Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology: Sarah Jane & The Bristolian Vault, by Sophie Iles

We’re back, with another Doctor Who charity anthology review! Today we’re nearing the end of our tour of the Sarah Jane Smith anthology, Defending Earth. You can catch up on previous posts via the links at the bottom of this post. Today we’re continuing the “Family” portion of the anthology with entry number thirteen of fifteen: Sarah Jane & The Bristolian Vault by anthology artist Sophie Iles. 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 Center, which the anthology supported.

Defending Earth (Cover)

Everything ends eventually; and all children must grow up.

Clyde Langer is no exception. Preparing for university—or more to the point, for getting into university—is possibly the most nerve-wracking thing he’s ever done, and that’s up against facing alien threats ever day! Fortunately, he has Rani Chandra to talk him down, and Sarah Jane Smith to escort him to campus visits. The university they’re visiting today may not be his first choice; but he hears they have a good art program, and he keeps an open mind.

Traffic makes them late, and so they miss the first opportunity for a tour. With time suddenly on their hands, Clyde and Sarah decide to sit in on a rather popular physics lecture—so popular, in fact, that there are warnings to arrive early, despite the lecture hall holding three hundred seats! It’s worth it, though; the tall, grey-haired professor with the Scottish burr in his speech is a captivating speaker, deftly weaving Shakespeare and astronomy and physics into a single speech that is more like a tale, and is utterly engrossing. At the end, there is applause—and Sarah Jane is convinced she’s met this man before. But, where?

The odd sense of déjà vu isn’t the only strange thing here, though. Sarah’s detector wristwatch picks up evidence of alien life…and a strange void in the readings, down in the maintenance sector, a spot where nothing at all can be detected. The alien readings are coming from what is clearly the odd professor’s apartments. Sarah sends Clyde there to investigate, while she goes to check out the void. First, though, she catches the professor on his way out of the lecture and speaks with him a moment. He is brusque toward her, but friendly enough; but as he quickly excuses himself, he calls Clyde by name—a name he really should not know.

Meanwhile, in the professor’s apartments, he closes and locks the door. He is accosted by his butler (as the man thinks of himself), a bald, rotund man with the odd combination of a jovial face and a determined expression. Somewhat chagrined, the professor admits that he is hiding—after all, what else do you do when confronted by your best friend?

Sarah and Clyde have a quick lunch before investigating. Clyde isn’t hungry, and tucks his sandwiches into his pack for later. The duo then splits up, and Clyde heads up to the apartments. He notes that the nametag by the professor’s door says “Smith”—there do seem to be a lot of them about, eh?—and then he eavesdrops a bit on the two men within. When he hears the professor mention Sarah by name, he bursts in.

Down in the maintenance area, Sarah finds something totally unexpected: A large vault door with complex locks. More to her shock, she finds a speaker, which allows her to speak to its interior—and get a reply from a woman with a Scottish accent.

The professor and the bald man quickly explain that Sarah is in danger. They take Clyde with them to find her—and the professor produces a blue-and-silver wand that makes a very familiar buzzing sound. To Clyde’s utter disbelief, he realizes who the professor must be; but there’s no time to discuss it. Sarah is about to do something that everyone will regret, and with the best of intentions. She is about to open the Vault.

With the help of K9 and Mr. Smith, Sarah has obtained schematics for the rather exotic Vault, and she knows what to do. She sets her sonic lipstick building to the correct pitch to open the doors. Meanwhile the woman inside continues telling her about the “crazy man” holding her captive. At last the doors rupture and fall away, and Sarah walks into the white void inside. However, when she is inside, the doors stitch themselves back together, sealing her inside. The woman lowers the light, revealing a lounge with a piano and armchairs, and explains that this is a dead zone, with no signal able to get out. There is something menacing about the woman, but she didn’t entrap Sarah; but no worry—her captor, the professor, will be along shortly to get Sarah out. That is, if the woman doesn’t kill her first.

