1. Comeback
  2. the Tao Connection
  3. Test of Nerve
  4. Ghost Town
  5. Mirro, Signal, Manouvre
Big Finish
Sarah Jane Smith Season 1

Released 2002

Synopsis: Investigative journalist is back... but she's not the only one who is.


Companion No More by Jamas Enright 20/4/05

In Big Finish's ever increasing range of spin-offs, it's not surprising that they turned to one of the more popular companions in Doctor Who. Indeed, Sarah Jane Smith topped the recent TSV Companion Poll, so why not make her the centerpiece of a series of audios?

The first series features five audios, the first of which is Comeback (no, I won't make the obvious joke... at least, not yet). Heavy on character introduction, this first play, from the pen of Terrance Dicks, is very light on story and plot. It essentially occurs in two halves, neither of which is necessary to the other half. The first part is setting up the characters and demonstrating how brilliant Sarah Jane Smith is. The second half is a typical Terrance Dicks story, but since there is only half an audio play left, there isn't time to do more than the most simplistic of storylines.

Which hopefully means that if all this time is spent on characters, the characters must be pretty good. I'll get onto the main four big cast roles later in this review, so will just concentrate on the guest roles here. The first character, aside from Sarah Jane, that we meet is Mr. Harris, who will clearly be playing a reoccurring role in this series. Played by Robin Bowerman, he comes across as Minor Boss Hench-Villain, and remains largely stereotypical in his performance.

Speaking of stereotypical, we turn to the other characters. Nicholas Briggs gives us the bumbling fool bank manager, caught up in events and there to facilitate the plot of the first half (such as it is). David Jackson and Peter Sowerbutts step up as the Squire and Reverend Gosforth respectively, and get to do a little more as they are in the second plot when Terrance Dicks is actually attempting to do something interesting. Unfortunately, they are also kept as flat as possible to keep the plot running on time. (Which is all very odd considering how much padding there is in this story, perhaps Terrance Dicks just didn't have any ideas for writing an audio?)

Aside from setting up the main characters and starting the main arc, Comeback is barely worth listening to, and even then it'd be easier to read a summary and get more enjoyment out of it.

This series is all about Sarah Jane Smith, so I'll now address her performance in this series, and of course the performance of Elisabeth Sladen. Elisabeth Sladen fits easily back into the role. Sarah Jane has matured over the years, but has clearly never given up her enthusiasm for her journalistic ideals and investigative abilities. Elisabeth Sladen brings all of this out in her performance, giving her a breathless exciting to all of her actions, as well as making her come across as, not world-weary, but as someone who is well versed in the way the world works in the harsh reality of journalistic endeavours. There is an arc running through all the stories, but it wouldn't be entirely honest to say that the character of Sarah Jane undergoes a similar arc. Instead the audience discovers more about her, and her new hard-line outlook as the plays go on, particularly in Test of Nerve and Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre. This makes her not quite the character we all thought she was, but does lend an interesting edge to her that gives the plays something worth paying attention to.

The second audio is written by Barry Letts, and is called The Tao Connection. Hardly surprising it is about Taoism, obviously the next religion on Barry Letts' checklist. Still, the action gets underway immediately, with an opening reminiscent of The Talons of Weng-Chiang. There's a mystery to be solved and Sarah Jane is on the case! The story develops nicely, with a minimum of extra padding, and there are some decent elements developed. (References to Doctor Who are rare in this series, but this story contains two, one explicit, one implicit.)

Of the guest cast, there are three main characters that this story centers around, namely Will Buckley (played by Moray Treadwell), Mr Sharpe (played by Steven Wickham - taking a break from his usual role as Joseph the Porter in the Benny audios) and Nurse Jephson (played by Jane McFarlane), with the first two getting the lion share of the characterisation. It is really due to Will Buckley that this story happens, and it is around him that the story revolves. He comes across well as the pitiful old man who is more than a little bit of a bastard. Mr Sharpe comes in as second string to him, the butler who has his own plans, and Nurse Jephson is caught in the middle of their games, with some minor conflict in her character between wanting to get her own plans achieved and actually being a nurse.

Other characters have decent roles to play, the main one being Robert Curbishley's guard Read, who is being set up as the next Mr Sharpe by Buckley. His character is about the only truthful character in this story, and is more enjoyable for it. Other roles are more minor, but watch out for cameo roles by Maggie Stables (once again playing a B&B landlady - see Just War) and (an uncredited) India Fisher (at least, that's who it sounds like).

A solo story in the overall arc, The Tao Connection plays well, and is far superior to other Barry Letts audios.

The second main character is that of Josh Townsend, played by Jeremy James. Like the audience, he is new to the world of Sarah Jane (unlike Natalie Redfern and Ellie Martin), and so we get to see her unfold as he does. Taking the role of companion, he gets to fill in for the action parts, basically as the token male (one wonders if Big Finish might have considered using Harry Sullivan if Ian Marter was still around). Jeremy James plays the part with near madness, and sounds incredibly like a younger Toby Longworth. His character does get to develop over the course of the audios, until finally Josh gets a chance to show his own mettle in Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre. A decent enough character, but a little too much 'madcap' city boy and thus, for me, more than a little irritating at times.

Test of Nerve by David Bishop has received a lot of praise, and it much deserving of it. This is a hell of a tale, worthy even of Spooks (although it's longer than even an unedited Spooks episode!) Sarah Jane Smith is given 24 hours to solve a mystery, and isn't even told what it is, although that's never the kind of problem that lasts long in any story (or otherwise there wouldn't be a story). Along the way there'll be murder, death traps and the threat of widespread genocide, making for one excitement-packed adventure! I know not every adventure could be like this, but it would have been nice to have a few more like it. The ending is extremely powerful, but I'm wondering if there was any consideration by David Bishop or Big Finish to go for the even more powerful ending...

