1. Buried Secrets
  2. Snow Blind
  3. Fatal Consequences
  4. Dreamland
Big Finish
Sarah Jane Smith Season 2

Released 2006

Synopsis: Sarah teams up with Harry Sullivan's brother.


A Review by Joe Ford 16/10/07

A complete turnabout for the series and for David Bishop. If you had said that name earlier, I'm sure most fans would grumble something unpleasant about The Domino Effect or Empire of Death but with this series he has managed to refine his skills and produce something we all knew he was capable of. Don't get me wrong, this series isn't perfection incarnate, but as a standalone miniseries of audios, it is clearly one of the best Big Finish have attempted. There are a hell of a lot of developments and some risky ideas attempted and for the most part they are pulled of with confidence, style and excitement. I cannot think of a single miniseries where I have been this eager to listen to the next audio time after time after time.

What is especially good is that these CDs work as both standalone hour-long episodes and as a four part series. Arcs are not just "all the rage" any more, but integral parts of every single series on television, the new series of Doctor Who not excluded. And this arc is a real blinder, allowing its characters to develop and grow, twisting and turning to frustrate and delight the audience whilst continuing to tell a coherent and intelligent story. David Bishop must have worked long and hard on this series and it shows. It pleases me to see his hard work being praised to the high heavens on the forums by an excited fan base.

It is always dangerous to bring back old characters in a new setting; you have the danger of alienating the fans of that character and not living up to expectations. Fortunately, Sarah had already been introduced in the patchy (if promising) first series but what really rankled was how distant she seemed to be from her life with the Doctor, how nothing she experienced then seemed to have any effect on her life now, Hilda Winters not withstanding. So it is fantastic to see Bishop re-introducing elements from the series and rather than just mentioning them for the sake of producing a warm glow in fanboys' hearts, he actively works them into the plot of the series, intelligently using Sarah's time travelling days to develop some nasty surprises for the woman. I loved the idea of Harry's brother being involved, the best thing we can expect with the wonderful Ian Marter now departed. But rather than Sarah (and the series) ignoring the Doctor, Sarah talks about him, especially her time in Antarctica and Italy. Go and re-watch The Masque of Mandragora before listening to this story, because so much of that story influences events here. You won't regret it. Suddenly Sarah's series feel free of its Doctor Who roots because it recognises Doctor Who.

Another huge bonus with series two is how much more confident the storytelling and direction seems. That comes with a series finding its feet, I get that, but the performances of the regulars, the sound design, the pace and the excitement, they all seem to have been boosted this year. The first series felt like a reward for the fans, not something you would want to share with anybody who wasn't a Doctor Who fan, but series two feels like a dynamic new series in its own right, something you can listen to independently and gladly allow nonfans to listen to. My boyfriend bought me the CD the morning we were heading up to London and moaned when I put Snow Blind on. I saw him getting gradually more intrigued as the story went on, to the point where he made me pause the thing when he had to stop for petrol. Thrilled by the ending, he was determined that we would listen to Fatal Consequences on the way home later that night and was left dumbfounded by its climax. Proving Bishop and Ainsworth had truly got their claws into him, he kept an eye on the release of Dreamland and insisted we listened together the night it arrived! Hah! And he doesn't even like audio adventures...

Buried Secrets opens the series in great style, although I know some people have bemoaned the fact that it does feel like a season opener rather than a story in its own right. I couldn't disagree more and the story of Nat's deceitful lover is surprisingly poignant and leaves you torn between sympathising with Sarah who was being threatened and her friend who has lost her lover. Brilliantly, Sarah is acting like a normal human being, not seeing menace in every shadow and actually enjoying her life. With her friends around her and with some sparky repartee, it almost seems like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The seeds are sown for all three of the following adventures and the backstory of the Crimson Chapter and their bizarre interest in Sarah is intriguing, whilst allowing Sarah to be right at the centre of her own series without feeling as though she is hogging the limelight from the other characters. Will Sullivan is an interesting addition to the mix and it is nice to see Lis Sladen get somebody a little older to act against; the dinnertime conversation between her and Tom Chadbon as Will is surprisingly touching. A much better theme tune and a bouncy score add much the proceedings. A great mix of The DaVinci Code and Alias.

