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Audio Book Review
Sarah Jane Smith always finds herself on the trail of trouble. As an old friend of the Doctor, she’s used to encountering aliens, battling monsters and defeating evil. And although Sarah Jane doesn’t travel through time and space so regularly these days, she still finds plenty of danger and adventure on Earth. Along with Maria Jackson, Luke Smith, Clyde Langer, Rani Chandra and Sky Smith - not to mention the supercomputer Mr Smith - Sarah Jane and her trusty sonic lipstick must prepare themselves for anything the universe can throw at them...!
This box set contains all ten original audio books based on the CBBC Doctor Who spin-off. The first eight of these single-disc stories are read by Sarah Jane herself, Elisabeth Sladen.
When Sarah Jane disturbs a burglar in the night, she is surprised to find a middle-aged woman demanding gold. The next day, she reads a newspaper story about a granny who broke into a jeweller’s shop. Then Maria reports that a woman has been stealing jewellery from the girls’ changing room at school. All the women had recently attended the Auriga Clinic, a private health centre specialising in treating muscular aches and pains. Sarah Jane decides to find out whether there is a link, but soon discovers that the clinic’s secret agenda is grander and more sinister than she could have imagined...
The first two CDs in the collection, The Glittering Storm and The Thirteenth Stone, originally published in 2007, marked the very first time that BBC Audiobooks (as AudioGO was then known) had commissioned new content for exclusive release on audio, as opposed to adapting previously published print novels. The policy proved successful, and before long the BBC’s Doctor Who range followed suit with adventures such as Pest Control and The Forever Trap.
The Glittering Storm is penned by Stephen Cole. “My first memories of Doctor Who are of poor Sarah stuck in a ventilator shaft back in 1975,” he explains in a press release, “so I jumped at the chance to write a story for Lis Sladen. She is a fantastic actor with a wonderful voice, and Sarah Jane is a marvellous character. With The Glittering Storm, I aimed to provide a story with creepy scares - as well as humour and thrills - in the vein of the new TV series.” He certainly succeeds in capturing the important element of humour, which is particularly prevalent whenever Clyde is on the scene.
The author makes no assumptions about the listener’s knowledge of the series. He ensures that Sarah Jane, as the first-person narrator, introduces us to all the show’s aspects and characters as the story unfolds. Sladen gives a spirited reading of this engaging adventure.
The plot recycles a couple of elements from recent Who-related novels and audio books. Cole was similarly fascinated by gold in his Tenth Doctor book The Art of Destruction, whereas a seemingly miraculous clinic that proved too good to be true was also the basis of Andy Lane’s Torchwood novel Slow Decay.
That aside, this talking book is a glittering and storming success.
Sarah Jane is helping out on a school trip with Luke, Maria and Clyde’s class. On the way home, the group stop off at the Stone Whisperers, a dozen standing stones enclosed by a dome. Set apart from the circle is a thirteenth stone: the King Stone. Legend has it that this is an evil king who was captured in battle by twelve knights, and turned to stone. Nice story, but it’s just a myth - isn’t it? Luke finds himself strangely drawn to the King Stone. Over two metres high, it glows with a strange, unearthly light. When the secret of the stones is finally revealed, the school party’s enthusiasm turns to terror...
“I had enormous fun writing The Thirteenth Stone,” explains its author, Justin Richards. “It’s always slightly daunting writing a story that is going to be read aloud. You really have to be at your best. But knowing that Elisabeth Sladen - Sarah Jane Smith herself - was going to be reading it was a tremendous boost to the confidence as well as a huge privilege.”
Sladen was certainly no stranger to the audio medium, having previously played Sarah Jane on vinyl in Doctor Who and the Pescatons, on radio in Exploration: Earth, The Paradise of Death and The Ghosts of N-Space, and in two series of Sarah Jane Smith CDs for Big Finish Productions. We never did find out how Sarah Jane managed to escape her precarious fate at the end of the Big Finish series, but here Sladen succeeds in bringing the various characters to life, including different tones of voice for Maria, Clyde and two quite distinct versions of Luke.
Richards’s story is lower on incident and humour than Cole’s, though his characterisation (and Sladen’s reading) of the dreadfully dreary teacher Mr Bradbury did bring a smile to my face. The author throws in a few subtle nods to Who history along the way, though the Stone Whisperers have nothing to do with the Ogri from The Stones of Blood.
Compared with The Glittering Storm, The Thirteenth Stone left me a little cold - but not stone cold.
