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 posts via the links at the bottom of the post. Today we’re continuing the “Family” portion of the anthology with entry number twelve: The Circles of Drel, by Harry King. Let’s get started!
As always, there will be spoilers ahead! You can find my reason for this in the first entry of this series, linked below. Note that sales for this anthology have now closed, but you can still find a link at the end of the post for the Cancer Research Institute, which the anthology supported.
For all that Sarah Jane Smith has seen and done, she remains ever the skeptic. So, when a young girl disappears—and the locals immediately start blaming aliens—Sarah is unimpressed. Still, as Rani Chandra points out, there are a large number of crop circles in the area…and some of them are inexplicable…
So it is that Sarah and Rani find themselves in the field of a farmer by the name of Patrick Finch, who has a brand-new crop circle to see…for a small fee, of course. Sarah declares it a fake, and rightly so, leaving the farmer angry but speechless.
Over coffee, Sarah and Rani talk over the situation. This circle was a fake, but some others are more credible; and there have been lights in the sky near where the girl, Anna Clarke, was abducted. Sarah is at a loss, until Clyde Langer calls from Sarah’s house at Bannerman Road, with news: Mr. Smith has determined that Anna Clarke was involved with a number of crop circle enthusiast groups. While she seems to have been a novice, and doesn’t seem to have contributed much, there is some slight connection to the land of Patrick Finch, who has a much higher than average incidence of crop circles. Sarah gives Clyde some additional search parameters, and then arranges to have Rani stay with her overnight.
“Overnight”, in this case, means a cold hillside overlooking the one field of Patrick Finch that has never had a crop circle—yet. It’s just a hunch, but Sarah expects something. She isn’t wrong; Finch soon enters the field and spends a laborious few hours constructing another crop circle. However, just as Sarah is about to give up, a light appears in the sky—and behind it, she can just see a saucerlike spaceship. The light shines down on Finch in his pickup truck and scoops him up, truck and all, then vanishes, taking him with it. Rani manages to get some grainy footage of the event.
Rani’s footage isn’t great, but Sarah sends it to Mr. Smith for analysis. Later in the day, he returns with new information: The ship is a Drel ship. The Drel tend to be cosmic joyriders of a sort, living for fun; one of their pastimes is buzzing by more primitive worlds in their ships, sometimes doing the interstellar equivalent of drag racing. More to the point, when a Drel finds a good racing location, they will often mark it with a unique marking…a crop circle, to be direct. This puzzle is beginning to come together.
But Clyde also has information. As it turns out, Anna Clarke posted pictures of a crop circle very shortly before her disappearance—and it’s a very familiar circle: one located on the farm of one Patrick Finch. In the background of the photo can be seen the characteristic light of the Drel ship.
Sarah and Rani return to the field, this time forewarned. The plan is to attract the attention of the ship; with two of them, it will be momentarily distracted, and Sarah will be able to use Mr. Smith to contact the ship. It works flawlessly; the ship arrives, Sarah and Rani separate, and the ship scoops up Rani. However, Sarah can’t get Clyde on the phone to activate Mr. Smith! As the ship turns its light on her, and she begins to drift into the air, Clyde finally picks up—and Mr. Smith puts her through to the Drel, with translation.
One quick explanation, and the Drel return her to the ground. It seems that Finch’s crop circles look identical to the markings left by a rival group of Drel racers; when humans were detected, the confused Drel picked them up. They agree to return the others, and even to leave the area…as long as Sarah Jane doesn’t report them to the Shadow Proclamation! Laughing, Sarah agrees.
Cue up one grateful Rani, one angry Patrick Finch…and one very scared and confused Anna Clarke. After a few words to deflect Finch’s ire, Sarah introduces herself to Anna and agrees to take her home. After all, all’s well that ends well.
Not every story in Sarah Jane’s universe represents a massive threat to the universe. Sometimes, kids will be kids—and for once, I’m not talking about the Bannerman Road gang!
Here we have a fairly small-scale story, and that’s pleasant enough. It’s good to know that not every alien out there is another Bane or Slitheen. Sarah Jane and her friends (I say “friends” because, although this story takes place in the “Family” segment of the anthology, Luke Smith is strangely absent) find themselves investigating the case of a missing teenage girl. At first it seems that the case may be more mundane than usual (and, I might add, more horrifying if so—real, human-based abduction cases would be heavy material for The Sarah Jane Adventures). It takes a turn into the paranormal when Sarah discovers that the aliens are real, and that they are…joyriding kids?
More or less, at any rate. The Drel aren’t specified to be juvenile, but they act like joyriding teenagers. They come to less-developed worlds and let themselves be seen flying by, all in good fun (for them, not so much for the locals). Sometimes they engage in drag racing of a sort, and for this they leave markers at particularly good tracks—hence, crop circles. They aren’t interested in conquest or destruction; they just want to speed around, have fun, and not get caught.
There’s not a lot to say about the story—it’s cozy and enjoyable, but particularly mundane as Sarah’s adventures go, and generally lacking in continuity references—but I will say this: I can’t help wondering if it’s a bit of an ode to Douglas Adams. The Drel could be carbon copies of the “Teasers” described in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Those aliens, with whom secondary protagonist Ford Prefect hitched a ride to Earth, are described as “usually rich kids with nothing to do. They cruise around looking for planets which haven’t made interstellar contact yet and buzz them…[t]hey find some isolated spot with very few people around, then land right by some poor soul whom no one’s ever going to believe and then strut up and down in front of him wearing silly antennae on their heads and making beep beep noises. Rather childish really.”
One could do much worse than to pay tribute to Douglas Adams—who, I might add, has his own extensive history with Doctor Who, though not with Sarah Jane Smith (I think). I can’t swear that the reference is intentional; but even if not, it adds a layer of richness to this story that I loved.
Overall: A cute, fun story, more direct and simple than some of the others, but in no way do I mean that that is a bad thing. Nor do I mean that it reflects badly on the author’s skills; frankly, it’s hard to have a quiet story in the Whoniverse and make it good! Harry King pulls it off with grace here. It’s a nice reprieve from the constant existential threats, and I enjoyed it.
Next time: Sarah Jane & The Bristolian Vault, by Sophie Isles. 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. Please note that orders and preorders for the anthology have now closed.
The Sarah Jane Adventures may be purchased on DVD from various retailers, and may be streamed on various streaming services.