In the wake of the whole COVID-19 pandemic, Big Finish–most famous for their original licensed Doctor Who audios–began to release a variety of projects for free on a weekly basis. Some of these are “proper” Doctor Who adventures, some are licensed from other sources, and others are completely original. I have been taking advantage of these, as I’ve written about here and elsewhere. This time around we’re looking at the first episode of a series of dramas that Big Finish produced featuring TV companion Sarah Jane Smith.
Big Finish has been pretty generous with all this free product, but the question is how successful each sampler is at tempting me to buy the full release.
(Daily Doctor Who #80)
Line: Sarah Jane Smith (1.1)
Length: 74 minutes
Buying Price: This and other episodes in the series are each going for AUD $2.99, or you can get all nine adventures that were produced in the Sarah Jane Smith line for $24.99.
Comments: It was 1999 when Big Finish started producing licensed Doctor Who audios, and in 2002 when they got Elisabeth Sladen to start starring in her own line of Sarah Jane Smith-focused adventures. For context, Doctor Who didn’t come back on air until 2005, and Sarah Jane didn’t re-grace the screens until 2006 (after having not appeared since 1983’s The Five Doctors). And it was 2007 that The Sarah Jane Adventures became it’s own TV series.
So all that to point out that Comeback—the first of ultimately 9 Sarah Jane Smith audio adventures—offers us quite an alternative view of Sarah Jane’s future than we might be used to. There’s no sonic lipstick, no Luke Smith, no 13 Bannerman Road. The emphasis is on Sarah Jane the journalist, rather than Sarah Jane the planetary adventurer. I don’t know that there’s any actual contradictions in continuity, but there’s certainly a vastly difference focus.
The story is written by Doctor Who luminary Terrance Dicks (who was the series’ Script Editor when the character was introduced), and as this story kicks off, Sarah Jane has gotten into such trouble with her investigatory work that she’s gone into witness protection, having made some powerful enemies in her work. But even while she’s trying to avoid trouble, she’s comes across some intense stuff, involving some creepy stuff going on in a sleepy English village.
It’s quite a ways into this story that that we find out what that creepy stuff is. At first, it looks a bit like some sort of supernatural horror (bringing to mind the coven of witches that Sarah Jane confronted in the Doctor Who spinoff, K9 and Company back in 1981). Eventually, the threat turns out to be a science fiction-based menace, although not involving aliens or anything like that. This whole element almost feels like an afterthought–like it’s obligatory because the character is connected to Doctor Who (although the Doctor doesn’t even get mentioned). Really, Comeback is primarily an investigation-based conspiracy thriller, and works perfectly fine as such.
There are a few sequences that don’t communicate well over audio (particularly a bank robbery near the start), and the plot tends to drag a little, but this is balanced out by the best aspect of Comeback, which is the dialogue itself, and the way the natural snappy banter brings out a strong sense of characterization. Sarah Jane is much more believable, relatable and ultimately interesting than she was on her return to TV. She has real friends and does real work, and even has a burgeoning romance that is charming to listen to (rather than being the jaded woman who was “ruined” for anyone by her time with the Doctor–I know a lot of people liked School Reunion but I thought its treatment of Sarah Jane was completely at odds with what we’d seen up to that point on TV.
The cast of Comeback does a good job–they include Elisabeth Sladen, doing a better job than I felt she did in her later TV appearance. Jeremy James is also good as Josh (Sarah Jane’s new potential boyfriend). Nicholas Briggs is on hand (not playing the Daleks), as is David Jackson from Blake’s 7 (he was Olag Gan), and Sadie Miller, who is Elisabeth Sladen’s real life daughter. Sadie Miller even plays Sarah Jane Smith in another Big Finish offering, The Return of the Cybermen, which was advertised at the end of this special 2020 Promo version of Comeback that I got ahold of.
Does it tempt me to get more? Apparently, the whole Sarah Jane Smith line ended on a forced cliffhanger when the character returned to TV, so that doesn’t pull me in very strongly. I wouldn’t mind listening to more, but I wasn’t so enamored that I’ll go out of my way anytime soon. I am, however, quite interested in Return of the Cybermen.