We’re back, with another Doctor Who charity anthology review! Today we’re continuing our tour of the Sarah Jane Smith anthology, Defending Earth. You can catch up on previous entries via the links at the bottom of this post.
I mentioned in an early review that this anthology breaks Sarah Jane’s life into five periods. We’ve covered three so far: Childhood; her service with UNIT and the Third Doctor; and her travels with the Fourth Doctor. Two remain, and they comprise the bulk of the anthology; not coincidentally, they also cover periods not as well documented in licensed sources. The fourth has been designated Investigation, and covers Sarah’s life from her appearance in the pilot for K9 and Company, through Downtime, and into her Big Finish audio adventures. I will say up front that I am not well versed in any of those materials, and so, while I’ll put in the necessary research for these reviews, some of you may well know much more than I do. Nevertheless, let’s keep going!
Today’s story, the sixth in the anthology, is Sarah Jane in an Exciting Adventure with the Fauxes, by Anna Maloney. As always, there will be spoilers ahead! You can find my reason for this in the first entry of this series, linked below. As well, you can find links at the end to purchase the anthology, and to learn about and support the charity which the anthology supports, the Cancer Research Institute. Let’s get started!
Someone is killing rock stars—and Sarah Jane Smith has the case.
Sent by her editor to report on the recent rash of high-profile murders, Sarah notices a few things almost immediately. The victims all played at a certain club in Liverpool—the Cavern Club—on the nights of their murders. Perhaps more pertinent, all the victims were men, middle-aged, initially successful in the sixties, and now on tour again, with resurging popularity. It’s an odd combination; but it’s enough to point Sarah in the right direction. And it just so happens that another band—the Fauxes—fits the bill…and is en route to Liverpool to play at the Cavern Club. She gathers her troops—her robotic sidekick, and her aunt Lavinia’s young ward Brendan—and heads for Liverpool.
With a little help from her editor, Sarah arranges to replace the limo driver for the Fauxes, and gets reservations in the hotel. She strategically places a newspaper in the backseat of the limousine, one that contains the latest on the murders. Naturally, the Fauxes glance over it, and immediately realize that they may be next, which is just the opening Sarah wants. After some token persuasion, she reveals that she is investigating the murders, and agrees to double as a guide for the Fauxes around the city to keep them out of trouble while they wait for their concert date.
The next morning, she leaves her robot in her hotel room. She and Brendan split up the Fauxes between them, and go to the various clubs in town where the previous victims played—several of them having played other clubs in addition to the Cavern—to ask questions of the staff and managers. Although she gathers some tantalizing clues, it’s nothing conclusive…yet. The group gathers for lunch, and then Brenda takes three of the four musicians back to the hotel, while Sarah and the fourth, Tony, go to another club, The System.
The manager of the System reports much the same as all the other clubs—that the various performers were nervous beforehand, most likely about the murders—though this includes the first to die, who should have had no idea. However, the System is uniquely involved here; one musician, John Dunsmore, was killed here, while navigating the press gauntlet on the dance floor after his show. The manager’s assistant, Peter, reports that he saw a dart in the man’s neck. Further, some windows in the club were broken, though no one can account for when it happened. During this excursion, Tony subtly flirts with Sarah Jane, though she doesn’t seem to notice. She takes Tony back to the hotel, and then turns in for the night, mulling over what she has learned.
In the morning, Sarah is awakened early by a terrified Tony. She follows him to the Fauxes’ room, where they are all packing hurriedly. Tony insists that someone has been in their room during the night, and shows her a playing card with a strange symbol, ostensibly left by the intruder. Sarah Jane concocts a plan; she will check them out, and they will ask the concierge for a recommendation for another hotel, but then they will sneak back in and take up residence in her room instead. Then they will wait to see what happens—after all, the intruder had to have help in locating them. Meanwhile, the symbol on the card seems familiar, but she can’t place it. As she carries out the plan, she has Brendan pack her robot away out of sight.
Sarah leaves the musicians with the room to rest up—their concert is tomorrow. As they won’t allow her to leave them behind, she sends Brendan out for food, and urges the Fauxes to sleep, while she mulls over her notes and the card. She also receives a call from her editor, and gives him an update; crowing over her work, he comments that they are outdoing rival paper The Echo, which heretofore has always seemed to get a photographer right in front of the victims as they died.
