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. Today we’re continuing with the “Investigations” portion of Sarah Jane’s life, with the seventh entry of the anthology: Sarah Jane, Superstar! by Joshua and Lillian Wanisko. 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. 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!
Aliens on Earth don’t have many places to congregate—the world isn’t ready for that—but a few exist. One such is the Black Light Tavern, described by its starfishlike bartender, Gleep-Glop, as the armpit of the universe (and a starfish should know about armpits, being possessed of five of them). The decrepitude of the place is deliberate—it keeps the humans away. Mostly, that is. A few still find their way in; but eventually the pub comes to a sort of equilibrium with them. Sarah Jane Smith finds her way to the Black Light (so named because all of its advertising is written in ultraviolet ink, visible to many aliens natively, but to humans only with the help of a black light) for an unusual reason. It seems the pub is putting on a show, and—strange as it seems—the show is all about her! Yes, it’s all about Sarah in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Croydon: The Sarah Jane Story (no, really). She can’t resist investigating, and so it is that she finds herself playing herself…as an understudy. Uh…can’t win ‘em all?
No one believes her when she says she is really Sarah Jane Smith; but that hardly matters. As the play—no, the musical–nears readiness, Sarah meets many colorful individuals in addition to Gleep-Glop (whose real name is a bit beyond the average human): the haughty and stereotypical Director, who learned his fashion sense from a collection of clichés; his assistant and stage manager, Elisabeth, who is the Director’s polar opposite in every way (and is one of the few humans around); a 6’3”, wiry, foxlike alien named Linx (playing a Sontaran and singing about potatoes, no less); a blonde bombshell (not quite human, but close), serving as the main actress for the part of Sarah Jane; and the mysterious Author, who wrote the script. However, Sarah—real Sarah, not stage Sarah—can’t shake the fear that someone knows too much for comfort about her life, as the musical seems to cover all her adventures with the Doctor in startling—but inaccurate—detail.
At last it’s too much suspense, and so she breaks into the Director’s office to find the Author’s notes. She gets more than she bargained for; the Author is there—and he knows who she really is. After a brief negotiation, he refuses to tell her where he got his information; but he takes her on as a consultant, checking the accuracy of the play.
With his help, the others accept her for who she really is, and the days race by. However, there are disagreements with the Author about the details that Sarah wants to correct; and finally, it comes to a head, and she quits the play and returns home. All seems well for a few days, until she receives an unexpected visitor: Elisabeth, the stage manager. The two have a long talk, in which Sarah reminisces about the Doctor, and muses about coming home from that life. Elisabeth confides that she wants to be an actress, not just the stage manager; but the Director considers her indispensable. Sarah advises her to make herself dispensable, if she wants to move up to the stage; and the best way to do that is by letting something in her job fail. In return, Lis gives Sarah what she wanted: the Author’s notes. And, reading them, Sarah realizes where he got his information!
She storms back into the Black Light, and demands to know how the Author got his hands on a copy of the Doctor’s diary. Chagrined, he admits that he found the pages, forgotten, in a copier in a copy shop (along with a receipt for scarf detangler and a barrel of jelly babies—it seems the Doctor is quite a character, as Sarah well knows!). Still, he insists, as fantastic as these stories are, sometimes real life needs a little…massaging in order to make a good story. Sarah doesn’t like it, but she is obliged to agree. The Author—perhaps not wanting his reputation besmirched—agrees to have Sarah back on the production, and agrees to her changes to the script; and in exchange, Sarah allows most of his artistic licenses to remain in place, insisting on only a few (goodbye, Brain of Morbius jello mold!).
The night of the premiere arrives, and Sarah sits in the audience, musing over all that has happened. Certainly this play represents another point of change in her own life, and maybe even in her attitudes…but what did the Doctor always say? Change is a part of life. She determines to face any change with laughter.
…Which is just as well, because the play is a massive flop. (I did say you can’t win ‘em all!) It flops so hard that the careers of everyone involved—except Sarah, of course—are massively diverted in new directions. Sarah thinks, much later, on the lives the participants are leading now; most of them sought new homes and new work, whether alien or human. None stayed with the stage—except, curiously enough, Elisabeth (what is her last name, anyway?), who goes on to become quite the star. Sarah, meanwhile, remains herself, and continues on, having learned and grown and, of course, laughed. And the Doctor, who—quite inadvertently—started this entire episode? He goes on, as well. Change is always a part of his life, but in the important ways, he remains the same. And, as always, he loves the Earth and its people. Sometimes they disappoint him—but when those times come, “he thinks of Sarah Jane Smith and he goes on.”
Every anthology needs at least one good meta-story! Preferably full of inside jokes and puns—the sillier, the better. Here, halfway through, Defending Earth delivers!
I was familiar—as many Big Finish fans will be—with co-author Joshua Wanisko for his audio Short Trip, Forever Fallen, the winner of Big Finish’s inaugural Paul Spragg Memorial Opportunity in 2016. That story is an earnest, serious, thoughtful Seventh Doctor adventure, one that will stay with its listeners for some time. This story—co-written by Joshua’s daughter Lillian Wanisko, for whom this is a first writing credit—is none of that; and that is exactly as it should be! Where that story is full of emotion, this one is full of humor, and utterly lighthearted. How could it not be? It’s Sarah Jane Smith: The Musical!
We’re still firmly in the K9 and Company era here, as confirmed by some of the background details; Brendan gets a mention, though he’s not present, and Sarah Jane still lives in her aunt Lavinia’s house. K9 himself puts in a momentary appearance, though again he is not named as such. Thus, this Sarah Jane is young and energetic, and still—perhaps a little bit—somewhat directionless in life. I’ve commented in other entries that these stories seem to chronicle formative experiences in Sarah Jane’s life; this story makes it explicit, pointing out that this is another moment of change and refinement for her—if not as drastic a change as some.
Not many of these stories have had continuity references (something I usually include in my reviews), other than a general reference to the Doctor or UNIT or—obliquely—K9. This one is different; as it contains an in-universe chronicle of Sarah’s adventures, it mentions several of them directly, often even by name! Notably, we see references to Planet of the
SpeedosSpiders (not my error! And, uh…we need Wardrobe over here, please!), Robot, The Monster of Peladon, The Brain of Morbius, The Hand of Fear, Genesis of the Daleks, The Sontaran Experiment, The Ark in Space, Death to the Daleks, The Time Warrior, Revenge of the Cybermen, Terror of the Zygons, and Pyramids of Mars. In fact, it’s every story of Sarah Jane’s original (televised) travels with the Doctor, except The Android Invasion, The Seeds of Doom, and The Masque of Mandragora (and to be honest, I may have simply overlooked those). There are also a few meta-references: notably, Sarah declines to talk about the dates of the various UNIT stories; and the character of “Elisabeth” bears a very strong resemblance to a certain Elisabeth from our world, with a very close tie to Sarah Jane Smith…what is her last name?! I’ll get it eventually.
Overall: Nothing but pure fun, here—but that’s exactly what it sets out to accomplish. Did this “really” happen (as much as anything in Sarah Jane’s story really happened)? Does it matter? What matters is that, whether you’re a lifelong fan, or this anthology is your first exposure to Sarah Jane, you’ll get a good laugh—and a little life lesson—out of this story. And that, my friends, is plenty.
Next time: We’re halfway there! We’ll be checking out story number eight of fifteen, with Little Girl Lost, by Tina Marie DeLucia. 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.