What’s it about: Six months after the last part of her undercover investigative TV series for Planet 3 Broadcasting went out, Sarah Jane Smith is running scared. Living under false names, her true identity compromised, she has few friends and fewer clues as to her pursuers. Enter three people who will change her life the mysterious Mr Harris, old friend Ellie Martin and a guardian angel in the shape of the rougish Josh. Now, all roads lead to the village of Cloots Coombe in Wiltshire but will she find answers she needs there?
Until Next Time…Miss Smith: It seems that we fans just cannot get enough of Sarah Jane Smith and whilst her involvement with the show is fairly spaced out, there is plenty of Elisabeth Sladen goodness to revel throughout the shows gestation. Her three and half years on the show are an absolute highlight for the series, the aborted spin off for her own show K9 and Company, featuring in The Five Doctors and Downtime, taking part in some splendid novels, her return to the series in School Reunion and the resulting spin off show The Sarah Jane Adventures and of course the audio series from Big Finish. That’s a wealth of material to appreciate the character and I still wanted more simply because the character was so compelling and Lis herself brought so much charm and realism to the role. Its very interesting to see that the tone of the series here is very different to that of the CBBC show – Sarah is a colder character, paranoid because she has upset too many people in her career and constantly living on the run through various aliases. It’s a fascinating take on the character and Sladen really convinces you that the world is out to get our favourite reporter. At the beginning of the Sarah Jane Adventures our heroine is paranoid, secretive and doesn’t want to involve others into her lifestyle and I consider that a result of her experiences in her audio series. Whilst her audio series second season ends on a cliffhanger I definitely feel that was resolved and she wound up moving to Bannerman Road in Ealing after he experiences here. The tone of the two series might be vastly different but in my head I can completely justify that one follows the other and the character leaps from one to the other as though it was made as a seagueway between The Five Doctors and School Reunion. To me it is all one timeline for the character.
The story opens with her Aunt Lavinia’s funeral and says that in a place like Morton Harwood you don’t get slip away quietly which links this nicely to K.9 and Company. She is going to miss her Aunt and all the adventures that they never had and has been bequeath all of her money and worldly goods and she promises to be slightly frivolous as Lavinia would have wanted. Sarah used to work for Planet Three and made documentaries exposing dodgy organisations and Sarah talks of working hard to creating a new life for herself out of the limelight. Her last report with Scottish Fisheries, Hautacore and Sarah believed that researches into fish born diseases was being abused. She followed a trail, got the story and broadcast it. Planet Three had the asses sued off them because everything that Sarah had researched was a lie. She was fired for false allegations, Planet Three coughed up a lot of dough which Hautacore donated to cancer charities. Nobody would touch her anymore. She had no bank balance, no job, no identity, a complete nobody in society. Sarah ceased to exist because someone, somewhere went to great pains to frame her and destroy her life. Listening to Sarah manipulate Hedges on the phone into co-operating with her goes to show just what a good journalist she is. She dresses it up as trying to find out who is messing with her life but I think that Sarah loves all this cloak and dagger stuff and when she says she has to act I feel its more that she wants to. There’s something appealingly reckless about her in this audio series that I like. She has a battered old red Volkswagen beetle called Ethel and its interesting to note that when she gives her car to Luke in The Nightmare Man that it is an spruced up resprayed VW Beetle – even though it is torched here! Perhaps she bought another? Ellie warns Sarah that she is getting a little uneasy in her paranoia and it’s a trait that will become more apparent as the series continues.
Jubilant Josh: I’m so glad to see Jeremy James earning a regular status on this show because he is a staple of the early Big Finish adventures often playing the sort of roles that go unnoticed like monsters. He brings a great deal of real world charm to this series and it would seem that whatever the medium whenever Sarah gets her own series she is always surrounded by likable friends. Josh joins up with Sarah after saving her life during an investigation of a bank and describes himself as a have-a-go hero! He nabs the nickname that Ellie Martin called Sarah – ‘SJ’. His parents run a ski resort near the Alps and are loaded but he is (as Nat describes him) their ‘delinquent only child fending for himself and refusing their help.’ After wasting time hanging out with some fringe loonies he spent eight months in Felton, then worked at various High Street retailers before falling into a dead end job at a builders merchants. Nat rather cruelly lists his failiure of a life and it only serves to make you like him even more. Rather than admitting that he wants to protect her Josh spouts some naff Chinese philosophy about saving someone’s life and being responsible for them thereafter. Josh destroys the MOD facility and mentions it is what he does best – arson. Now we know why he was locked away for eight months.