In the morning, Sarah takes the Fauxes to the Cavern Club for their rehearsal and sound check. The show will begin at Six P.M. She returns to the hotel and gives her editor another update, then returns to her notes. When Brendan wakes up, she talks it over with him…and then begins to see a connection. She sends him out for copies of the Echo from the dates of the murders. When he returns, she discovers that all the photos were taken by one Rafel Bert, who in each case is right in front of the victim, taking a photo right as the murder occurs, but never catching the perpetrator. She confirms the presence of darts in each victim’s neck. She realizes that the symbol on the card is a symbol for camera film—and that Bert is the killer.
She reports this to her editor, but asks him to wait before acting so that she can be sure. She and Brendan head to the club, but she is forced by traffic to walk, leaving Brendan with the car. In the crowd, she searches for Bert. She catches him just as the press rush begins, and pulls him away as he tries to resist. The Fauxes, led by Tony, dive in to help her, getting Bert in a headlock and restraining him as the police are called. As Bert is taken into custody, the police examine his camera, and find a custom accessory…with a poisoned dart still inside. Sarah whisks the Fauxes back into the car and off to the hotel. Over their thanks, she explains how she figured it out. She downplays her part, but is secretly pleased.
Later, Sarah interviews Bert in jail, and asks why he did it. His answer? Because front page news sells. He did it simply to get his photos on the front cover—and of course, for the money. After the interview, she reports this to her editor, who can only shrug; some people are just that crazy for money, he says. Ironically, though, that Bert mentions the front cover—because today’s front cover has Sarah Jane Smith on it.
I mentioned above that I am not particularly familiar with K9 and Company; but I like to think that this story is a good representation of what may have been presented had the series gone ahead. It’s mundane as Doctor Who-related stories go; there’s nothing supernatural, nothing alien, only a run-of-the-mill, Earthly mystery. That’s not to say it’s not a goodmystery, however, and it lets us see Sarah Jane’s investigative skills in full swing.
I should note, here, that although this story is clearly set in the K9 and Company era, and uses at least one character from that series, K9 himself is pointedly not included as such. The anthology project was unable to secure the rights to the use of the character, and so another, unnamed robot is substituted. It’s of course totally coincidental that the robot fits in a large suitcase, can be tripped over, and calls her “Mistress”…
Sarah Jane is fully on her own here. No Doctor, no UNIT—this is her show, and she gets things done. The sometimes whiny, fretful Sarah Jane of her television appearances is nowhere to be seen anymore; this Sarah is capable, strong, clever, and utterly unrattled by anything that happens around her. She’s gone from companion to leader, and it’s a good look for her. Granted, the threats are more mundane…but that doesn’t make them any less threatening. If, when I first watched The Ark in Space, you told me that the woman who gets stuck in a crawlspace and has to be goaded out by the Doctor, would one day wrestle a murderer to the ground in the middle of a crowded dancefloor, I would never have believed it. She’s certainly come a long way.
On the downside: The story loses focus here and there, with a few “rabbit trail” plot elements. There are hints that Tony, one of the Fauxes, is trying to flirt with Sarah, but she is oblivious to it, and nothing ever comes of it. K9—excuse me, other robot–is completely extraneous here (and understandably so, given that the author had to tread lightly due to the rights issue; but it would have perhaps been better to leave him out completely). Brendan, aunt Lavinia’s teenage ward, is mostly extraneous; he serves as a sounding board for Sarah, which is useful enough, but then the story really has no place for him in the second half, and shuffles him off into a metaphorical corner. There’s only room for one hero (heroine?) here.
Overall, though, it’s a sunny future at hand for Sarah Jane Smith. She’s doing what she loves, and she’s good at it. It’s nice to see a more earthly adventure for her, no Slitheen or Sontarans required. The story is of moderate length, perhaps three times the length of the previous entry; it’s not a quick read, but it’s not too complex, either.
Next time: We’ll continue the Investigation era with Sarah Jane, Superstar! by Joshua and Lillian Wanisko. See you there!
Defending Earth: An Unofficial Sarah Jane Smith Charity Collection is edited by M.H. Norris, and is produced in support of the Cancer Research Institute, researching the immune system as a weapon in the battle against cancers of all types. You can find the Cancer Research Institute here, and you can purchase the anthology here. The anthology is currently available in ebook formats, and is available for preorder in a print edition.