Back to familiar territory with Snow Blind with a claustrophobic thriller set in Antarctica. Just when you think you have a hold on this story, it twists into something different, right up to the last scene. It's all the more impressive to be surprising with such a small cast and an isolated location, but me and Simon were arguing between us to who the traitor is and who is out to kill Sarah. The sound design is superb in this instalment, conjuring up the hopeless wastes of Antarctica with effortless ease. The second half up tension considerably, especially when Josh and Will start biting at each other. More questions are posed: just what on Earth could the Crimson chapter want with a multi-million dollar uranium operation? What could they need that sort of cash for? Whilst overall I think this is probably the weakest of the four, it is still very well put together, acted and scored. And when I heard Jacqueline Pearce's voice I squealed with joy!

Fatal Consequences was my favourite and is what in television terms would be called an "event" episode. Whilst it would be easy enough to hook the numerous shocking revelations on any old plot, David Bishop writes his most terrifying plot yet, dealing with the very up-to-date fear of an infection spreading into a major population. The scene where we learn that humans have been tested upon like lab rats is one of the most uncomfortable audio scenes ever. Elisabeth Sladen pulls out all the punches for this story, going to hell and back to find the answers behind the Crimson Chapters obsession with her. Honestly, she shows astonishing range. The twists never stop, but better than discovering people's allegiances is how the story deals with twists revealed in the last story, namely Will's mission to kill Sarah. This is worked effortlessly into the plot and develops his character far beyond what I thought he was capable of, especially when he realises what his allegiance to the Crimson Chapter will lead to. When Sarah turns on him, realising his betrayal and says, "I'm glad I met you" I was impressed with the emotional layers the story was taking. The climax is extremely busy and matches Bishop's Test of Nerve last year for most exciting run of scenes: fights, gunshots, revelations, drama... To wait a month to hear the result of the cliffhanger is unbearable! A fantastic piece of drama on any level.

Dreamland matches the drama of Fatal Consequences but doesn't feel quite as important. It's still a great piece of theatre with a very memorable first ten minutes as our motley gang (Sarah, Nat and Josh) have to come to terms with what has been revealed and try and pick up the pieces. Who ever thought these characters could work this well? Who thought we would care enough to feel when they are close to splitting up for good? There are more revelations in store as we learn the identity of Josh's father, which prompts Sarah to agree to a trip into space to fulfill her destiny. Further atmospheric sound design as we pop over to America and experience a space flight first hand. I'm not too sure where Big Finish get these FX from but by golly gosh it sounds realistic. I shut my eyes and was sailing in space! What impressed me most here was the emotions brewed between the three regulars, Nat's devastated reaction when she finds out it was Josh who killed her lover, Sarah cradling Josh as he bleeds to death with a gunshot wound to his stomach, Nat screaming through the speaker as Sarah is trapped in space, asking what is she going to do without her. I wanted them all to be happy again but life doesn't work that way and Bishop refuses to take the easy way out. "Shit happens, deal with it" seems to be the motto and the cliffhanging finale is frustrating and perfect in equal measures. Part of me never wants to see it resolved and the other part wants a new series next year!

Have I not convinced you yet?

John Ainsworth deserves mighty credit for taking on such a mammoth audio task and pulling it off with such fashion. I was already convinced that Ainsworth was one of Big Finish's leading talents (Storm of Angels anyone?) but this series has confirmed as the most consistent and reliably snazzy director. He doesn't show off with slick techniques, he lets the performances do most of the work, adds music only to heighten the tension, hits the right pace between slower dialogue scenes and adrenalin-soaked actions set pieces, and makes sure that the revelation scenes feel important. He clearly has great rapport with the actors because they all do their best work this year and there are loads of brilliant set pieces. Big up John.

Sarah is a fabulous character and deserved a second crack at the audio whip. I am extremely pleased with the results.

Don't forget me by Hugh Sturgess 1/2/18

I'd almost forgotten about Sarah Jane Smith, Big Finish's two-series spin-off starring Elisabeth Sladen as the title character and her friends, the laddish, sarcastic Josh and bookish, wheelchair-bound Nat. The second series, written by David Bishop, author of the well-regarded Who Killed Kennedy and the not-so-well-regarded The Domino Effect, was released in 2005, making it the Scream of the Shalka of spin-offs. How could Bishop have foreseen that within a year Sarah would be back on TV, with a spin-off of her own coming soon after? That makes comparisons inevitable in retrospect, though essentially subjective, since they are such different productions.