It seems like a regular, routine weekday: Sarah Jane is doing a supermarket shop (and trying not to embarrass Clyde, who is doing his work experience in Betterworth’s) while Luke is at the Natural History Museum, helping to catalogue items and set up displays. But their ordinary day is about to become extraordinary, as forces from an alien world start to affect Earth and all hell breaks loose. With an icy void opening beneath the chiller cabinet, museum exhibits coming to life and terrifying monsters appearing, Sarah Jane, Luke, Clyde and Rani are soon fighting for their lives...
We fast forward one year for the next couple of releases, The Time Capsule and The Ghost House. The roster of characters has been adjusted to reflect changes to the cast during Series 2, with Rani Chandra taking the place of Maria Jackson. Both stories open with the same sort of speech as we heard at the beginning of Invasion of the Bane, with Sarah Jane reminding us of the adventures she used to have out in space with her “friend”, and how life on Earth can often be just as full of mystery and excitement...
Out of the two, I enjoyed Peter Anghelides’s The Time Capsule more, despite the fact that it relies on the unlikely coincidence of both Clyde and Luke being affected independently by alien artefacts, while Rani doesn’t appear until the latter half of the story, which is a shame.
However, the mayhem that ensues leads to some exciting scenes (which would have been difficult to realise convincingly on screen), of creatures being formed from museum exhibits, scrap metal, and all manner of supermarket products - including a breakfast cereal beast and a meat monster. These scenes are enlivened by some catchy incidental music by Steven Jones.
Meanwhile, fans of classic Who will enjoy the fact that Sarah Jane’s visit to the museum reminds her of her upbringing by Aunt Lavinia and her encounters with alien forms of Egyptian mummies in Pyramids of Mars.
The Time Capsule is worth spending time with.
A crack in time and a lost child mean trouble for Sarah Jane when, up early one morning, she is astonished to see that the house opposite hers has miraculously changed overnight. What used to be a nondescript 1970s family home has been replaced by a smart Victorian residence. How did a house from 1884 suddenly materialise in Bannerman Road? Where has the old O’Brien place gone, and, more importantly, who - or what - has caused this strange temporal anomaly? Sarah Jane and her friends must find out before time itself explodes and destroys the entire world...
Stephen Cole’s The Ghost House similarly reminds us of the spin-off show’s parent programme, by throwing in references to primitive and/or dangerous forms of time travel used in Victorian times, involving mirrors (The Evil of the Daleks) and Zygma technology (The Talons of Weng-Chiang).
The story begins with a strong and simple central premise: an anachronistic house that has somehow replaced a more modern dwelling overnight.
However, as in The Art of Destruction, the author soon resorts to throwing in some daft aliens. One of these is a three-eyed creature called “Deathy”, for whom Sladen adopts a South African accent for some reason. Another has a name that sounds like ethanol, so for a while I thought the characters were actually referring to ethyl alcohol. Presumably these eccentric beings are intended to appeal to young listeners, but I can’t help feeling that Cole’s technobabble-heavy plot will cause them some confusion.
Still, this story won’t set you back much financially. As part of the box set, this House is very affordable indeed.
When Sarah Jane receives a letter from Eddison Clough, her curiosity is aroused. Eddison possesses a photograph proving that he was once close friends with her Aunt Lavinia - but he has no memory of ever having met her. Intrigued, Sarah Jane and Luke go to visit him, and, with Clyde and Rani, they explore the village of Wolfenden. The locals seem strange and secretive - especially the Hendricks, a deadly pale family with white hair and white eyes. What is lurking in the underground caves? What is the significance of the white wolf carved on the hillside? And what does it all have to do with alien abduction...?
The next two adventures, The White Wolf and The Shadow People, originally released in 2009, take the series regulars out of the city on welcome trips to the countryside.
In The White Wolf, author Gary Russell throws us straight into the story with a gripping flash-forward in his pre-credits sequence (which bears a passing resemblance to the teaser at the start of the Series 3 storyline The Mad Woman in the Attic). From there, he piles mysteries upon enigmas, including memory loss, alien abduction and a giant hill carving.
During the latter half of the CD, the plot gets somewhat over-complicated, and mystery gives way to confusion, but Russell certainly managed to defy my expectations as to how things would pan out. For example (SPOILERS AHEAD), I initially thought that Rani had amnesia, then later on I theorised that the amnesiacs were prematurely revived alien sleepers - none of which is the case.
