car whilst encouraging him to be a man and tackle Androvax made me chuckle. It reminds me of my husbands night time nerves when we heard somebody trying to fit their key in our door in the middle of the night once...and he handed me the glass lamp and shoved me out into the hall to admonish them! It surprises me that Mina Anwar is the most successful at getting across Androvax's desperation to save his people. Not because I think she is a terrible actress (I have seen her in a fair few things now and she is always at least competent) but because she jettisons all the pantomime that makes up Gita and goes for broke, offering a tired, sweaty and dangerous criminal. I would have welcomed Gita holding on to her knowledge of aliens but I understand why they chose not to go down that route. Twice now she has been exposed to aliens (well, the same alien) and it seems a little unfair for her to be kept constantly in the dark. However with her plans to expose everything that she knows to the press it is understandable that Sarah Jane makes the request she does of Mr Dread to wipe her memory.
Sparkling Dialogue: 'My name is Gita Chandra and I've seen aliens!' and 'We at BURPSS believe you should let it all out...' - oh come on, doesn't this collection of nomads with alien encounters meeting like a gaggle of AA members raise even the tiniest smile?
'I am not programmed for comedy.'
The Good: Another story that hits the ground running...and continues running...and continues running. The general sense of momentum and pace in the Sarah Jane Adventures often captures the glory of classic Who with it's infamous corridor dashing far more than the new series does. Mysterious black suited figures walking in a clipped fashion out of stasis, remove their hands and replace them with a high tech laser to deal with an intruder on the premises...this show always manages to capture my interest very quickly. How could children fail to love this? The woman they are pursuing turns out to Androvax the Destroyer of Worlds in disguise, which is a twist that I always forget every time I watch this story. He's a character with a great deal of potential that was only touched upon in Prisoner of the Judoon and the performance by Mark Goldthorp was the highlight of what I consider to be the weakest of all the Sarah Jane Adventures (but still above average for the record). He's given a much better vehicle this time and afforded a chance to show the many sides of his character, he's not just a one dimensional genocidal maniac but a desperate man who is trying to make amends for the wrongs that were done to his people. Allusions are made to Pyramids of Mars in the very next scenes as Sarah (with the help of Mr Smith) stops a Mars Rover from making it over the crest of a hill and spying a Pyramid in the distance. A Pyramid that she visited once when she was travelling with the fourth Doctor. In a handful of scenes this story has managed to add to the mythology of this series (the return of an old foe suggests a stable list of recurring characters) and Doctor Who, offering a peek into Sarah's old life which fans can go ahead and view on the season four DVD which included Pyramids of Mars as a tribute to Elizabeth Sladen. I think it is inspired for the show to push for redemption for Androvax. He's been seen to do terrible things in the past but now these deeds are put in context and he is simply looking to rescue others of his (otherwise extinct) kind by whatever means necessary. He's amoral but not evil. It makes his character much more interesting to watch as a result. This is man who has torn through twelve worlds to take revenge for what was done to his people and now he just wants the chance to save one civilisation in penance. Bringing the android servants of the Alliance of Shades onto SJA has two positive effects, it encourages more young ones to go an seek outDreamland (which was very entertaining) but it also adds another very trendy race of robots to this series (they look so cool). What is it about SJA and car related humour usually involving doors being yanked off and tossed aside as they are commandeered? This really is a time for the show to get nostalgic about Sarah's past, not only tipping a wink to Pyramids of Mars but offering a handshake to The hand of Fear too with a mobile hand causing mischief. Two androids firing on each other with Clyde diving out of the way as explosions rip apart he corridor behind him...that is a pretty impressive set piece given it would have eaten up much of the budget. How does a show with a tenth (I've just pulled that figure out of the air but it is certainly much smaller than Doctor Who) manage to be so epic on occasion? Inside the vault, a vast, exciting place, are all manner of spacecraft and alien devices. It reminds me of the Black Archive in Enemy of the Bane only even more ambitious. Mr Dread's sacrifice at the end is played with such self-deprecating humour that it never once threatens to descend into syrup.
BURPSS is probably a step too far into Slitheen territory for some. I find the idea of an Ealingbranch of an extraterrestrial encounter group very funny - are there other groups dotted about all over the world? I bet Cardiff has several. 'Believe me, Mr Chandra, Ealing is a thrilling place!' The look that Haresh gives the most trampish of their members is spot on hilarious. Minty and Ocean have stepped straight out of any other CBBC show and are quite amply characterised (often a sign of a Phil Ford script) but I did like how this gave Gita a vital role in the story, how she was trying to make sense of her encounters and a chance for Mina Anwar to play evil (which she does better than anyone else on the show, in this or Prisoner of the Judoon). I also found how Ocean's experiences were embedded in the story quite useful to get a handle on her character. So yes, the organisation is quite crudely written but there are a handful of bonuses to it that make the exercise worthwhile. And there are some great gags to be had with the name BURPSS ('Pardon me?').
The Bad: It is a shame that Anjili Mohindra chooses to ape the Elizabeth Sladen style of possession performance (from Judoon, not Hand of Fear) because it lacks any kind of conviction. It sounds like an actress trying to sound frightening, rather than simply being frightening. What a shame that there wasn't time to finish off Ocean's story and so instead she shuffles off stage, unsatisfied in the knowledge that Gita and the others have had their minds wiped by the Men in Black. If her story wasn't going to come to fruition I don't quite understand her inclusion.
Result: The Vault of Secrets, let me count the ways I love thee; the return of an excellent villain with a gripping modus operandi, the expansion of the Alliance of Shades from Doctor Who's Dreamland, the chance for Mina Anwar to play something other than broad comedy (although she sure gets to do that too), stylish direction and impressive set pieces, cracking dialogue, a conclusion that allows a peek into the vault and the impressive contents within and the poignant redemption of a character that I had long written off as a bad'un. BURPS are the only real negative if you are the sort of adult that looks at everything through very serious glasses - the organisation and characters within are pure panto but even they made me raise a smile more than frustrating me. It is a story that rewards with repeated viewings, outwardly appearing like the weakest story of the season because it doesn't have a hook as strong as all the other stories (Luke going to university, the return of Jo Grant (Jones), the empty planet, lost in time and Sarah gets dementia respectively) but it is so stuffed full of wonderful scenes, great lines and little nuggets that makes you recognise that this show is full of brio at this stage. This story would have been a major disappointment if the vault hadn't been worth making all this fuss about but once the doors are open and we are afforded a peek inside it is a place of genuine awe. I could see a whole story taking place inside the vault via various spacecraft. I'm pleased I gave this one another shot, it proved to be a surprise winner: 8/10