The Sarah Jane Adventures, and the importance of good children’s television

·Contributor

Ten years ago today, The Sarah Jane Adventures aired its first episode – an hour-long special entitled Invasion of the Bane. The show was, first and foremost, a Doctor Who spinoff; it featured former companion of the third and fourth Doctors Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elisabeth Sladen, who had recently starred alongside David Tennant in the Doctor Who episode School Reunion.

At times there’s an inclination to see The Sarah Jane Adventures as trivial or unimportant – when considered alongside Doctor Who or Torchwood, the perception of The Sarah Jane Adventures is that it’s the third show. The one that matters least, by virtue of the fact that it could be summed up as “Doctor Who for children”.

But that’s very much a case of approaching it from the wrong angle; the value of The Sarah Jane Adventures comes not from its association with Doctor Who, but rather the fact that it was genuinely fantastic television for children.

It’s not hard to see why good children’s television is, broadly speaking, a good thing – if we’re shaped by the culture we engage with, then the quality of the earliest media we’re exposed to is important. It matters that children watch something of substance, rather than vacuous schlock – from that perspective, there’s a weight of importance attached to children’s television beyond much of the rest of media in general.

The Sarah Jane Adventures was good children’s television – it was fantastic. Certainly, it was never a programme that spoke down to its audience, but rather one that always engaged with them; much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sarah Jane Adventures presented stories that dealt directly with the concerns of its audience, often using its subject matter as part of a deeper allegory and commentary on a wider issue.

It was never just moralising, though; there were no “very special episodes” of The Sarah Jane Adventures. This was a show that deftly yet intelligently tackled Alzheimer’s, abuse, and adoption; each time without a hint of condescension. Particularly notable perhaps is The Mark of the Berserker, a second series episode centred around Clyde (Daniel Anthony) and the return of his absent father; it’s a genuinely powerful, and above all honest, piece about abuse that emphasises the fact that Clyde doesn’t owe his father anything. Certainly, writer Joe Lidster handles this idea far better than Doctor Who had previously with The Idiot’s Lantern; it’s not hard to see how, in this particular instance, The Sarah Jane Adventures could genuinely make a real positive improvement to children’s lives.

Certainly, though, this was far from the only example; The Sarah Jane Adventures was consistently intelligent and moving, always going above and beyond for its audience. For that reason, it was always more than just ‘the third Doctor Who show’ – The Sarah Jane Adventures was a genuine public good.

And, yes, at times there were farting aliens. Because those are fun too.

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