For my money this show is a far better spin-off series from 'Doctor Who' than Torchwood. Both have had poor episodes, but Torchwood's only highpoint was 'Children of Earth'; it's first two series tried too hard to be adult and ended up being juvenile, while the recent series was ploddingly dull. The Sarah Jane Adventures however is fully aware of it's children's audience and so has always been entertaining and energetic. This has also allowed it to punch above it's weight with some very thought-provoking dramas (such as The Trickster trilogy 'Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?', 'The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith' and 'The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith') and psychological horror like 'The Day of the Clown' and 'The Nightmare Man'.
The series came to a tragic end with the death of Elisabeth Sladen. As Sarah Jane Smith, she had created an enduring character that could have easily been a mere cypher. Sladen provided the character with charm and likability needed from a Doctor Who companion and had been developed in her role as leading lady. Thankfully despite her poor health, Sladen was involved in three episodes which would have been one half of the series. This feeling of unfinished business does not go away but it is still great to see Ms. Smith (and Sladen) being given one last hurrah.
The first of the three is 'Sky' which sums up everything right and wrong about the series. Both writer Phil Ford and director Ashley Way have established an inconsistent reputation, either making very interesting tales like The Day of the Clown (Ford) and Death of the Doctor (Way) , or forgettable works such as The Empty Planet, the other of the two Way had directed previously. As for Ford, well let's just say there's more misses than hits. Unfortunately this is a low point for both of them, resorting to patronising the young audience, completely forgetting that TSJA works best when it treats them intelligently. The dialogue is very clunky and far too often resorting to cliches ("That girl is going to get us into so much trouble"). The direction doesn't make these lines any better, making them sound more forced than they already are. As such this marrs the debut of Sinead Michael, playing the eponymous Sky. She shows much promise, and her innocent questions and behaviour are very endearing. But promising talent needs some nurturing and I don't see enough suggestion that Way can see beyond her 'child actor' status, often unfairly assumed to be substandard.
Thank god then that she is surrounded by experienced performers - Liz, Daniel Anthony (Clyde) and Anjli Mohindra (Rani) have played these characters for so long, they rise head and shoulders above the poor quality script to provide some form of excitement. Their scenes with Sky are also brilliant, as there is yet another interruption in their lives, bringing the best out of the youngster. The rest of the performance are great, just on the right side of over the top, and the monster is impressive but particularly threatening when invisible - footprints without a visible source is such a disconcerting image.
Way also shows more creative in his direction here, whether it's minor moments such as a lovely overlap with the roar of a monster and a car's rumble, or the activation of the curse which is a sequence that is important and creepy. The resolution does feel sentimental and slightly unclear, but the gloomy atmosphere had been so well established, I relished any form of happy ending to the depressing situation.
And finally the series is forced to end on 'The Man Who Never Was' which, as writer Gareth Roberts pointed out on Twitter, was not intended to be the series finale but the third story as it was broadcast.
Oh the irony of watching a story about a man who inexplicably glitches on the iPlayer. There was a very odd meta fictional feel to the occasional pauses as it tried to load. This did not ruin the episode, however, which matches the high expectations from the same writer/director duo (Gareth Roberts and Joss Agnew respectively) who produced the heartbreaking 'The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith'. This is more light-hearted affair but it still pulls it's fair share of punches especially it's comments on slavery by businessmen. Rather than allow for overt sentimentality or sheer horror, the script balances between the two and also benefits from an endearing performance from Dan Starkey, the new go-to monster man, with the Skullians as a whole sympathetic and endearing race of little creatures. On the other side, James Dreyfusis clearly having a ball as the villain which makes the character all the more entertaining. As well as a great physical performance from Mark Aiken as the titular character, the regulars also get a good last run-out. Clyde and Rani, and Luke and Sky make terrific double acts with both relationships going under considerable development.
While the story does have a predictable conclusion, the first episode is very intriguing with plenty of suggestion of eerie goings on. It also has Sladen at the top of her game as she demonstrates Sarah Jane's journalistic skills which had never really been examined before. Her interview with Aiken's Joseph Serf is nothing short of sublime, with terrific humour as she playfully teases information out of him. As brilliant as she is here, it only makes her shocking death all the more tragic. Not only have we seen an actress leave before her prime, we have missed a really promising season: Sky looked to be a great character, and the return of "servants of the universe" Captain and The Shopkeeper suggested some really fascinating stories to come. Ultimately nobody would say that Liz was a bad actress - her characters were always believable, Sarah Jane being the pinnacle of all of them. So important was she to the character, you could never be sure who fed into whom.
Simply my referring to her as Liz shows how much of an impact she made on her audience - her performances always felt personal and honest. We weren't just watching a character, we were watching a well-rounded and believable person. The fact that Liz's performance has no suggestion of being diminished by her illness makes her death all the more heartbreaking. It will be a long time before her loss will be bearable or forgotten. Thank you Liz, you will be forever missed.