The BBC has had a hot run of it lately, prompted firstly by the stateside presence of BBC America and secondly by the popularity of Russell T. Davies’ revamped “Doctor Who” series. The new “Doctor Who” (about to broadcast its fourth season stateside) has proved so popular that the BBC has managed to squeeze out not one but two sequels. “Torchwood,” chief writer and executive producer Davies’ adult-oriented spin-off, continues the sexy, “X-Files”-ish vibe invoked by the new “Doctor Who.” The second spin-off, “The Sarah Jane Adventures” goes for a slightly different feel.
In case you’re not a nerd in the know, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) was the most famous of the time-traveling Doctor’s many companions. Between 1973 and 1976, she accompanied The Doctor (then played by Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker) on dozens of space-spanning adventures. There was a brief attempt to give the character her own spin-off in 1981’s “K-9 and Company,” but the show didn’t last beyond the pilot stage.
In 2006, Davies brought the character (as well as the original actress) back for a “Doctor Who” episode titled “School Reunion.” Davies’ nostalgic and satisfying script finally acknowledged the emotional (and possibly sexual) connection between The Doctor and his companion and explored her feelings of abandonment after he moved on to other adventures. Fans loved it and the BBC cobbled together a new spin-off, which debuted in January of 2007.
Though it premieres this Friday night on the Sci-Fi Channel immediately after the hard-hitting, highly metaphorical “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Sarah Jane Adventures” is actually intended for young audiences. It begins with pigtailed, 13-year-old Maria Jackson (Yasmin Paige) moving in next door to investigative reporter Sarah Jane Smith. Shortly after arriving, Maria learns that Sarah Jane collects alien artifacts and frequently converses with beings from outer space. Eventually, the two become friends, teaming up with several other British tweens to solve assorted space-age mysteries.
The pilot episode, “Invasion of the Bane,” is actually one of the weakest in the series (same with the pilot for “Torchwood”--go figure). It concentrates on an invasion of Earth precipitated by some sort of addictive alien soft drink. Later episodes get more creative and drop in the occasional bit of “Doctor Who”/“Torchwood” continuity for the hardcore fans. Sadly, Sarah Jane’s robot dog K-9 spends most of his time locked in a closet awaiting his own computer-animated spin-off (rumored to be hitting the airwaves in Australia sometime this summer).
Given the way Davies has matured the BBC’s venerable sci-fi lineup, it’s a little strange to see Sarah Jane surrounded by moppets (the most annoying of whom disappears after the first ep, mind you). Still, “Doctor Who” was created as a kid’s show all the way back in 1963. Forty-five years later, it’s not all that jarring (and a bit refreshing even) to see the series return to its roots.