Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology: Letters from the Heart

We’re back, with another Doctor Who charity anthology review! Today we reach 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 conclude the “Family” portion of the anthology with the fifteenth and final entry: Letters from the Heart, by Anne-Laure Tuduri. 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)

Sarah Jane Smith has grown old. Her health is no longer what it once was; but her mind remains sharp and bright, and though her adventures may have come largely to an end, she remembers the amazing life she has lived. She considers herself blessed to share those memories with her granddaughter, Lily.

Lily is now old enough to attend school on her own, in London. It is a bit of a struggle for her, due to her autism, but she feels she is making the adjustment; and with the support of her grandmother, she is optimistic for her future. In the meantime, her interest in alien cultures—learned from Sarah Jane—has grown immensely, and she relishes the chance to not only make new friends, but to discover new contacts by way of Sarah’s connections at UNIT and at her old house at Bannerman Road (now occupied by an adult Rani Chandra, who continues Sarah’s work).

Still, it’s a long way from Sarah’s cottage in the country; and so grandmother and granddaughter send emails back and forth, telling each other news of their lives, and giving encouraging words. As the year progresses, plans are made for the Christmas holidays, when Lily will return home. Her mother and father can’t make it—stuck in Peru, and if one is being completely honest, they still don’t fully know how to handle their daughter. They may be happier where they are; but others will visit: Sky, and Luke, and maybe even—dare Lily hope?—the man in the blue box, Sarah’s old friend, who drops by occasionally…when he can find his way.

After the holidays, Lily finds herself back at school, and all as well—until Sarah Jane throws a spanner into the works. It seems Sarah has an unexpected guest: an alien named Anya, from the planet Creex, crash-landed in a faulty escape pod. Sarah has a plan to get Anya home; but her own health isn’t up to it, and Anya, fearful of the military, won’t allow her to involve UNIT. With Rani traveling abroad for a month, the only one Sarah can count on…is Lily. Can she come in two weeks and pick up Anya, and take her to Mr. Smith at Bannerman Road?

Lily is horrified at the thought at first—this is every fear and anxiety in one place, although she has to admit she would love to meet the alien. How will she make this work? What if something happens? Sarah, though, responds gently to her fears, and after much discussion, talks her down—and gets her to agree to the plan. Two weeks later, Lily picks up Anya—whose blue skin really does stand out—and takes her to Bannerman Road late at night.

Unfortunately, Mr. Smith is not able to construct a teleport strong enough to get her home. Instead he is forced to summon a rescue ship that is passing nearby…but nearby is a relative term, and it will be two weeks before they arrive! With little recourse—after all, it wouldn’t be safe to leave Anya alone at Bannerman Road—Lily takes the alien back to her flat, and resigns herself to buying twice the food for two weeks—while still making her classes work. Talk about stress!

But in the end—and much to Lily’s surprise…it all works out. Anya proves to be a quiet and respectful houseguest, which is just what Lily needs, as noises and overstimulation set off her nerves. The two discover a mutual love for learning, especially about other civilizations; Anya, as it turns out, was on a vacation cruise when her ship suffered a fault and sent her crashing to Earth. She tells Lily of her own world, and its violent history, which ultimately led to its modern pacifism and its status as an interstellar hub. And—better still—with the help of Mr. Smith, the two will be able to keep in touch!

It’s a good ending for Lily—but of course it’s never over, because there will be more adventures, and more aliens. With a little chagrin, Lily admits to her grandmother that she could have handled it better…but then again, she can still do so in the future. After all, she has big shoes to fill—and she wants to make Sarah Jane proud.

Tuduri Title Card

Here we are, at the end! And what a journey it’s been. We’ve walked with Sarah Jane Smith from her childhood, through her time at UNIT and adventuring with the Doctor; adventuring both on her own and among friends; settling in at Bannerman Road; and now, aging gracefully and peacefully. No one, I think, deserves a peaceful retirement than Sarah—and no one deserves more to know that her legacy won’t end as she ages. That’s what we have here, with her granddaughter Lily.

I mentioned Lily a few entries ago, but a quick recap: This character, along with her mother Lauren, were introduced in the prose Short Trip story titled Lily, from 2004’s Short Trips: A Christmas Treasury collection by Big Finish production. (To clarify: this is one of Big Finish’s print Short Trips collections, published before the range moved to audio.) The timing of the story indicates that Lauren should have been born near the end of what would become The Sarah Jane Adventures; that series didn’t mention Sarah’s pregnancy, but doesn’t contradict it either. Lily is autistic (and I apologize if my phrasing here is offensive to anyone; I don’t know what the accepted form is at this point). As a result, her parents don’t fully understand her, and often rely on Sarah Jane to assist with raising her while they travel the world for their work. Sarah, however, dotes on the young girl (though, at the time of Lily, she too is struggling to cope, a struggle which will be eased with help from the Fifth Doctor). In this story, Lily is older; her age isn’t specified, but she is old enough to live alone, and to attend one type of school or another. Our story consists entirely of email correspondence between Lily and Sarah.

I said in my last entry that not every story is about the action; sometimes, what you need is to know the minds and hearts of the characters. It’s far less about what happens to the characters, and far more what happens in them. The same is true for this story. For Sarah Jane, it’s peace and contentment and happiness—something she’s had coming for a long time, in my opinion. For Lily, it’s optimism and hope and a better understanding, not only of herself, but also of the world around her, and her place in it. Sarah’s story may be coming to its end—though admittedly it’s a good end—but Lily’s has just begun; and she could find no better footsteps in which to walk than those of Sarah Jane Smith. At the same time, the path she walks is uniquely her own, and she comes to appreciate that here.

There’s not much in the way of direct continuity references; but a few oblique references are made. UNIT gets a mention, and Sarah still has connections there, though certainly all of her old friends must have moved on. The Doctor still comes around to visit; Lily refers to him as “Byronic”, leading me to believe we’re dealing with the Twelfth Doctor again, though opinions may vary. (I’m a little rusty on my Byron, sorry…) Luke and Sky are still around, though both are away from home. There is even a tongue-in-cheek reference to the infamous UNIT dating controversy, in which Lily states that “UNIT really did a good job with their cover-ups in the 70s/80s (such a good job we’re not even sure of the correct decade!).” Which, now that I think of it, is as good an explanation as any.

Overall: It’s the tone of this story that nails it for me. The text is exactly what one would expect in emails from a socially sheltered teenager and her grandmother. Sarah is a little more formal and reserved, but always kindly and even apologetic where necessary. Lily is emotive and prone to outbursts, and changes topics quickly; she rushes through some parts, labors over others. Given that everything is written in first person—these are, after all, emails—it’s perhaps the most convincing piece in the book. Moreover, it’s the ending that the anthology needed. If you were able to obtain a copy, check it out!

And, that’s it! At the editor’s request, I have submitted some interview questions; if the answers come back, I’ll post them here. Otherwise, thanks for reading, and for following along! See you next time.

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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