Clyde and the others race to the Vault door—and find another figure there, one that Clyde knows well: The Trickster. The professor knows him as well, and isn’t afraid. The Trickster admits to luring Sarah into the Vault, and now he offers an agreement: The only way the professor can get Sarah out is to also release the prisoner.

Inside the Vault, the woman talks with Sarah, describing how she and her captor have baited each other across the universe and the centuries. Then she reveals that she knows Sarah’s secret: that Sarah Jane is pregnant, and hasn’t told anyone, not even her other children, Luke and Sky.

The Trickster vanishes. The landscape around them changes to bare earth, and the professor realizes that this is a representation of the future that awaits them if he accepts. They are forced to run, then, from a pair of creatures akin to wolves. Clyde uses his sandwiches to distract the wolves, allowing him, the professor, and the butler to get up to momentary safety on the ridge. There, while they catch their breath, they debate whether there is any way out of this situation, and whether the deal is straightforward. The professor insists that letting the prisoner out—letting her join forces with the Trickster—would be madness, a death sentence for countless others, as the woman loves chaos just as much as the Trickster does. Either way, though, it seems they lose.

He makes his decision.

The Trickster materializes in the Vault. Sarah recognizes him at once; and the woman has heard of him and his fellow members of the Pantheon of Discord. In turn, he knows of her, once Death’s champion, now with many names behind her. He tells Sarah of the agreement on which the professor must decide, and what it will cost. Sarah is defiant—but it is too late. The doors of the Vault are opening.

Clyde and the others make their way back to the Vault. The professor insists they will defeat the Trickster, but Clyde can tell that he feels defeated already. Nervously, he tells the professor about their last encounter with the Trickster, in which Sarah had the chance to prevent her parents’ deaths; as that would have served the Trickster’s plans, it was Sarah’s parents who decided to let themselves die as history recorded, thwarting him. It’s less than hopeful, though; the Trickster’s plan seems airtight. Nevertheless, the professor hasn’t given up hope entirely; after all, there’s Sarah Jane still to consider.

Their plans, however, crash to a halt when they see the Vault doors opening.

Sarah Jane reconnects with Clyde; but no one understands what is happening. The Trickster laughs, sure of his victory. Chaos will reign on Earth! But the Trickster hasn’t counted on the prisoner…or her refusal.

She may, as she points out, love chaos. However, she is no one’s agent but her own. The door may be open—but she refuses to walk through it. If she leaves, it will be with the permission of her jailer—and on her own terms. She refuses the agreement. The Trickster has no choice but to leave, though he does so in fury and futility.

As the group leaves, the prisoner seems amused. She insists they’ll talk over these events, soon; and the professor agrees. Saying their goodbyes, Sarah and the others leave, and the professor seals the vault behind them.

Clyde talks with the butler about the woman. She may have saved Sarah Jane, but it was almost certainly because it served her own plans. After all, she is one of the most vicious, murderous figures in history…but the professor is doing everything he can to reform her, to make her good. And he has 950 more years to do it, give or take.

Sarah Jane stands in the professor’s—no, the Doctor’s—office, confronting her old friend at last. Did he really not want her to know it was him? The sad truth is, yes, he did. After all, he wants no one to know of the Vault and its prisoner. She lectures him briefly about the danger, the precariousness, of the situation; but he insists he has it under control. It was only by the woman’s choice that things ended well. The Doctor insists, though, that he was working on a solution—and specifically one that would save Sarah. After all, the world needs her, especially for what lies ahead…but he stops himself from saying too much.

Sarah insists, in the end, that he shouldn’t carry the burden alone. He has friends to help him, anytime he needs them. Herself, UNIT, other old friends and companions…she offers to call UNIT for him, getting things started. The Doctor won’t say so, but he is grateful. In return, he assures her that her unborn daughter will be okay. Sarah doesn’t need to worry. And as she leaves, for what may be the last time—how can she know, either way? How can anyone?—she bids her old friend a fond farewell.