The cast consists of only five other characters aside from the main four. Robin Bowerman returns as Mr Harris, and gets to be really evil. He has the right sort of voice for it, but the role is still rather generic. The character of Claudia Coster, played by Caroline Burns-Cook, was in The Tao Connection, but is given a larger role in this story, serving as Spook contact and generally useful plot device. But the props have to go to Roy Skelton, no longer a Dalek, but just as menacing as James Carver, a man with a mission, capable of going over the edge at any moment. All very good seat-of-the-pants stuff.

Test of Nerve is easily the best of the Sarah Jane audios, telling a great story as well as providing decent character development.

Natalie Redfern is another of Sarah Jane Smith's assistants, but the character is so reminiscent of a certain DC Comics super-heroine, I might just have a hard time not make a reference or two to that. Natalie is the spunky 'can do' woman, who's an ace computer/internet hacker, and isn't held back by her disadvantage of being in a wheelchair. As such, Oracle is obviously a major plot device/narrative point whereby large chunks of exposition can be delivered. It's only really in Test of Nerve that more is done with her character, proving that the ex-Batgirl can't be discarded so easily. This Barbara Gorden character is played by Sadie Miller (daughter to Elizabeth Sladen), who fills her with a lot of warmth and heart, and here's hoping Big Finish continue employing her in other roles.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Ghost Town is a brilliant example of the sort of story to avoid doing. The whole mystery is undercut by the first scene, and the rest of the play is spent by characters being extremely dumb and failing to think of even the simple things until near the end of the audio. (That said, the Project CIA bit is well played.) The whole story is like a reject Scooby Doo script, which several characters refer to themselves, possibly to stop the reviewers from doing so (tough luck) (author Rupert Laight lays no claim to these lines). The only saving grace is... well, I can't think of one. This story could have been erased from existence, and we would only be the better for it.

The main guest star is Ingrid Evans as ex-journalist Yolande Benstead, who is in many ways what Sarah Jane will be in years to come, although she is made to suffer the biggest moment of being dumb in the whole play. Brian Miller only plays a minor role as Abbotly, but is lumbered with a terrible scene due to the necessity of the plot (ironically, when Elisabeth Sladen isn't acting opposite her daughter, she acts opposite her husband). Ghost Town also features the return of the Americans from Minuet in Hell, namely Robert Jezek and Elizabeth Faulkner as Jack and Candy McElroy, who get to represent an entire international conference. Speaking of Robert Jezek, he also plays the character of Dmitri, giving the character the right level of frustration, although he does play the character using Mark Gatiss' accent from Mutant Phase.

So, Ghost Town, not worth listening to or worth avoiding, take your pick, just don't pick this up.

Ellie Martin is actually only in the first three audios, but is still a major character nonetheless. (Those of you keeping up with the behind-the-scenes goss, Ellie was brought in after it was decided that Sam Jones wouldn't be making an appearance.) Ellie is largely treated as the typical environmentalist protester, and is brought in whenever they (and by 'they', I mean the authors) need someone else to play an active part in an audio that has a history with Sarah Jane. Basically she's just there to add another character type to Sarah Jane's group, and really just be another politically correct character. (That all said, she also gets to appear in the Unbound audio, He Jests at Scars, which makes her a more widespread character than any of the other Sarah Jane Smith cast.) Ellie is played by Juliet Warner, who, while competent in the part, doesn't really get stretched by it to any major degree. (The worst part being her role solely as damsel-in-distress in Test of Nerve.)

This is it! The big story this series has been bulding to! ...well, not really. In fact Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre is little more than "plan by evil people wot must be undone". And in other fact, just what the hell is the motivation for said evil plan in the first place? Just what is intended as the outcome of this great scheme? It's beyond me, but obviously it's not something we're supposed to question, just sit back and accept that this thing will happen, and must be stopped. But I can't really say too much more without possibly giving away spoilers (which are largely given away by the cover and cast-listing anyway), so will restrain myself to pointing out that I've seen better motivated plots in James Bond movies. The best thing author Peter Anghelides does in this story is pay off the running language gag.

The main guest star (and second billing) I also can't talk about as part of said spoilers, but as great as it is to have that person back, would they really be acting like that after all this time? Rather petty really, and not worth the appearance ultimately. Louise Faulkner takes a break from Bev Tarrant to play Wendy Jennings, fellow Planet 3 reporter, although her performance raises more than a few suspicions about her character. Robin Bowerman returns in his pasty villain role, and Toby Longworth makes enough of an appearance to try out his Indian accent, both of whom fill their parts adequately.

As far as finishes goes, Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre tries for an epic feel, but doesn't quite manage to pull it off. A nice try, but ultimately lacking.

The CDs are made to Big Finish's usual standards, with decent sound and quality, with some interesting choices for guitar stings used as scene breaks. All the covers feature Sarah Jane and usually one or two items from the audio. The back-covers are more interesting. The usual blurb is there, but set in the format of a newspaper article, complete with attention grabbing headlines. Very nice touch.

So this series is a Comeback for Sarah Jane Smith, allowing listeners to make The Tao Connection with her, in this Test of Nerve from Big Finish, hopefully not making this series a Ghost Town, but something that can deal with Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre. (Told you I'd make the joke later. Don't you wish I didn't?)

The series is well set up for a second season, but that isn't going to happen any time soon. (Maybe in books though...?)