Natty: I really like Nat because she doesn’t take any of Sarah’s shit – at times our plucky hero can be remarkably cold and put her friends in real danger but Nat has the strength to fight her own corner and tell Sarah when she has gone too far. Played by Elisabeth Sladen’s daughter Sadie Miller, Nat is straight talking and intelligent and her hacking skills are legendary. She probably tried to fight against it but at times Sladen’s natural affection for her daughter shines through but that isn’t necessarily a problem because Nat is often invaluable and deserves the praise Sarah heaps on her. Sarah is suspicious of the slightest co-incidence but Nat quite rightly says that the whole doesn’t revolve around her.
Standout Performance: SJS has a terrific cast and it all starts at the top – the unmistakably talent Elisabeth Sladen. She’s back to give a whole new spin on the character and heads the series with absolute conviction. Her sidekicks are played by Jeremy James who is a laugh a minute in the role and quickly develops a natural chemistry with Sladen and Sadie Miller, Sladen’s daughter and just as convincing as her mother in a difficult expository role. Its Robin Bowerman that I really want to praise however because his delicious throaty voice really sells the menace of the iniquitous Mr Harris and I’m pleased that he turns up in many other stories because he brings a great deal of that old school Who villainy with him. Just wait until we reach Test of Nerve where he becomes even more sinister.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘One day I just might get to unpack.’
‘Its time for you to investigate the newest scientific breakthrough!’
Great Ideas: Showing how well thought through this series is the principal villains of the piece turn up in the pre-titles sequence and whilst manipulating their way throughout the season wont reveal their hand until the very last tale, Mirror Signal Manoeuvre. Harris and his employers hacking into the bank that Sarah is investigating simply because they had the misfortune to give her a job – admitting they have spent a lot of time and energy trying to destroy her. Small village, weird locals, dodgy squire and dead bodies decomposed and carrying the days newspaper found in shallow graves – usual stuff for the likes of Sarah! The thing in the well devours the life force and leaves its victim a decaying unrecognisable corpse. Eighteen years ago the MOD were experimenting with chemical warfare and accidentally contaminated the local area with a leakage of radiation. It left the MOD facility by the church and seeped into the village well which was used for May Day celebrations and other traditions. The village became sterile and Richofet agreed to clone the villagers to give them a new generation. It was just a cover to see if the procedure could work – to grow an army that would have no families so casualties wouldn’t matter and with no payouts for the government. The experiments failed and they created a mutant, a creature that lives of the life force of those whose DNA created it. An army of such genetic trash would be invincible.
Audio Landscape: Car starting, Big Ben ringing, whistling wind, rain whipping at the car, footsteps, chatter in the bank, sawn off shotguns in the bank, alarm, doorbell, caller withheld, keyboard tapping in an internet café, Ethel going up in flames, an owl hooting, crackling fire, crows, the facility exploding, the creature screaming.
Musical Cues: This was a time when David Darlington was responsible for a lot of the Big Finish spin off series music and he does a fine job in giving the series an up to date (I hate to use the word hip) feel. However it does alarm me that at points the music that bridges the scenes can (if your mind can wander that way) sound alarmingly like the stripping off music of a 70s porn film. Not that I have ever watched anything of the kind. No sir J
Isn’t it Odd: I know the producers wanted Sarah to move into a grittier world but reading the name Terrance Dicks and hearing ‘You smug bitch!’ just don’t go together in my eyes. Because the story has spent so much time introducing us to the regulars there is little time to expand on the actual Cloots Coombe plot and so as soon as Sarah meets with the villain of the piece he immediately drops his façade and reveals his plans. There simply isn’t time for any kind of subterfuge.
Standout Scene: The opening monologue shows Elisabeth Sladen at her emotive best and after the tragic news of her death it was very appropriate for Big Finish to use this moment, a reflection on death from Sarah Jane herself, to show just how wonderful the actress was in the role in one of their pod casts.
Result: Comeback is a great introduction to the Sarah Jane Smith audio series but unfortunately it is not such a brilliant story in its own right. Since it spends so much time setting up the regulars and their claustrophobic world it’s the one instance where the story doesn’t have to be too much cop because everything about Sarah, Josh and Nat and the foes that are influencing their lives feels fresh and exciting. The producers desperately want to bring Sarah bang up to date and for the first half of Comeback Uncle Terry is writing a paranoia thriller but he cannot resist moving the action to a country village and churning out ‘same old’ (as one of the characters calls the mysterious happenings in Cloots Coombe). Terrance Dicks is an old hand at this and introduces some lovely ideas at the conclusion and it’s a shame that there just isn’t the time to develop them further but at least there are hints the cloning operation is part of a much larger operation. I went into this re-listen thinking that the opening couple of stories were dreadful and everything that came later justified the series but this was a lot more polished than I remember with some strong central performances and an intriguing set up for the series. I wont say this was the best pilot for a spin off range but it was entertaining and attention grabbing enough to make me want to see where Sarah heads next: 7/10