The Sarah Jane Adventures is obviously the technically superior production. The TV series had longer production times, so the performances are stronger than Big Finish's famously rushed efforts (given how little time Big Finish has to make its stories, the quality of its performances is actually quite remarkable), and, frankly, it had a better stable of actors. At any one time, three-quarters of the SJA cast was composed of child actors, none of whom could set the world ablaze, but listen to Sadie Miller (Elisabeth Sladen's daughter) as Nat. She is seemingly unable to find the right emphasis in a given line even by accident, though she isn't helped by typically leaden Big Finish dialogue. Tom Chadbon, back from City of Death to play Harry Sullivan's step-brother Will, is hardly emoting the paint off the walls either. Jeremy James, as Josh, has an easy character to play and mostly nails it, but even he sometimes becomes too one-note.

Only Elisabeth Sladen is consistently strong. This series is like a secret revelation, a year before School Reunion, of how good an actress Sladen was. This is a consummately easy, convincing performance. I saluted her in my review of The Sarah Jane Adventures and I will do so again, for effortlessly becoming the definitive Doctor Who companion and also happening to be a really great actress.

After the success of the bright and optimistic children's series, the sheer unrelenting darkness of the Sarah Jane Smith series is actually shocking. Christ, did Doctor Who fans want this back in 2005? A murderous cult, grisly killings, viral terrorism, characters biting the dust everywhere, a downbeat ending featuring Josh dead in a cloud of his own frozen blood and Sarah trapped on a spacecraft in orbit... It's trying very hard to be serious and shocking, but it looks for all the world like the last gasp of the prolonged adolescence of Doctor Who fandom in the wilderness years. The wonderful freeness of spirit, the embrace of the weird and the funny that the new series has engendered is absent here. But by draining the series of lightness, Bishop simply reveals its fundamental ludicrousness.

For a series in which kids fight aliens disguised as clowns and nuns, the realism of The Sarah Jane Adventures compares very favourably with the season-long cults-and-prophecies arc of Sarah Jane Smith. Sarah is menaced by the acolytes of an ancient cult called Orbus Postremo (the Orphans of the Future), specifically its Crimson Chapter, inspired by a book called the Exemplar Cras (the Book of Tomorrows), which contains a lot of Nostradamus-like prophecies. Spoiler alert for anyone who is somehow convinced by this review to buy the damn thing - it turns out that Sarah inspired Duke Giuliano of San Martino to commit to paper some of what she told him about the future in what became the Exemplar Cras. Orbus Postremo are the gullible idiots who took Giuliano's scribblings to heart, and they believe that the appearance of Sarah in the present day heralds the end of the world.

There are some pretty serious continuity issues with this plot line, notably that Sarah didn't tell Giuliano much of anything about the future in The Masque of Mandragora. Fair's fair, maybe she did off screen (though frankly she's smarter than that), but the most important part of the prophecy, and the reason Sarah's existence frightens the cult, is that the Exemplar Cras says that the Mandragora Helix will pay us a return visit during Sarah's lifetime, and that this will mean the end of the world. Firstly, that's a rather negative attitude for Giuliano, the optimistic man of reason, to take, and secondly, the Doctor only told Sarah that Mandragora would return in our present day moments before shoving her into the TARDIS and leaving, so she had no time to tell Giuliano. Fine, whatever, but if you cite and connect yourself to specific past stories, I reckon you should make an effort to get them right.

The second, more fundamental problem with the storyline is that it takes itself far too seriously. Look, there just comes a point in your life when crazy but remarkably well-connected and well-resourced cults, far-ranging and ancient conspiracies and portentous foreshadowing cease to hold your interest. "Beware the scarlet acolytes of Orbus Postremo. The end days are upon us all and the Exemplar Cras is opening..." Those words come courtesy of Hilda Winters, the fascist technocratic villainess of Robot, and put Russell T Davies's most unhelpful foreshadowing to shame. Why not just tell Sarah that there's a cult that thinks she is the harbinger of armageddon? What reason could she have for being coy? Unless it was to taunt her, but that's not how it's played. It's pure dramatic artifice, a generic but utterly unrealistic way for an author to pump up the tension.

For a crackpot cult that waited for five-hundred years for an event that never came, Orbus Postremo is remarkably popular. So the chief excavator in Florence, his assistant and his replacement were all part of the cult? (All right, fair enough, they might attach themselves to an important dig.) Oh, and so is Will, who joined at university as a joke. (Stretching things there.) Sir Donald Wakefield is a member too, though one of the nice ones. (Is anyone not involved?) And Josh is too. (Oh, come on!) Writers seem to love these kinds of shock twists, failing to recognise that they destroy the drama of the story. Writers think they're keeping us on the edge of our seats in a rollercoaster of twists and surprises, but I can't stand them. I can't care about the mystery if the author just pushes around the plot and the characters to deliver a requisite shock at the appropriate point. Good plotting stems from what has gone before, both in story and character. Discovering that absolutely everyone is a traitor who has been lying about everything heretofore flushes authorial restraint down the toilet.

