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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Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology: Full Circle, by M.H. Norris

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 fourteen of fifteen: Full Circle, by anthology editor M.H. Norris. 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)

Maria Jackson returns home for the first time in several years, taking a break from her university studies. Just as her plane lands, she gets a call from an old friend: Sarah Jane Smith. It’s not long afterward that she is met by another friend, one she has not had opportunity to know as well as she’d like: young Sky Smith, Sarah Jane’s adopted daughter.

There’s no time to lose, for they have a mission to complete!

All her old memories come racing back the moment Maria sees the Star Poet. It isn’t the same one she met on that long-ago night, when she first discovered aliens were real; but it could be its twin. What is it about Earth being a popular destination for the residents of Arcateen Five? And what gets them stranded here? But never mind that now.

Sky greets the Poet, and explains that her mother heard the distress call and sent them to fix the alien’s transportation. The alien, whose name is Am’i, is delighted to meet them; she has heard of Sarah Jane from her mentor, whom Sarah once helped to return home. Sky, who has an…unconventional relationship with electricity, has Maria complete the actual repair, just in case of more damage.

With the mission complete, Am’i smiles gratefully at them, and makes her departure in a show of brilliance. And Maria, who once perhaps doubted her own memory, is gratified to see it. Perhaps her name, and that of Sky, will be told on Arcateen Five just as Sarah Jane’s has been.

How strange would that be?!

But for now, it’s enough. And as Maria and Sky turn to go, Maria tells her an old story: of how she once learned that aliens were real.

Norris Title Card 2

We’re very nearly to the end of the anthology, and we’ve reached the end of The Sarah Jane Adventures as well. Of course—and unfortunately—real-world history records that the series ended due to the untimely death of its star, Elisabeth Sladen. In the universe of Doctor Who, however, Sarah Jane Smith still has adventures ahead of her, and stories to be told.

This particular story—which only features Sarah Jane by mention, not in its events—serves as a sort of coda to The Sarah Jane Adventures. It brings us full circle—hence the title—to the very beginning of that series, and back to the event that opened it for us: Maria Jackson’s encounter with the Star Poet behind Sarah Jane’s house. Anthology editor M.H. Norris, who wrote the tale, mentions in her introduction that the “Family” segment of the anthology includes one story for each of the Bannerman Road children: Luke features in Gifts for Good; Rani in The Circles of Drel; Clyde in Sarah Jane & The Bristolian Vault. However, when no story was forthcoming for Maria, she decided to put together this piece, and place it in a most unexpected spot—at the end of the collection, long after Maria left the Bannerman Road gang. It was certainly the right choice, as Maria gets to put the finishing touch on those years, just as she opened them, so long ago.

Not a lot happens here; but sometimes, not much is needed. Even in the Doctor Who universe, not every story is about the action. Sometimes, what you need most is a look into the minds and hearts of the characters; and that is exactly what we get here.

If this story is a coda, you may ask, then why is it not the final entry? I mentioned in the previous review that there is one more known chapter of Sarah Jane’s life, which is briefly documented in the prose Short Trip titled Lily. The final installment of the anthology will again revisit that part of Sarah’s life, and will expand on it; and so, for now, we say goodbye to Bannerman Road and the children who have lived there. As endings go, this one is exactly what one would hope for.

Next time: Letters from the Heart, by Anne-Laure Tuduri! 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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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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Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology: The Circles of Drel, by Harry King

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.

Defending Earth (Cover)

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.

King Title Card

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.

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Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology: Gifts for Good, by M.H. Norris

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 begin the fifth and final portion of the anthology, titled “Family”, with entry number eleven: Gifts for Good, by anthology editor M.H. Norris. 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. Sales of the anthology come to a close TODAY, 2 April 2019, so if you would still like to purchase a copy, act soon! (I will be finishing this series even after the sale period closes—we’re near the end now!)

