Good, ‘cos The Empty Planet, this week’s two~parter in The Sarah Jane Adventures, is packed with robotular activity. Well, I say “packed”, there’s only two robots but they do feature quite a bit. More of them later. Writer Gareth Roberts is best known in the world of SJA for his “Sarah Jane Smith” stories (Whatever Happened to…, The Temptation of… and The Wedding of…) featuring the wonderful Trickster. Sorry to spoil your fun but the no~eyed one doesn’t make an appearance here. Just like the rest of the world…
Clyde and Rani face that very familiar horror/sci~fi trope where you wake up and find the rest of the world has vanished (happens to me all the time). Instead of freaking out, the dynamic duo trying to figure out just why everyone has vanished and what makes them so special. Young Mr Langer, played by Daniel Anthony (in startlingly fine form yet again), muses that aliens wanted to start the human race again using them as the new “Adam and Eve” (can’t say I blame him).
It’s a credit to the “youngsters” that they carry so much of the story. As characters they continue to grow and become just as, if not more, important than the “leads” of the show. Watching the pair of them, on their own as it were, is delightful as the ongoing will~they~won’t~they? sub~plot really begins to take hold. Must be the old romantic in me. Top marks to the aforementioned Anthony and the lurvely Anjli Mohindra for making such an empty story, so to speak, so full of warmth, humour and fun.
The pair are afforded material from writer Roberts that will leave a Doctor Who crack in time and space sized smile on your face. From digs at Chris Moyles (again!), to Rani saying “bum” (double again!!), to the pair tiffing (is that a word?) to the glowing realisation that they are not, in fact, just “hangers on” in the SJA dynamic. When Clyde and Rani work out just why they are still on Earth and no one else is, you’ll positively beam with delight. Satisfying in the extreme as the reasoning delves into the history of the show, picking up on a fact that has been mentioned more than once…
The emptiness of the world – and I don’t think I’m spoilering it for you if I tell you that world in question is Gallifrey, sorry, I mean Earth – is eerily realised. Silence, a most unusual trait for most television programmes (let alone a “kids” one), is felt throughout the opening part. And I don’t just mean it’s quiet – I mean there is actual silence. When it is broken, we’re presented with other~worldy noises of spaceships and, wait for it, robots!
Yup, flippin’ robots! Special mention must go to the sound design on these guys ‘cos the noises emitting from them will pique your ear in a most intriguing way. I shan’t spoil the plot for you but these robots are not your run~of~the~mill bad guys – an endearingly typical trait in The Sarah Jane Adventures where difference is treated with equality and strangeness with a handshake. A fine blueprint for mankind if ever there was.
But Clyde and Rani are not totally alone, and another mystery unfolds as they try to figure out why young boy Gavin has also been left. Like the reasoning behind their own Earth detention (but very different), it’s cleverly executed and makes for a neat resolution. The only downside being that the actor playing Gavin isn’t as engaging as his peers on this occasion but he is given a rather sinister back~story with his secluded home life (note the empty wine bottles in his home).
At every turn the direction also betrays the “kids show” label attached to The Sarah Jane Adventures. Director Ashley Way makes every shot, at the very least, interesting with unusual angles and framing; turning banal stairs and mundane bedrooms into worlds where anything is possible. Specifically worth a mention are the scenes that take place in the cafe – sharing a familiar trope with Doctor Who and Torchwood (or Russell T Davies anyway) where the everyday is the home to the most fantastical and universe~changing conversations.
The Empty Planet is yet another fine example of Gareth Roberts’ grasp on the SJA universe, going from Clyde and Rani’s “school night” activities to the plains of the gorgeous new planet (see below) with the awkwardness of teenage lurve stuck in the middle as they battle Robots from another world. Not only that there’s also some mentions of The Doctor, the TARDIS, Lady GaGa, references to The Smiths and Rani wielding the Sonic Lipstick. All that in time before tea. Classic Sarah Jane without the titular character.