Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology, and “The Sparks” by Kara Dennison

Recently I had an unusual experience. I had the pleasant surprise of being approached through this site’s email link by a woman named Mary Norris (professionally M.H. Norris). Mary indicated that she was the editor of a then-upcoming charity anthology, which was raising money for the Cancer Research Institute, an organization researching methods to use the body’s immune system against various forms of cancer. The anthology in question centers around the character of Sarah Jane Smith, and is titled Defending Earth: An Unofficial Sarah Jane Smith Charity Collection. Mary inquired as to whether I’d be willing to review the stories in the collection (and perhaps publicize the cause), as I did a year or two ago with the Seasons of War anthology.

Defending Earth (Cover)

Cover art by Sophie Iles

I was intrigued for several reasons. First, no one has ever requested this service before, so I’ll admit to being flattered to some degree; full disclosure, if that’s a character flaw, I’ll own up to it. I reviewed Seasons of War on my own initiative, after discovering it through references on the /r/Gallifrey subreddit; but I was unaware of Defending Earth until I was approached. Second, this anthology—and indeed, most of the material surrounding Sarah Jane Smith—represents a corner of the Whoniverse that I’ve somehow neglected so far. For my own curiosity, I want to dig into those materials, and this seems like a fantastic place to jump on. (I should mention here that I’m going to try to supplement by checking out some of the already-extant Sarah Jane stories, such as The Sarah Jane Adventures, which I missed in first run. I’ll post reviews of those as well.) Third, and perhaps most important, the charity involved is a good cause, and deserves some support. You can find their website at the link above, and should you wish to support the charity by buying the anthology, you can purchase it here. The book became available (digital for immediate purchase, physical preorders) on 1 February; I’m a little behind schedule getting started with this project, but you can still purchase at the above link.

One more bit of disclosure: I was asked to review the book; I am not being paid to do it. With a charity project that should be obvious; but there are a lot of dishonest people in the world today, and so I feel like I need to make this clear. Therefore, although I’ll link to the store page and mention the charity in each post, I won’t be making sales pitches. If the book is to succeed, it will do so on its own merits, and that is what I’ll try to document. I have no stake in that, other than to wish it well. Also, I made it clear to Mary—and I’ll make it clear to you—that I’ll give my honest opinions of each story. If I find flaws with a story, I’ll say so. I tend to be very optimistic about stories—I rarely do find problems—but I’m not going to artificially praise them, either.

You should also be aware that there will be spoilers here. I cleared this with Mary ahead of time, and explained my reasoning: Charity anthologies don’t get the wide readership of licensed materials, nor do they get the kind of support documentation that you find in, say, the TARDIS wiki. If you don’t buy the anthology, those stories are essentially lost to you. To that end, I include brief plot summaries of each story so that others can at least participate in the discussion. Of course, no summary will ever fully substitute for the experience of reading a good story; and so I don’t think this approach will hinder sales of the book.

A little structural explanation, and then we’ll jump in: The anthology is arranged in chronological order, covering five periods of Sarah Jane’s life. There are a total of fifteen stories in the anthology, so this project won’t be so lengthy as the Seasons of War coverage. We’ll start with the Childhood section, with Kara Dennison’s contribution, The Sparks. Let’s get started!

Dennison Title Card

Sarah Jane Smith is six years old, and already curious. That’s a good combination on an ordinary day; but it’s not an ordinary day, as Sarah lies in bed with a cold. Resenting this inconvenient imprisonment, she makes several attempts to sneak outside; and finally, she is successful. Which is odd, as she sneaks right past her oblivious Aunt Lavinia in the process—Aunt Lavinia, who is never oblivious.

It’s not for boredom that she sneaks out, though. It’s curiosity; for Sarah has heard a strange noise, and more, seen a strange, pale, blue light, arcing into the sky from a nearby hill. Sarah makes her way toward it, gathering evidence as she goes; and she encounters a woman, a stranger in her little village, who speaks nicely to her, but then nearly runs Sarah down with her car—blindly, it seems, but no less dangerously for that. Things grow stranger when she discovers that she and the woman are the only things moving in town; people, candle flames, even the air itself, all stand perfectly still, insensate.

But Sarah Jane is already the girl who will one day be the journalist, and she is far more excited than afraid. She makes her way toward the hill, and catches a glimpse of a shield of blue light…

…And she is captured by the strange woman. The woman picks her up and takes her home, and puts her back to bed; Sarah’s cold, it seems, has grown much worse, and she needs to rest. But even here, Sarah’s curiosity is strong, and she demands an explanation. The woman explains that the stabilization field—that which has frozen her town—will soon dissipate, and no one will be the wiser. She explains that it is Sarah’s illness, and her resultant heightened immune system, which made her resistant to the field. She tells Sarah what sounds like a fairy tale, of a wondrous, ancient beast, supremely friendly—but supremely dangerous for those that befriend it. She hints that it is her job to protect such people from their own curiosity and keep them away from the beast. She starts to tell Sarah the story of how the beast was slain—or one day will be—but Sarah dozes off.