Defending Earth (Cover)

Sarah Jane Smith loves a good show as much as anyone else; but she has no patience for charlatans, especially of the “psychic” variety. It’s no surprise, then, that she is grumpy as she takes her seat near the back of the grimy, worn theater; but her old friend the Brigadier is the one who invited her—as well as her son Luke and his friends Rani and Clyde—and so she bears it for his sake. The act, consisting of four young people who bill themselves under the name Mimir, from the old Norse mythology, aren’t bad as these things go; but Sarah is convinced their predictions for various audience members are just a product of cold reading, or perhaps—in this Internet-savvy age—careful research rather than any kind of power. She is less than enthused when one of their members, Lynx, stops and promises her that she will meet an old friend from a time of adventure in her past. After all, Sarah has had many adventures—but only one old friend comes to mind, and she’s already seen him again in recent years…

The Brigadier, for his part, is not disturbed by Sarah’s ranting. He patiently explains that a contact at UNIT has expressed some interest in the group: not enough yet for UNIT to take an active role, but enough to prompt some off-the-books investigation. Who better than Sarah Jane to handle such a job? After all, he muses, better her than those people down in Cardiff…and it’s not like Sarah is alone, even if her allies are children.

They are interrupted on the way back to Bannerman Road by a call from her living computer, Mr. Smith, who advises her to hurry—because a spacecraft has landed in her attic. Sarah Jane races home with her friends in toe and vainly warns the children to wait downstairs. She heads up to the attic, her senses on high alert…and drops her guard when, to her utter surprise, she sees a familiar, white-haired man.

The Doctor—her Doctor, the Third Doctor—has, after so many years, returned.

Over the course of the evening, catching-up ensues. The Doctor’s TARDIS has been pulled out of the vortex by a strange confluence of temporal influences. His Sarah—the much younger version—is away at the moment, visiting the 1970s version of Aunt Lavinia while the older woman is on a brief visit home. Sarah and the Brigadier introduce the children, who have of course heard all about the Doctor; and they catch him up on some of the things that have happened (but certainly not all—Sarah carefully avoids mention of any later incarnations, including the recent visit by the Tenth Doctor). Finally, as Clyde and Rani return home, and the Brigadier does likewise, the Doctor falls to discussing the situation with Mimir, mostly with the precocious Luke. He assists Mr. Smith with running and refining a program that will help them track any temporal disturbances associated with the group—which, it increasingly appears, is also what is holding him here. He recruits Luke to help.

Later, during the night, Luke approaches the Doctor and talks about a more personal matter. He describes his own situation, and the lessons he has learned in his time with Sarah Jane—and those he still needs to learn. The Doctor perceives that one thing Luke lacks is confidence; and so, to build the boy’s confidence, he gives him an impromptu fencing lesson. As the morning approaches, Clyde joins them.

In the morning, Mr. Smith’s efforts come to fruition: there are temporal anomalies surrounding Mimir. It all began when they mysteriously won a lottery jackpot more than a year before, which they have used since to fund their tours. However, in addition to the good coincidences surrounding them, others close to them are suffering unusually bad luck. The Doctor theorizes that one of the group may be a member of a temporally sensitive race—the Vainkrons, the Tiqai, the Cadels, or perhaps the Bulvins. Such races can manipulate probability by viewing a person’s potential futures, then nudging them toward a preferred outcome. But, whoever is doing so here, isn’t doing a good job of it.

They are interrupted by Mr. Smith. Another kind of anomaly has become apparent: a Sontaran has been spotted in downtown London! The children have met these aliens before, and know what they can do; and so Sarah warns them to stay behind while she and the Doctor tackle the threat. Of course, no one listens; but at least the children give her the courtesy of a head start before following her.

The Doctor and Sarah interrupt the lost and confused Sontaran, who is causing chaos and holding a female hostage—perhaps not coincidentally, another audience from the Mimir show, Sarah notes. She challenges the Sontaran, while the Doctor moves in to physically attack; but they seem to be outmatched. The situation is only resolved when Luke, armed with his fencing foil, charges out behind the Sontaran and lands a blow on its probic vent, knocking it out. It’s a great lesson for the boy…but of course, that won’t stop him from being in trouble with his mother for disobeying. A kid is still a kid, after all.

With UNIT handling the return of the Sontaran to its people, and the crisis averted, attention returns to the matter of Mimir. Sarah has arranged an interview with the group, and will be taking Luke with her. Meanwhile, the Doctor gives her a detector that will let him pinpoint the source of the temporal anomalies. He is almost certain now that the culprit is secretly a Tiqai, a humanoid race with temporal sensitivity. They can be identified by their golden eyes, though this one is probably wearing colored contacts.

