I didn’t really see much of The Sarah Jane Adventures when it was originally broadcast.
In April 2005 I was 11 going on 12, so I was just about young enough to still become enthralled in childish joy when the new series of Doctor Who started. That Christmas I was among the many kids who had never heard of a Dalek the year before, but was now thrilled to be unwrapping a remote-controlled one. I immediately created an obstacle course for it around the tree, incorporating the empty boxes from my new guitar and the Ninth Doctor and Slitheen walkie-talkies. A little under a year later I was watching Torchwood, which in recent years I’ve increasingly realised was perfect viewing for a 13-year-old. I’d never watched anything with so much snogging and there were episodes I didn’t want to watch alone.
By the time the first series of The Sarah Jane Adventures started in late 2007 I had matured into a normal grumpy teenager. After school I was most likely to be found glued to the family computer, practising my guitar or playing music as loudly as possible to drown out whatever my brother was also playing. Doctor Who Magazine had printed details about The Sarah Jane Adventures so I was vaguely aware of it. But I had graduated from CBBC because I definitely wasn’t a little kid anymore and was obviously far too grown up for that kind of stuff, apart from those times I decided I actually quite liked Blue Peter or stumbled across excellent gameshows like Raven and Trapped!
The following year I was on a long-haul flight and one of the TV options was Invasion of the Bane, so I took a punt on it. I rather enjoyed The Sarah Jane Adventures’ pilot, so afterwards I did start looking out for the series’ broadcasts on CBBC. However, I was a very casual viewer: it wasn’t something I was willing to fight over the TV remote for and I remember still never being too sure of when episodes were on.
DWM’s retrospective (Issue 588) on the series highlighted how few episodes I remember seeing – apparently just random stories from each series. Yet it intrigued me and the mini-synopses were enough to tempt me into exploring the whole show.
I find myself slightly thrown that Sarah Jane is so removed when we first see her. She’s clearly used to keeping herself to herself, lest anyone find out about some of the things she’s up to. It means she comes across somewhat rude the first time she meets Maria’s dad, Alan, which she does actually realise and try to correct. But this set-up is right because our main audience don’t necessarily know Sarah Jane. They probably saw School Reunion last year, yet the show is banking on them identifying with teenage Maria far more.
The adverts for Bubble Shock are rather marvellous. The style of them is really evocative of that period and immediately take me back to afternoons watching kids’ TV. Everything is loud, brash and bright in an attempt to persuade you to part with your pocket money – and, of course, because they know viewers aren’t necessarily actively watching; like Maria, the TV is on in the background or they’ve left the room during the ad break. The other thing Invasion of the Bane does well is to make the viewers feel the impact of the Bubble Shock adverts in a similar way to the characters by repeatedly inserting chunks of them. I like how, just as Doctor Who had done, specially filmed clips from other BBC programmes are featured to give it a touch more verisimilitude. It’s an instant nostalgia rush for me to see Konnie Huq and Gethin Jones on the Blue Peter set.
The design of Bubble Shock is reminiscent of Panda Pops, being in the same small and stubby bottles – less common than the standard tall and slim 500ml pop bottles – and similarly going for a logo in diagonal bubble writing. If you’re a younger reader, you’re unlikely to be familiar with Panda Pops now as they were discontinued in 2011. But one other reason they seem a suitable type of beverage for the Bane to base Bubble Shock on is that they were really cheap compared to more well-known brands. They were likely to be found in your local corner shop and could be paired with other pocket-money friendly treats like Space Invaders and a Freddo. I don’t think Bubble Shock’s price is ever mentioned (we see plenty of it being given away for free) but it would make sense to undercut other brands if the Bane wanted to spread Bubble Shock far and wide quickly.
Samantha Bond was Miss Moneypenny in four of Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond films, which was the only thing I knew her from at this time, so I remember finding it interesting to see her as a villain. As Moneypenny for the 1990s, she was less inclined to accept Bond’s flirty advances and could deliver an icy, biting line when required. But she’s generally cool and calm in 007’s world so it was delightful to see her deliver something that demands a greater display of emotion. Mrs Wormwood’s anger as everything starts going wrong at the Bubble Shock factory is fab maniacal villainy.
The sections at the factory are the main parts I remembered from my original viewing. I like the modern industrial set. It has lots of layers and its different sections allow the lighting to be varied, creating scenes that are a little darker.
I’d misremembered Luke Luke – initially just named the Archetype – being rescued by Sarah and Maria and I think I prefer it as escaping himself as it gives him a little more agency in a story where he’s mostly lying down on a machine. It’s all nice and exciting, especially as their departure gets drawn out when Maria hesitates about getting into Sarah’s car and leaving Kelsey behind.
I immediately warmed to Kelsey, who barges her way into Maria’s new house and decides she will be a new mate. As I’ve been watching some other CBBC shows recently, I notice that her pigtails are an attempt to convince the viewer that the actress is supposed to be playing slightly younger than her actual age. Kelsey is impulsive, curious and a bit gobby, so it’s almost inevitable that she would wander off and do something that gets her into trouble. In another version of this show, maybe she could have been a tad less rude and become part of the gang – she makes a great contrast to Maria here – but the final version of this episode makes it clear that isn’t going to be the case, with Kelsey blabbing to the bad guys and refusing to believe in aliens afterwards. Perhaps the production preferred the equal male/female split the series ended up with, but Kelsey’s personality also seems more suitable for a companion to the Doctor, while Sarah Jane’s gang will ultimately end up with distinctive characters who are a bit more wholesome.
But Invasion of the Bane really isn’t. We’ve barely been introduced to Sarah Jane’s house when it’s quickly been demonstrated as no safe haven as Bubble Shock’s tour guide/PR officer Davey is sent to attack her there. His haircut alone could probably be used to date this story. Transformed into Bane form, he’s a giant green cyclops creature with tentacles and manages to force his way inside. Lots of fast cutting and the tense soundtrack help ramp up the tension, aided by shots from the Bane’s point of view that swivel quickly. We also get a feel for the characters’ disoriented panic as the Bane’s sight is slightly blurred at the edges while the other shots use odd camera angles.
One of the other thrilling sequences was the episode’s climax where we get to see the Bubble Shock factory blown up! Not just a little explosion either – it’s huge! This was exciting and looked brilliant. It felt like a great way for the show to set out expectations to the audience. As a CBBC production, I’m anticipating lower budgets compared to Doctor Who, but it’s clear plenty of it went on screen here.
By the end of Invasion of the Bane, most the show’s key characters are in place – including the computer, Mr Smith, and arguably the house itself. My grown-up brain is eyeing the size of Sarah’s house and adding up that she must have been making pretty decent money at one point to afford something so huge in London on her own. Even in the 1980s, that must have cost a packet. We learn she went travelling on Earth a lot too, so Sarah has definitely done well for herself. Are many freelance journalists this well off? Did she do some consulting work on the side? Maybe UNIT paid her for odd bits here and there? Either way, good on her. If we assume Sarah is the same age as actress Liz Sladen, she’s actually reached retirement age, being among the last few years where women could pick up their state pension at 60. She looks bloody good for it and perhaps this is one of the reasons Sarah is now able to pursue whatever journalistic assignments she wants, rather than having to seek out some of the less interesting work that might be necessary to pay her way as a fulltime freelancer.
I really enjoyed revisiting this opening episode, so I’m looking forward to embarking on the rest of The Sarah Jane Adventures.