The woman, whose name is Lola, quietly lets herself out of the house, and returns to her car, which is of course not a car at all, but a cramped and badly-disguised ship, capable of traveling in both space and time. As she prepares to leave, she thinks of what she has done; and she looks ahead to her next mission. There are, after all, others to protect.

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I mentioned earlier that there are many parts of Sarah Jane Smith’s life that have been documented, but that I have not encountered. Her childhood is one such time. We learn of her birth and early life in The Sarah Jane Adventures, which I am watching alongside this series (and hopefully will complete before I reach that stage of the anthology!). Other details appear in various prose works and audio dramas, none of which I have read (yet!). Thus, for me, Kara Dennison gets first crack at this part of Sarah Jane’s life—and not a bad start, it is.

To be clear, it’s not a particularly momentous story—more of a hint of things to come in Sarah’s life. She’s thwarted in her investigatory efforts here, and comes to no harm; we don’t even know the full truth of the strange phenomenon she was investigating. However, we don’t need to know; because the story isn’t about the light in the sky, or the strange blue dome on the hilltop, or even the woman in the car-shaped time machine. The story is about Sarah Jane, and how she begins to grow into the person she will later be.

That’s not to say that this is the defining moment in young Sarah Jane’s life. Rather, it’s one of several such moments, because Sarah Jane has been stumbling into trouble since her infancy. Her path isn’t set here; she’s already on it. She’s advanced for a six-year-old: she thinks quite scientifically about cause-and-effect; and she clearly knows how to both read and write, as she wishes for a notepad to record the clues she’s discovering. She already has the first stirrings of an investigative mindset. Therefore this moment isn’t definitive; but it is formative.

The “beast” of Lola’s story—presumably synonymous with the thing on the hilltop—is never identified. However, there are hints to suggest that this may be the Doctor. She describes the beast as “very old, and very wise…but also very friendly and very foolish.” She indicates that most people avoid befriending the beast, but that some few would react with curiosity instead of fear, because they have experienced “sparks”, moments in their lives that taught them not to be careful or fearful. The beast, in turn, sees the sparks, and knows they will be its friends. She goes on to say that some such friends would learn the error of their ways and return home; some returned, but forever changed; and some never returned. All of that together constitutes a compelling description of the relationship between the Doctor and his companions. As well, the light on the hilltop is described as pale blue, possibly indicating the TARDIS.

More curious, though, are Lola’s thoughts after she returns to her ship. She muses over past individuals whom she has prevented from having strange encounters: a pair of twins named Elise and Arthur Banning, steered away from a sentient meteorite; a priestess named Patrexi, lulled to sleep while an ancient astronaut passed by her temple; and someone named Corazón, whom she stopped “with prejudice”, a task she always hates. None of those names were familiar to me, even after research (please elaborate in the comments if I’ve missed anything!). However, she then thinks about her next mission: two individuals named Chesterton and Wright, some nine years in the future, and an unexpected meteor shower. This, of course, could be none other than Ian and Barbara, the Doctor’s first earthly companions. The “nine years” would place that event in 1966; if Sarah was born in 1951, and is six years old here, then this story takes place in 1957, and “nine years later” would be 1966. That would certainly place it after Ian and Barbara’s return home in 1965 in The Chase, making this meteor shower an encounter we have not had documented elsewhere.

And so, we’re left with a greater mystery. Who is Lola? What is her mission? It can’t simply be the matter of the Doctor; these other encounters don’t seem to connect directly with him. Is she trying to snuff out the “sparks” that will eventually lead those individuals to the Doctor? If so, she has clearly failed with Sarah Jane; and she’s two years too late for Ian and Barbara. Further, was it the TARDIS on the hilltop? And if her mission is not always to interfere with the Doctor’s acquisition of companions, then why tell Sarah Jane the beast tale in the first place? Or perhaps I’m reading it all wrong, and this is a string of coincidences. But I hope not; that would be boring. One thing is sure: I would love to see these threads be picked up again later, and I hope that Ms. Dennison finds opportunity to do so.

In the meantime, we’re left with a fun story, one that bodes well for the rest of the anthology. I look forward to what lies ahead!

Next time: We move on to Sarah’s UNIT years in Jon Black’s Swinging Londons. See you there!

Defending Earth: An Unofficial Sarah Jane Smith Charity Collection may be purchased here. Ebook editions are currently available for download; physical editions are available for preorder.

To support the Cancer Research Institute, you may purchase the book, or you may visit their website here.

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