While Sarah interviews the group, Luke notices that Lynx has wandered off. He finds him sitting on the theater stage—and realizes that the young man appears to be wearing contacts. He takes the plunge, and asks Lynx directly if he is a Tiqai. In the process, he confides the truth about his own alien origins. Lynx admits it, and reveals that he is an orphan, adopted by humans after his own world was caught in the crossfire of two warring races. He knows what he is doing—he only wants his friends to be happy—but he knows it isn’t working out right. He admits that he can’t fully control his powers. He also admits to knowing of Sarah Jane before coming to Earth; it seems she and the Doctor once, many years ago, visited a world near his own, and dealt well with a situation there. Tales of their exploits ultimately made their way to Lynx, though he never expected to meet Sarah Jane! But none of that helps with his problem.

Someone can help, though—and the Doctor joins them on the stage. He graciously offers to teach Lynx how to use his power without harm, and without getting on Time’s bad side.

Later, with the anomalies resolved, the TARDIS is back to normal, and the Doctor is free to leave. He says his goodbyes again to Sarah Jane, and the Brigadier, and the children. Over Sarah Jane’s nostalgic tears at the memories of their times together—both good and bad—he acknowledges what they both know to be true: That it’s the good times and the bad that made each of them what they are; and that, after it all, the world needs Sarah Jane Smith.

Norris Title Card 1

We’re nearing the end of our adventures with Sarah Jane! This story, the eleventh of fifteen, takes place during the events of The Sarah Jane Adventures–specifically, during Series Three, as it is stated to take place in 2009. This places it after the Tenth Doctor’s appearance in The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith, as she mentions early in the story.

Unlike some of the other spinoff materials referenced in this collection, I have watched some of The Sarah Jane Adventures, though I have yet to complete the series. I can say that this story is very much in keeping with the tone of the series; it’s lighter, more child-friendly, but still quick and action-oriented. It’s a bit of a reunion episode, bringing together not only Sarah Jane, the children, and the Brigadier—but also the Third Doctor, in what is most likely Sarah’s last meeting with him. If I have counted correctly, it makes for six encounters between the Doctor and Sarah in the era of the revived series of Doctor WhoSchool Reunion, Tenth Doctor; the Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, Tenth; The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith, Tenth; an unseen encounter connected to The End of Time, Tenth (still in the future); this story, Third Doctor; and Death of the Doctor, with the Eleventh Doctor, also still to come as of this story. (If I’ve overlooked any, please comment below!)

I’ve always been a great fan of the Third Doctor; I think he may be a bit underrated in the face of such characters as the Fourth, the Eighth, and the revived series Doctors. It’s wonderful to see him again here, though it’s certainly bittersweet, knowing that there isn’t much room left in Sarah Jane’s life to have any more such encounters. There’s a poignant scene at the end where the Doctor, about to depart, wipes a tear from Sarah’s cheek, harking back to his regeneration scene—which, though history for her, is still to come for him. It’s haunting in its effect.

With all that said, this is still a fairly lighthearted, low-stakes story. It’s a bit contrived; it’s not really explained how the time-sensitive Lynx’s powers conspire to drag the TARDIS from the vortex, when it seems his powers are of a low-impact nature; and it’s never really explained how the Sontaran gets to downtown London. But if you get hung up on those details, you’ll miss out, because the story isn’t about those details. It’s a story about family, and memories, and hope, and—especially for Luke and Clyde—confidence.

There isn’t much in the way of continuity references here; while there are a few references to old adventures, they are to adventures that were created specifically for this story. However, there is an interesting bit, almost small enough to miss, where Luke tells the Doctor how he was created. The Doctor speaks with familiarity on the subject, and one gets the impression this may be a nod to the idea of Gallifreyan Looms—minor, but a nice touch, if that’s how it was intended.

Overall: A good segue into the “Family” portion of the collection. It’s both fun and sentimental, nostalgic and fast-paced. One would think those qualities wouldn’t go well together; but one would be wrong. Check it out!

Next time: The Circles of Drel, by Harry King! 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 available until TODAY only in ebook formats and a print edition (preorder only on print edition).

The Sarah Jane Adventures may be purchased on DVD from various retailers, and may be streamed on various streaming services.

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Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology: When the Stars Come to Man, by William J. Martin

We’re back, with another Doctor Who charity anthology review! Today we’re continuing on our tour of the Sarah Jane Smith anthology, Defending Earth. You can catch up on previous entries via the links at the bottom of the post. Today—after some delay due to a power outage in my area–we’re concluding the “Investigations” portion of Sarah Jane’s life, with the tenth of fifteen stories in this anthology: When the Stars Come to Man, by William J. Martin. 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.

