What if the Doctor were dead? How would his former companions, many of whom seem to be concentrated on Earth at around the turn of the millennium, know if he passed in the farthest outer reaches of time and space?
This being an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures rather than Doctor Who, the focus is on the titular former companion who travelled first with the third and fourth Doctors, and met the tenth Doctor on four occasions. Though in fact, the whole story feels much more like an Classic/NuWho hybrid than a regular entry in this series, with heavy (and highly effective) usage of nostalgia inducing clips from both. Most of all, though, this story is a sequel to The Green Death, the story in which Jo Grant bid farewell to the third Doctor to marry the eco-activist Dr Clifford Jones.
The script for this one is by former Doctor Who show-runner Russell T. Davies, who left at the same time as David Tennant, and authored some of my least favourite – and also some of my most favourite – ninth and tenth Doctor episodes. This is RTD at his very best – imaginative, funny, emotional, human – and his love for the show shines through in the way he writes for Jo Jones. Jo Grant was never my favourite companion – after Liz Shaw the dizzy airhead seemed a step backwards, but Katy Manning is sensationally good in this, and this is her story in the same way School Reunion was Sarah Jane’s. She plays the character exactly as you imagine Jo might be 37 years after we last saw her – chirpy, excitable, perhaps a tiny bit less naive and and a fraction more self-aware, and above all generous and outgoing.
Her performance is perfectly suited to Davies’ writing, and he writes beautiful scenes for her. Her reaction, having left the Doctor to get married, to hearing that the Doctor is now travelling with a married couple, is heartbreaking. Her relationship with the Doctor makes you feel like she’s looking at him and seeing third Doctor, which is all the more affecting if you know how fond Manning was of the late Jon Pertwee. And Matt Smith himself, having reminded me of the youthfulness and boisterousness of McGann, Davison and Troughton in the last series of Doctor Who, seems suddenly, in the company of these two ladies who both went to Peladon with Pertwee to become him, with his crankiness, inner amusement and grandfatherly affection for them. Is this the first time we’ve seen the Doctor played by an actor who’s half the age of his companions? In this case, it certainly works.
With Matt Smith as the Doctor, written by Russell T. Davies, and featuring Jo Grant, it promised to be a beautiful funeral; and this story doesn’t disappoint. If I had a criticism it would be that some of the magic of the first episode was lost in the routine running around, but even then we were compensated by a quick update on Ian, Barbara, Ben, Polly, Harry, Teagan and Ace. And so perfectly timed to tide us over from The Big Bang to the Christmas Special.