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The Sarah Jane Smith audios, series 2

I wasn't overwhelmed by the first series of Sarah Jane Smith audios, but the second run is brilliant. Clearly Big Finish have rather hit their stride with the various spinoff series, I Davros also being a pretty unqualified success. And as with I Davros, I reckon the Sarah Jane plays would be fairly accessible to a non-fan, perhaps even more so; the setting is contemporary, and the only heavily sfnal element is in fact Sarah's own personal history (apart from the ambiguous ending). They form a single story arc, and all of them are by David Bishop, whose novel Who Killed Kennedy I enjoyed last year, and whose Test of Nerve, from the first run of SJS audios, turned out to be rather prophetic in its tale of terrorist attack on the London Underground.

Buried Secrets takes Sarah and her team (wheelchair user Natalie and gormless male sidekick Josh) to Florence, but with a detour for Sarah to meet up with Harry Sullivan's younger brother Will; a really poignant scene which brought back nostalgic memories of Season 12 thirty years before. Once we get to Florence, there is a certain amount of info-dumping which is necessary for the rest of the plot to develop, but generally it moves along pretty smartly, Natalie's relations with her archaeological colleagues nicely portrayed, and a suitably dramatic dénouement.

Snow Blind is the one that sounds at first like it's going to be a straight sequel to The Seeds of Doom, set as it is in Antarctica, but there is a massive twist as Sarah asks the key question about the buried seed pods and nobody knows what she is talking about. Indeed the whole plot leaps back and forth as we wait to see who the traitor is. All stories set in Antarctic bases owe a homage to John W. Campbell and H.P. Lovecraft, and this one wears that genre history proudly.

Fatal Consequences pulls together most of the threads from the first two episodes and resolves them with the presence of Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan!) as the evil leader of the bad guys, and David Gooderson (the least impressive Davros, but better here) as her chief scientist, planning to wipe out the world by biological terrorism. Tremendous stuff, very fast-paced and exciting; and it becomes clear precisely which of the Classic Who stories this entire series is a PS to - luckily for me, I had seen it very recently. And we get horrible deaths including of established characters; all bets are off, it seems.

The pacing of Dreamland is slightly odd, as the first ten minutes are essentially resolving the loose ends from Fatal Consequences, and then we get the revelation about the true background of Sarah's sidekick Josh. Then it is off to Nevada, for a story which is actually a bit short on plot but makes up for it in characterisation (apart, I'm afraid, from Jon Weinberg whose performance as the spaceship pilot is the weakest of the whole series). And we end on a very ambiguous not: what is happening to Sarah? Killed off or transported to another dimension? As regular fans were soon to discover, the latter was the case as she is now firmly in the New Who canon. There is of course fanfic which bridges the gap.

One of the triumphs of the stories is the way in which families turn out to be important, more important than gangs of conspirators. We have Will Sullivan (played by Tom Chadbon = Duggan in City of Death) and his vanished but adored brother Harry, and the mother and daughter team of protesters, Maude and Emily, in the third story; and the revelation about Josh in the last story as well. And of course we listeners know that there is another family relationship there as Natalie is played by Elizabeth Sladen's daughter Sadie Miller.

Finally, it is a bit surprising that the same mistake was made three times of giving Sarah a Harry Sullivan-lite gormless male sidekick - Brendan in K9 and Company, Jeremy Fitzoliver in the two Third Doctor audios, and Josh in the first series of Big Finish's Sarah Jane adventures. Turning Josh into a deeper and more rounded character here was one of Bishop's best moves. Removing the twittish male side-kick altogether for the new TV series was an even better move.

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