Defending Earth (Cover)

A star made of metal falls on upstate New York. The ship—for of course it is a ship—is a loss; but four spacesuited figures climb out. Very soon, the site is claimed, and developed.

Far away, and years later, Sarah Jane Smith, former investigative reporter and sometime savior of Earth, sits at lunch with her friends, Joshua Townsend and Natalie Redfern. Joshua, no stranger to Sarah’s investigations—especially into the mysterious White Chapter and Red Chapter—has brought news of a new topic of interest: A strange US Air Force base in upstate New York, that is showing strange signs of activity after five decades of abandonment. Two urban explorers are missing—and this is exactly the kind of thing Sarah and her friends investigate. Soon, they are on their way across the ocean to New York.

The former Baxter Air Force Base is quiet, overgrown with trees that have reclaimed the property—except that several large hangers, and a new gatehouse, show a surprising amount of upkeep. Outside the fence, Sarah dispatches Joshua and Natalie to check various spots. Natalie finds the gatehouse empty of life, but filled with computers with a strange atom logo on the screens. Joshua finds an opening through the fence—and is knocked unconscious, and taken away. Shortly thereafter a strange aircraft lands, and four people—much stranger than the craft itself—climb out. The four are possessed of strange abilities: one, introducing himself as Stephen Sinclair, can manipulate the atoms of his body into any shape and size, allowing him to stretch his body at will; his wife, Debbie Sinclair, can create energy shields and manipulate the density of her atoms. The third, Debbie’s brother Danny, calls himself Starblaze, and has the power to transform himself into photons and energy; and the fourth, the family’s friend Jacob, has phenomenal strength—but at the appearance of having his body transformed to living stone. This unlikely group of superheroes calls themselves the Quintessence Quartet…and Sarah Jane has encountered them before, if not in person. She explains to Natalie that they have been active since the 1960s, but suddenly vanished—or went underground, as Debbie explains.

At the revelation that Joshua is missing, the group allows Sarah and Natalie to join them, and Sinclair produces a life sign detector for finding Joshua. It reveals several lifeforms…all underground, beneath the hangars. The group moves to investigate. They quickly find that all the buildings are flimsy, looking to be not much more than movie sets, but that they each contain a tunnel that leads down, eventually converging into a master tunnel.

Meanwhile, Joshua awakens and finds himself a captive of the Red Chapter, which is bent on the fated destruction of humanity. He is quickly identified as the son of the leader of the White Chapter, which believes much the same as the Red, but seeks to save the world from destruction. Their differences are irrelevant right now, however, as it is revealed that the Red representatives here serve a greater power: the Mandragora Helix. And the Helix has detected intrusion. It quickly sends its minions to stop Sarah and the Quartet, transforming them into powerful warriors in order to meet the threat. Further, it is enraged to find Sarah jane, whom it calls the Herald of the Helix, and it vows to destroy her.

With battle joined, Sarah and her friends are overrun. Jacob and Danny volunteer to stay behind and handle the enemy, allowing the others to press on. They eventually find their way to a large control room, now vacant except for a groggy Joshua. As Sarah and Natalie help him up and free him, Sinclair and Debbie begin to activate the various computers in the room. They get a shock when they learn that the entire place is being controlled by an old familiar ally: an artificial intelligence named Gordon. Sinclair explains quickly how they got their powers: in the earliest days of the space race, he arranged a mission into space for himself and his three friends, anxious to get there before the Soviet Union; but their ship was exposed to a strange energy, and crashed back to Earth. The team survived, and found they were blessed with new powers. However, the ship was unrecovered, on this very site—and indeed, it appears it still exists, further down in the base. That ship was co-piloted by Gordon, who has somehow survived; and, augmented by the energy that struck the ship, he has begun to develop.

But that isn’t all. The files reveal that the energy isn’t just random; in fact it is an old enemy of Sarah Jane: the Mandragora Helix. The Doctor warned her, many years and some centuries ago, that the Helix would return—and so it has. Now, it seeks to control Gordon, and through him the entire area, right down to its very fabric, its stone and soil, to establish itself and control the world. It must be stopped.

Debbie quickly concludes the obvious: That means that the Quartet’s powers are also the work of the Helix. Sarah Jane concurs, but points out that this is cause for hope: After all, they’ve controlled it for decades, rather than the other way around.

