I’ve mixed feelings about The Sarah Jane Adventures kicking off its series with returning villains from Doctor Who. A part of me thinks it should have been attempting to be distinct from the start. However, there had been a large gap since Invasion of the Bane – over nine months – and viewers needed to be drawn in to the new show. Plenty of these viewers would already have been watching Doctor Who, so why not entice them with something familiar – and for which there is already an action figure available!
Revenge of the Slitheen is a story built around the corruption of new technology. It’s something that’s there in Sarah’s first returning story, School Reunion (so this is the second time she’s found aliens in schools recently), and we’ve also seen it in Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel – plus plenty of others to varying extents. While its aliens using tech for nefarious means for these, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances showed how tech could do wrong even without interferences. It’s interesting to look back on this era with that in mind. Arguably ‘bad’ technology is an idea that has never gone away but this was a period where the Internet and other digital technology was becoming an increasingly inescapable part of most people’s lives. It had become expected that every teenager would own a mobile phone and connectivity had spread beyond the early adopters, beyond students, past the curious – it was starting to become expected of virtually everyone. Just a few weeks after Revenge of the Slitheen was broadcast the UK’s digital switchover began, with analogue television broadcasts being replaced with digital ones. Whether people liked it or not, new technology was taking over.
As most my viewing tends to be from either the near-present day or several decades earlier, I’m not used to encountering sudden old reminders of periods I’ve lived through. It’s now mildly amusing to hear the school’s new technology building being touted because of its broadband capabilities, although I know it hadn’t been too long since we had upgraded from dial-up. I’m taken back to my own school days by the short ties with large knots that virtually all the pupils (bar Luke) are sporting. I remember eventually deciding to stand out with a slightly loose Windsor knot instead. Marvellously, a near-contemporaneous BBC News article detailed the Noughties’ kids’ approach to school uniform rebellion and my favourite part is that the photo used to showcase a more exemplary approach to school ties is of Grange Hill’s Zammo McGuire, CBBC’s best known drug addict.
Revenge of the Slitheen has to act as another introductory episode but it never feels like we’re re-treading the same ground. The start of a new school term and the first appearance of Clyde all provide inroads to lay things out. Clyde’s visit to Sarah’s house and meeting Mr Smith enable us to become reacquainted with these other recurring characters.
Clyde is similar to Kelsey, who we met in Invasion of the Bane, so it seems like the idea for this type of character has been refined. He’s chatty and quickly buddies up with Maria and Luke as the other new kids, although admits he’s looking for cooler people and it’s a little hard to tell how serious he is when we first meet him. Afterwards, it’s nice to see him and Maria bonding over the shared experiences of their parents’ recent divorces. Clyde is also inquisitive enough to follow them into the mysterious new building that seems to be causing odd smells and rotting food. The defining difference is that Kelsey was borderline rude while Clyde comes over as more of a cheeky class clown, which certainly makes him far more likeable.
Having only seen a little of him in Invasion of the Bane, we also need to get to know Luke. It’s sweet seeing him worry about his numerous social faux pars. He’s obviously trying really hard and he has enough social skills to realise each time he’s put his foot in it. It’s a nice new way of exploring young people’s natural worries about fitting in, although I think his nonchalance about Sarah kissing him at the school gates actually makes him look far cooler. Luke’s fears also lead to a wonderful conversation with Sarah, who his open with him about the fact she is new to this ‘mum’ thing and isn’t entirely confident either.
The Slitheen in this story aren’t the same characters as those we’ve met in Doctor Who, but they certainly act similarly and it’s established they are from the same extended family. It’s also another large-scale plan that would have significant repercussions – the Slitheen certainly don’t do small-time and are happy to bide their time a while in hiding. I enjoyed the potential shock of a child Slitheen revealing themselves. It was also the moment that jogged a memory and made me realise that this was one of the stories I had seen before. I did feel the humour was wrenched up a notch and these creatures seem a tad less scary; while they threaten our regulars, we don’t have the number of bodies piling up as in Aliens of London/World War Three. That’s appropriate for a CBBC show going out in the afternoon when kids are far more likely to be watching on their own, compared to one in prime time where adults will probably be in the room too. It’s the kind of consideration that means The Sarah Jane Adventures is released on DVD with a PG rating, while the first couple of new Doctor Who series are given a 12.
One aspect of this episode I loved was that we see Sarah in danger without her gang, alone with one of the Slitheen while investigating. But she doesn’t need them – she’s been doing this kind of dangerous stuff on her own for yonks and, while it’s lovely to have friends around, we see that Sarah is more than capable of looking after herself. I’m glad of this because she’s the grown-up hero here and we need to know the kids can trust her to save the day.
I’m also fond of Sarah’s call to UNIT towards the end of the episode, when she adds, “Love to the Brig.” It neatly ties up any queries for “What the hell do we tell people about this mess?” – for both this and future stories – and the small reference for fans is a nice touch.