All-powerful apocalyptic cults are inherently camp or at least melodramatic. Listen to the Keeper receiving a phone call in the first episode, Buried Secrets. She and her caller run through a litany of comically generic prophetic utterances: "This is the Keeper. Speak and be recognised!", "It was always thus and always shall be!". Orbus Postremo falls into the same trap as Image of the Fendahl, which delivers its camp twist - that Max is really a Satanist who wants to sacrifice Thea to the Fendahl so he can become God - with straight-laced seriousness, as if it fails to see how ridiculous it is. Since Sarah is basically a children's adventure heroine, maybe the cult plotline would have been better handled had the series taken a leaf out of the pages of The Famous Five or something of that ilk. It should at least wink at the audience at some point. Instead, the series seems to think that it's giving us a serious 24-style thriller, but it has these panto villains at its heart.

Bishop is a solid writer, but he simply lacks the talent to pull this off. The series revels in its grimness. Every episode ends with a bloodbath. Every episode centres around a game of "guess the traitor". Of its four major characters - Sarah, Josh, Nat and Will - the series kills two outright, and leaves the other lost in space with Nat screaming her name over the radio. As Exit Wounds did for Torchwood, this basically destroys the series. At least the authors of Torchwood decided that a series needed a shock to get itself out of its torpor, while here the shock is an end in itself. That's a staggeringly high body count for a series with only three regulars and suggests a certain lack of imagination. Shock character deaths are an easy trick for writers who want to be "edgy" (like Spooks, which kills off virtually its entire cast in an ongoing rampage of diminishing returns), but, like the "everyone's a traitor" meme, good story-telling doesn't need this gratuitous violence to be gripping.

Bishop's script could have done with a rewrite courtesy of someone with extensive experience of audio drama. Say, Gary Russell? Or Nick Briggs? There are several clumsy conceits to facilitate description, some of which aren't merely awkward but unnecessary. When Josh arrives at the restaurant following Sarah, he calls up Nat and uses her voicemail as an excuse to explain what he is seeing: that Sarah is sitting with Will, who is dressed well, and that she is crying. We don't need this; just have Sarah and Will interrupted by Josh demanding to know what Will said to her to make her cry (this is eventually what we get anyway). A rewrite by a more seasoned author would have added a valuable economy and a brisker pace.

Bishop seems to have a problem with keeping exposition to a minimum, loading up Will with an unwieldy introductory info-dump about his relationship with Harry ("Later on he joined a hush-hush intelligence organisation and his stories became even wilder..."), which Chadbon, the serviceable but weak link in City of Death, fails to enliven. Bishop also has something of a tin ear for dialogue. The arguments between Will and Josh over politics and the latter's prejudice towards the former over his establishment background very quickly bore. ("I prefer to judge people by their actions," Will chides Josh, "not their accent." Christ, are we listening to this?)

Sarah Jane Smith is a hugely "gun" series, to use the terminology of the wilderness years. Indeed, it is an archetypal product of the wilderness years, which were full of embittered ex-companions living unhappy lives without the Doctor (and often biting the dust to add "edge"). Perhaps the show's traumatic cancellation in 1989 left fandom with a kind of narrative death drive, perpetually returning to a bleak conception of the series as the generator of an ever-growing list of terrible consequences and ruined lives. The "frock" side is most associated with Gareth Roberts, who explicitly rejects such depressing views of the series and who wrote The Sarah Jane Adventures to boot. When the New Series entrenched itself in the media landscape, it ended these wilderness-era arguments and neuroses by coming down on one side of those arguments - Roberts's - and winning them by sheer force of its cultural gravity. In comparison to the light, joyful and self-consciously silly Sarah Jane Adventures, Sarah Jane Smith feels suffocatingly grim.

This series slots in before School Reunion, not perfectly, but with less fuss than plenty of other continuity problems in Doctor Who. K9 is implied to have been cannibalised by Miss Winters in the first season (see what I mean about grim?), but Sarah could have easily reassembled him, still inactive, in time for the Doctor to repair him in School Reunion. Maybe investigating the school was her way of getting back in the journalism game? Exactly how Sarah survived hurtling off into space on a shuttle with a dead pilot (and encountering a spooky light...) will forever remain inscrutable, but apparently the cliffhanger was intended to lead into a third series that was cancelled when SJA started up. Sarah Jane Smith can be reconciled with the TV show, but perhaps blasting this disappointing series into non-canonicity is for the best.