Sinclair chooses to stay and continue trying to disrupt the Helix from here, sending Sarah, Josh, and Debbie on ahead to try to reach the ship and shut everything down. Natalie, quite adept at a computer herself, chooses to stay and help him. Meanwhile, up above, Danny and Jacob are in the fight of their lives—and slowly, they are losing. The enemies are closing in on the rest of the team.

Sarah, Josh, and Debbie make their way down to the deepest point of the base—and there they find the wrecked spaceship. It is guarded by a field of energy—and by two ominous jars containing badly mutated fetuses. Sarah realizes that these are the bodies of the two missing explorers, heavily twisted by the Mandragora Helix in its attempts to give itself a body on Earth. Leaving Debbie outside to stand guard. Sarah and Joshua push on inside, and confront a fully corrupted Gordon, serving as the mouthpiece for the Helix. Once he brought man to the stars…now he brings the stars to man. The Helix, speaking through it, is angry at Sarah, remembering her past involvement in its defeat.

Outside, one of the jars shatters, and Debbie—following a purpose she doesn’t fully understand—sends the mutant into the blackness that borders the ship.

Sarah confronts the Helix. She is no longer the young woman she once was, and she is no longer frightened of this being or its plans. She challenges it, and forces it to name its two victims, the explorers—and forces it to explain its plans. It acknowledges it wants to give itself form and walk the Earth before bringing about destruction. But it is interrupted by the arrival of the mutant child. The Helix screams in terror as its own creation comes to it, looping its own power back onto itself—an act that will be sufficient to force it back on itself, out to the stars where it belongs. Sarah and Josh try to flee, but cannot.

But all is not lost; for Natalie has determined the truth: the entire base, its buildings, even its soil, consists of Helix energy. Gordon has been controlling it, but his control is slipping. However, a human mind can do it, at least briefly. Sinclair knows the kind of control necessary—he’s been living it for years with his own treacherous body—but, as Nat points out, he can’t be the one to carry this burden. He has been sufficient to control the Helix energy in his body; but this amount, added to his own, will overwhelm him. It will take someone without any previous touch of the energy; and Natalie is the only one able to do so. She connects herself to the system.

Sarah and Joshua—along with the others—find themselves in a vast, constructed pit of sand and statues. Sarah sees that the slaves of the Helix are here as well; but the humans, Red Chapter though they may be, are fighting their master for control of themselves. They approach the monolith that represents the Helix. Sarah confronts the creature, and tells it of its ultimate defeat—and then the slaves release their store of Helix energy back into the monolith. This is the final step needed to banish the Helix. Creation explodes around them, and all goes dark.

One by one, Sarah and her friends awaken in the forest. Of the pit, and the base, there is no sign. Only a long trench is visible, at the end of which they can see the ruin of a spaceship. In the absence of the Helix energy, the area has reverted to the state it was in on the night the Helix came to Earth: the night of the crash, more than fifty years ago.

With the Helix vanished, Sarah and her friends bid the Quintessence Quartet goodbye, and watch them leave, taking the ruined ship with them. Then, they turn to make their own way home, another battle won. The White and Red Chapters may continue their war; but for now, the Helix is gone, and the Earth is safer than it was—and that is reward enough.

Martin Title Card

One of the difficulties of the charity anthology”scene”, if you will, is that we readers must really keep up. Anthology authors, like any other authors, will often want to have some continuity between their own stories, perhaps introducing characters or settings that will continue from one story to another. With licensed works, this usually isn’t an issue. Stories tend to remain available in some form, and there are resources such as the TARDIS wiki which can be consulted. Anthologies, on the other hand, tend to have print runs that are limited in both number and time; once it’s gone, it’s gone, as these books usually don’t get much resale traffic either. Nor are there encyclopedic references for charity works, such as there are for licensed works. So, when an author introduces a unique character, he or she has to either work hard at making each story stand alone, or just hope that the reader can keep up.

We’ve encountered some of this already: for example, our very first entry, The Sparks, included the character of Lola, who it seems has appeared in at least one more of the author’s stories; and also a meteor shower was mentioned, which the author covered elsewhere. Thus far the effect has been minimal, and the stories have been perfectly capable of standing alone. That changes today, with the introduction of the Quintessence Quartet.

I want to go on record immediately as saying that I am not, in any way, complaining about the characters. I found this story to be a rollicking good read, owing much to the comic books from which it takes inspiration. I’m only complaining (if I even want to use that word) that there’s clearly history here that I most likely won’t be able to appreciate, because it comes from a source that I won’t be able to track down.