I’m not sure that we ever do discover the significance of the white wolf carved on the hillside, but, given the price, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t want to wolf this adventure down.
A camping trip spells trouble for Sarah Jane and her friends, when both the school bus and Sarah Jane’s car break down in Snowdonia, and the gang find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere. Exploring by a lake, Rani sees a shadowy figure that looks exactly like her. Later that night, Sarah Jane hears a voice asking for help, and sees a mysterious figure outside her tent. Who is watching them, and why? How can Rani be in two places at once? And what secret does a nearby cave hold...?
The Shadow People takes the characters to Snowdonia. It’s ironic that the tale should be set in Wales, which is where the television series was recorded, though it usually masqueraded as London.
In common with The White Wolf, this adventure bears a resemblance to The Mad Woman in the Attic - in this case its use of red eyes to signify that all is not well with a usually friendly character. As in The White Wolf, there’s also a cave that contains an otherworldly secret. Such similarities are unfortunate - but not as unfortunate as the fact that Scott Handcock’s story is over almost as soon as it has really started to get going.
Nevertheless, Sladen is as compelling a narrator as ever, adopting a number of voices in addition to Sarah Jane’s, including those of Luke, Clyde, Rani and the sinister “shadow people” of the title. Adding to the tense atmosphere is some suitably creepy music (though the CD inlay doesn’t specify who the composer is).
The Shadow People is worth a listen, even though it’s a shadow of the show that inspired it.
Sarah Jane is in a Christmassy mood, but her cosy afternoon listening to carols is interrupted when Mr Smith announces that danger is imminent. He has detected abnormal internet activity in the vicinity of Bannerman Road. Something alien is downloading into two PCs on the street: a computer virus over 50 times more destructive than any other on the planet. Both residents were chatting online when they started the download - but who were they chatting to, and what does the mysterious chatterbox want? It’s up to Sarah Jane and friends to find out, before the deadly download takes over the Earth...
The storytelling improves during the final four releases.
Jason Arnopp aims for variety with his depiction of the first two victims of his Deadly Download: an elderly lady and a ten-year-old football fan. Neither of these falls into the popular notion of the typical internet user, which in reality is all sorts of people, but in cliché tends to be young men, who should get out more, looking at porn. That, of course, would never do in the family-friendly world of The Sarah Jane Adventures, though Arnopp does manage to work in some moral guidance (not too heavy-handed) about the dangers of meeting strangers in chat rooms and downloading files from unverified sources.
More stereotypical is the characterisation of IT manager Ian Webster, an overweight, embittered sci-fi nerd, whose desk is littered with empty fast-food wrappers. Think Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.
Fortunately, this adventure is far from being the “worst episode ever”, though the number of scenes that are written outside of Sarah Jane’s point of view as the first-person narrator lead to a few clunky instances of: “as x and/or y later told me...”
Deadly Download and Wraith World were the final two audio books recorded by Sladen (in 2010) prior to her untimely death. Hearing them for the first time in order to review this box set, I couldn’t help noticing the joie de vivre evident in her voice. You can practically hear her smile as she speaks the words, and her enjoyment as she plays the various characters, especially the eccentric Webster.
There’s plenty to enjoy in this audio book, whether you listen to it on CD or as a not-so-deadly download.
Rani is delighted to hear that her favourite author, Gregory P. Wilkinson, is doing a signing at a local bookshop. When he agrees to be interviewed for the school newspaper, she is even more thrilled, and when the old man presents her with his journal, which is full of notes and sketches from his Wraith World series of books, her happiness is complete. However, all too soon her elation turns to horror, as the bizarre chronicle leads to terror, and the worlds of fiction and reality collide. Can Sarah Jane save Rani, Clyde and Luke from a creature beyond their wildest nightmares...?
In an interview with Doctor Who Magazine, Arnopp remarks: “Given that these audio stories are effectively long shorts, I really wanted Deadly Download to hit the ground running early on, with the threat quickly established.” Ironically, though, it is not Deadly Download but Wraith World, written by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright, that truly achieves that aim, by opening with a dramatic flash-forward to the full throes of its alien menace.
That menace is particularly inventive - and gruesome - in its conception. It comprises (not comprised of, as Mr Smith puts it - the supercomputer really ought to have better grammar) hideous, blood-red worms, which engulf Luke and Clyde during one particularly revolting sequence, and combine to form a larger, humanoid creature. The voice of this being sounds not unlike the Ice Warriors, as performed by the vocally treated Sladen.