Iles Title Card

Of all the things in this anthology, this was the most unexpected for me. A Twelfth Doctor story? From my favorite part of his tenure? Fantastic! The author goes out of her way to avoid making it obvious from the beginning that this is a Twelfth Doctor story (or a Doctor story at all); in fact the word “Doctor” never appears. Neither do “sonic screwdriver”, “sonic sunglasses”, “Nardole”, “Missy”, “the Master”, or “Susan”, though all of the above feature in the story (Susan by way of her picture, the Master by way of explanation). The university in question is never named. Truthfullly, if one hasn’t watched series ten of Doctor Who, the entire subtext would be lost, though I think it would become obvious to any Doctor Who fan that the professor in question is the Doctor. I will say that it took me a bit to catch on; it wasn’t until the end of the Doctor’s lecture that it clicked with me. Well done!

In my watch of The Sarah Jane Adventures, I haven’t yet reached this point. Luke has gone on to his own university life, and Sky has been adopted, meaning that this story takes place at least in the fifth series, and possibly after the end of the series five. It exists to bridge the gap between The Sarah Jane Adventures and another, somewhat obscure bit of Sarah Jane’s life. There’s a prose “Short Trip” short story titled Lily, featured in the holiday anthology Short Trips: A Christmas Treasury, and written by Jackie Marshall; in this story, it’s revealed that Sarah Jane eventually has a biological daughter named Lauren, who then grows up to have a daughter of her own named Lily. From what I gather, the timing of the story makes it very likely that Sarah would be expecting Lauren at about series five of The Sarah Jane Adventures; and that’s the approach taken here. Sarah is indeed pregnant in this story, though the father of the child is never mentioned or identified. Both the Doctor and Missy are aware of the situation; the Doctor, indeed, should be aware of it, as Lily features the Fifth Doctor visiting an older Sarah Jane as she babysits Lily.

The only issue I have with the story is that the matter of Sarah’s pregnancy feels shoehorned in. While it may be the reason the author wrote the story, it undoubtedly is a difficult thing to address when the television series makes it clear that the Bannerman Road gang aren’t aware of the situation. That, in turn, makes it hard to fit into the story naturally. The author did her best, and it hardly creates a problem, but she certainly had that challenge to deal with. It’s especially difficult, given that Sarah Jane is really past the customary age to have children…not that the author created that situation, but she’s forced to deal with it. It would have been easier to explain had there been any mention of the father and his relationship with Sarah, but again, those details aren’t included, here or in Lily (as far as I can tell).

But, don’t let that stop you! This is a good story, and shouldn’t be skipped. As well, there are some minor continuity references. Reference is made to Luke having gone to university (The Nightmare Man, et al.). Sarah Jane sees Susan’s picture on the Doctor’s desk (The Pilot, et al.). Nardole mentions that the Doctor and Missy have nearly 950 more years to work out their issues (Extremis; I’m not convinced that Missy’s imprisonment began immediately prior to the Doctor’s time at the university, which in turn makes the number here a bit suspect, but I’ll concede the point for now). Clyde explains the Trickster’s last plot (The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith). Sky is mentioned as present, though not seen (Sky). Nardole mentions his “mistress” and how she sent him to the Doctor (Extremis). I should also mention that Bill Potts is absent, further confirming that this story occurs in or around 2011, long before Bill comes to the university.

Overall: We’re near the end of the anthology now, and I expect the last few stories to be a bit more sentimental (I know already that the next entry is). I very much appreciated having a decent, if short, adventure here, with characters that I love, from a period of the Doctor’s life that I love. It was quite a pleasant surprise to find this story, and I recommend it.

Next time: We have two more stories to go! The next, very short entry, is titled Full Circle (not to be confused with the classic serial of the same name), again by anthology editor M. H. Norris. 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.

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