The Quintessence Quartet are best described as a tribute to Marvel Comics’ The Fantastic Four. Their powers, appearances, and names are tweaked enough to not be a direct copy; but it’s overwhelmingly obvious what they represent. Even the name of the airbase in the story—Baxter Air Force Base—is a Fantastic Four reference, as the Fantastic Four have long worked out of a skyscraper called the Baxter Building. (I’ll admit I was testing my memory to come up with that fact; it’s been a great many years since I last read any Fantastic Four comics, and, well, we’re still waiting for a good movie treatment, in my opinion.) They’re a good tribute, though—a respectful one, saturated in the wholesomeness of Silver Age comics.

I suppose it didn’t help me, in my grasp of this story, that it takes place during the events of Big Finish’s Sarah Jane Smithaudio series. This, too, is an era that I am unfamiliar with, although some research helped. The series, from what I have read, revolves around the battle between the White Chapter and the Red (or sometimes Crimson) Chapter, two offshoots of a single organization, both of which believe the end of the world is imminent. The Red Chapter seeks to hasten the end; the White Chapter seeks to prevent it. The Red Chapter appears here. The author deftly weaves it together with another established villain: the Mandragora Helix, from the Fourth Doctor serial The Masque of Mandragora (one I have seen, at least!). That serial predicted the return of the Helix at or near the end of the twentieth century—a thread that has been tugged in a few licensed stories, but never again on television. (For reference, compare the novels Beautiful Chaos and The Eleventh Tiger, and the comic The Mark of Mandragora.) The connection between the Helix and the Chapters is implied in the audio series, but not so explicitly as describe here (or so my sources indicate—I really should listen to the audio series).

But, enough complaining! Now for the good. For any fan of either the audio series or Marvel comics, this story is going to be pure fun. It’s long, one of the longer entries in the anthology, though much shorter than Swinging Londons; and yet it moves quickly, never lingering, much as the comics to which it pays tribute. Moreover, it’s upbeat—the characters, including Sarah Jane, are confident, peppy, and strong, without being annoying. More than any story I’ve read so far, this is a feel-good story, with none of the darkness and tragedy that usually accompanies a story in the Doctor Who universe. It makes me want to read more. (If anyone has experience with the author’s previous work involving the Quintessence Quartet, feel free to join in the comments!)

Overall: I was a little dismayed at first. Who are these people? What’s going on? There’s some explanation for each story in the editor’s introduction to the anthology, but even that wasn’t enough to prepare me for the way this story jumps right in. As well, I was concerned about the introduction of superheroes into the Doctor Who universe…until I was reminded that the television series already covered this ground, in The Return of Doctor Mysterio. Nevertheless, I’m glad I stuck with it. It made the teenage comic book reader inside me quite happy, and brought back good memories. Perhaps it will do the same for you.

Next time: We start the final section of the anthology, “Family”, with a contribution by the editor, M.H. Norris: Gifts for Good. 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.

The Sarah Jane Smith audio drama series may be purchased here.

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Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology: The Interstellar and the Improbable, by Scarlett Ward

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 ninth entry of the anthology: The Interstellar and the Improbable, by Scarlett Ward. 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.

Defending Earth (Cover)

An empty tube station is never not scary.

If anything, it’s worse when the station is unfinished—never used for passengers, its only occupations have been the movie crews that use it occasionally for filming…and oh yes, the rats. But they don’t figure into our story.

Someone does. That someone is an investigative journalist named Sarah Jane Smith: A journalist with a penchant for not just the sensational, but also the impossible, the supernatural, the—dare it be said?–alien. And Sarah Jane has heard rumors about this tube station. It started simply enough; the station is currently being used as the entrance point for an underground ghost tour, of the type that boasts the spirits of the dead, but ultimately relies on cheap jump scares. And yet, two things stand out: For one, this one is unusually successful; and for another, its guests come back different, somehow. They come back raving about the tour, and dedicating themselves to marketing its tickets; but also, somehow, not quite themselves. That is a bait that Sarah Jane—who is no stranger to weird phenomena—cannot ignore.