The notion of fiction becoming reality is less original. The subject has, for example, been explored in the Doctor Who serial The Mind Robber, of which I was particularly reminded when Sarah Jane, like the Second Doctor before her, engages in a true war of words against another writer towards the end of the tale.
All in all, though, the fiction of Wraith World becomes the reality of spirited adventure and enjoyable escapism.
Sarah Jane is thrilled when she successfully bids for a Victorian brass head in an antiques auction. On taking the metal model home, Mr Smith informs her that it contains a research probe from the future. Sarah Jane speculates that the probe was used as the “brain” that powered the “Difference Golem”, a mechanical servant built by eccentric inventor Sir Joseph Montague. She, Clyde, Rani and Sky travel to Holcote House, the former residence of Sir Joseph, in search of the robot’s body. But they are soon to discover that meddling with artificial intelligence can have dangerous consequences...
Following the sad demise of Elisabeth Sladen, the narration duties pass to Daniel Anthony (Clyde Langer) and Anjli Mohindra (Rani Chandra) for the final two stories in this box set. Unlike previous releases, they are not narrated in the first person. The inlays of both CDs include a dedication to Sladen, illustrated, appropriately enough, with a photograph from the same shoot as the original LP sleeve of the very first commercially released Sarah Jane audio adventure, Doctor Who and the Pescatons.
Anthony adopts a variety of voices for his reading of Children of Steel, though he doesn’t sound much like his female co-stars. His most distinctive voices - apart from Clyde’s, obviously - are those of the upper-class Oliver Guide and the robot Adam, whose tones are treated electronically.
The robot depicted on the CD’s cover invites comparisons to the Metalkind from the Series 5 opener Sky, though Adam’s Victorian construction brings a very different steampunk vibe to Martin Day’s story. When the possibility of the robot’s brain being sentient is raised (Sarah Jane suggests destroying it, in order to prevent potentially dangerous technology from falling into the wrong hands, but Rani argues against it), the show’s recurring artificial intelligences, Mr Smith and K-9, are mentioned. Curiously, though, Sarah Jane makes no reference to the K1 robot from the Who serial Robot, despite a number of plot similarities. You’d think that adventure would spring to mind! Rani takes on aspects of Sarah Jane’s role in Robot, befriending and attempting to defend the mechanical man.
Despite its over-familiar plot, Children of Steel is an enjoyable offspring from the television series. Let’s have some more.
“The lie betrays life. The truth defies death.” The Veritas are an ancient force for justice. For centuries they have pursued criminals across the universe, showing them no mercy. Now they have come to Earth, and found the worst law-breaker of all - Sarah Jane Smith. Why are creatures made of living flame rampaging through a shopping mall? Who is the mysterious magician Clyde and Sky must overcome? And why does the entire crisis seem to revolve around Rani’s mother Gita? Sarah Jane’s past has finally caught up with her, and she finds herself on trial for her life. It’s judgement day...
The collection goes out on a high with Judgement Day.
As the narrator, Anjli Mohindra shows more vocal dexterity than Daniel Anthony. She is entirely convincing as Gita Chandra, and does a fairly good Clyde too.
Gita plays a significant role in this story, which follows up on the events of the two Androvax television serials, Prisoner of the Judoon and The Vault of Secrets, paying particular attention to the wiping of Gita’s memory in the latter storyline. Author Scott Gray also explores what it is to be Sarah Jane Smith, her outlook and responsibilities, throwing in flashbacks to her student days and her time with UNIT.
It is unusual for these audio releases to pick up plot strands from the television series, but it is most welcome, especially since the show and its star are sadly no longer with us. Maybe future releases (if there are any) could tie up a couple of loose ends from Series 5 that demand closure: the identity of the mysterious Shopkeeper (who, at the end of Sky, told Sarah Jane that she would find out all about him very soon) and the fate of the homeless Ellie from The Curse of Clyde Langer. Indeed, perhaps the three unmade scripts from Series 5 could be adapted into talking books. How about it, BBC?
Gray also gives a prominent role to series newcomer Sky Smith, in terms of both her ingenuous personality and her electrical abilities. Both this story and Children of Steel make use of Sky’s special powers.
In view of its in-depth examination of the character and motivation of Sarah Jane Smith, and the workings of the series itself, I have little hesitation in finding Judgement Day guilty... of being the best Sarah Jane talking book yet.