Now, she stands in the tunnel during the daylight hours, before the tour opens—and she hears a noise. She quickly tracks down and confronts the perpetrator: a young blond-haired woman, accompanied by…a very familiar canine robot?! She quickly learns, though, that this isn’t her robot—rather, it’s another of the same type, perhaps slightly more advanced. The woman introduces herself as Romana, and the oddity of their meeting quickly leads them both to put their cards on the table: Romana, like Sarah Jane, is a former companion of the Doctor, and is also a Time Lord herself (or Time Lady, if you prefer). She and her robot are traveling on their own for the time being, if in limited fashion; Romana is working on a ship of her own, but hasn’t completed it yet, leaving her to rely on a homemade time ring to get around for the moment. In the meantime, she is here investigating the same phenomenon as Sarah Jane. The two quickly—if not quite wholeheartedly—join forces.

As the tour opens for the evening, they join the line of customers. While waiting they talk about the possibilities, and conclude it must be some kind of mind control; thus Romana, who has some telepathic ability, insists on going in first—noting that customers are being admitted only one at a time, ostensibly due to cramped quarters in the unfinished tunnels. Sarah Jane unhappily agrees.

Romana allows herself to be escorted inside. Once down the tunnel, she is seized by two large men, and brought before a large, glowing crystal. They force her to place her hands on it—and instantly she finds herself in telepathic battle for control of her mind and body. She holds out briefly, but the force arrayed against her is strong and angry, and she begins to lose. Desperately she pulls herself and the enemy into a mental construct—a virtual castle, if you will—where she can see her enemy face to face. It manifests as a young woman, who calls herself Ellery Westwall.

Despite Ellery’s attempts to break free, Romana forces her to talk. She reveals that she and her people were destroyed many centuries ago by Rassilon, the near-mythical founder of Time Lord society; and their minds were trapped in this crystal, which has now found its way to Earth. They don’t care about right or wrong or morals; they only want to live again, and if possible, to take revenge on Rassilon’s children. Slowly, however, Romana wears her down, and gives her something she never had before: hope. If Ellery will let Romana fight along with her, they will challenge the leader of the group, Visser, and Ellery will replace him. Then Romana will, somehow, arrange for new bodies for them, bodies that won’t require theft from other beings—perhaps by Looming them, if she can steal a minor Loom from Gallifrey. The details may be a bit unformed, but Romana’s sincerity and determination are unmistakable—and so Ellery agrees.

Ellery takes control of Romana’s body long enough to get back to Sarah Jane, who is next in line. Romana resurfaces, and quickly fills Sarah in on the plan. She escorts Sarah Jane inside; but before Sarah can be exposed to the crystal, Romana challenges Visser to telepathic combat, and battle is joined. She lets Ellery lead the fight—but something is frighteningly amiss in Romana’s brain. The two of them are overcome, and Romana falls unconscious.

Sarah rushes to check on her—and sees a wisp of gold escape from her. But it isn’t regeneration energy—rather, it’s Ellery. With no time for any other plan, she allows Ellery into her mind. She suggests that they challenge Visser, but Ellery is panicking—if Romana couldn’t do it, how can a human?

Sarah Jane Smith, however, is never one to back down. She has faced Davros, the Daleks, the Sontarans, the Cybermen, and many others, and she is not afraid. As Visser sneers over her challenge, she touches the crystal, and urges Ellery to share her vision with her people…and it works. As hope spreads through her people, Ellery herself is strengthened—and returns to the fight, alongside Sarah Jane. Visser is strong, but Sarah has a flash of inspiration: She asks Ellery to urge the human whom Visser controls to fight back. And the man complies. Suddenly Visser is besieged on two fronts, giving Ellery the edge she needs. At last Visser is broken.

It’s not a clean victory though; for at the last moment, he declares that he will at least die with a body, and pulls out a knife to slash his host’s throat.

Sarah persuades Ellery to temporarily return to the crystal so that she can help Romana. She manages to get the unconscious woman—along with her robot—out of the tunnel and back to her own home, and waits for her to awaken. Romana awakens, and claims she was in a healing coma, and the two compare notes.

Unable to avoid Sarah’s questions, Romana explains what happened. She admits that, ever since regenerating into the form of one Princess Astra—who happens to have been a segment of the Key to Time—her lifespan has been affected. She may be only three hundred and three—a pittance in Time Lord years—but she is dying, slowly but surely. And since healing seems to require unbalancing the Key to Time—and the universe with it—it seems selfish to worry over her one solitary life. She’s been spending her remaining days seeking out places to do good, much like the Doctor before her. Still, it’s the robot who comes up with a suggestion for enhancing her remaining years, and it’s one that applies to Sarah Jane as well: Seek allies, or put another way, make friends. It’s just as well for Sarah Jane to hear it, for she is musing over her past—her travels with the Doctor, and how it changed her. But Romana points out that it’s possible that the Doctor doesn’t makewanderers; he only finds them. Sarah Jane can be that person, regardless of whether she is on Earth or among the stars.

Likewise, as Sarah says, Romana can do the same at home on Gallifrey—and perhaps that is where she should go. After all, why should she face her disease lying down? Gallifreyans are brilliant, but also stubborn: a combination that, for once, may do some good. And in the end, perhaps Romana might make her own people a little better. And in the meantime, there’s still Ellery to deal with, and Romana will need Gallifrey’s help for that. She bids Sarah Jane goodbye, and “thank you”; and Sarah wishes her well, musing that she is at long last beginning to understand why the Doctor loves this world so much.

Ward Title Card

Although we’re still in the “Investigations” section of Sarah Jane’s life, we’ve taken a step forward again. Goodbye, K9 and Company; hello, Big Finish! Or almost, at any rate. In 2002, Big Finish Productions brought Sarah Jane back to the (figurative) screen with a series of Sarah Jane Smith audio dramas (which you can still purchase at the link at the bottom). This story takes place immediately before the first entry in that series, Sarah Jane Smith: Comeback, and brings her character up to a point that listeners of the series will recognize. I, unfortunately, am not yet one of those listeners; I’ve listened to quite a bit of Big Finish’s Doctor Who-related lineup, but haven’t made it to the Sarah Jane audios yet. However, as this story serves as a sort of introduction to that period, it doesn’t make much difference to have not listened to the audios.

I love stories where companions from different eras meet (as we saw in the last entry with Victoria Waterfield, although she and Sarah Jane and the Brigadier had already met in Downtime). Here, one of my favorite companions, Romana, meets Sarah Jane for the first time. (Both appear in The Five Doctors, but do not meet.) Romana and her K9—again not named, at the request of the owners of the character, but identifiable by description—have at some point escaped from E-Space, but Romana has not yet made her way to Gallifrey. At the end of this story, she is poised to do so, thus setting up for the beginning of not one spinoff series, but two (the Sarah Jane Smith audios and the Gallifrey series). Meanwhile, Sarah’s K9 doesn’t make an appearance, but Romana’s K9 has detected his presence on Earth; Sarah muses that her K9 is functioning increasingly poorly, leading up toward his eventual malfunction sometime prior to School Reunion.

Halfway through this story, I was convinced it was more Romana’s story than Sarah Jane’s, much as Little Girl Lost was more about the Brigadier. Sarah Jane does seem to be the kind of character that can facilitate the rise of other people. However, as it turns out, it’s Sarah’s moment to shine; she is the one who—again, by promoting another character—brings about the victory at the end of the story. It’s a confidence boost for Sarah as well, which she will need for the adventures that lie ahead in her near future. It’s a testament to how far-reaching this character’s influence is within the universe of Doctor Who; she touches everyone eventually, and most come away better for it.

At the same time, Romana is the most fascinating character here, because of what’s happening behind the scenes. She indicates that she is dying of a disease that pertains to her form; ever since regenerating into the form of Princess Astra—who, The Armageddon Factor tells us, was secretly a segment of the Key to Time—she has been somehow affected by the Key segment, and is dying as a result. As far as I can tell from research, this is a result of the events of The Chaos Pool, an installment in the Fifth Doctor “Key 2 Time” audio arc, in which Romana temporarily absorbs the Key to Time—but again, this is a story I haven’t heard yet. If anyone knows more, feel free to comment! More interesting yet is Romana’s reference to the often-debated Looms; she considers the possibility of stealing a Loom from Gallifrey to give bodies to Ellery’s people.

Overall: This was a very enjoyable story. It’s classic Doctor Who format, even without the Doctor: a mundane, if creepy, setting, suddenly revealed to be the work of something far beyond Earth. Sarah Jane is quickly revealing herself not just to be a warrior for good and justice, but also a healer of sorts—a restorer of those who are broken. She stands for those who cannot stand on their own. We’ve seen it in several stories so far, and I think it sets her up well for what lies ahead. It’s a good role for her. It was good, as well, to see Romana and K9 again, if only briefly.

Next time: We have one more story in the “Investigations” era: When the Stars Come to Man, by William J. Martin! 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.

The Sarah Jane Smith audio drama series may be purchased here.

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