Bigger On The Inside: A Quick Start Guide To… The Spin-Offs
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR MEDIA BLASPHEMY.
It can’t have escaped your attention that Doctor Who is about to celebrate its landmark 50th anniversary. The world’s longest running sci-fi show began in 1963, and has run on and off to this day. After thirty-three seasons, its 800th episode or so will be simulcast to 75 countries and hundreds of cinemas nationwide on November 23rd. Clearly, there’s a lot going for it, but the sheer size and scope of the show can make it impenetrable for first time viewers.
So if you’ve never seen an episode, or you only started watching it because David Tennant was a bit dishy, here’s the first in a twelve part series giving you a quick over-view of each Doctor, each companion, big name monsters and stories to snog, marry and avoid. We’ll even throw in the spin-offs that ran (mostly) in recent years, to let you know if they’re worth a look. So get your sonic screwdriver at the ready, and delve into articles which we hope… are bigger on the inside…
THE SPIN-OFFS: 1981, 2006-2011
During David Tennant’s reign as the Tenth Doctor, it seemed Russell T. Davies could do no wrong. The show was a smash hit, and not even a string of duff episodes could negate the all-round fan admiration for him and his team at BBC Wales. Fourteen episodes of Doctor Who per year was an enormous challenge to produce, but that didn’t stop the Who crew from branching out with two key spin-off series which, for a time there, felt like they would last forever.
Doctor Who spin-offs were far from a new invention in 2006, with the first full-blooded televisual side-step being the Christmas special K-9 And Company in 1981. Starring Elisabeth Sladen as former companion Sarah Jane Smith, and John Leeson voicing the popular robot dog, the one off show saw The Doctor gifting a new model of K-9 to Sarah, who then set off solving mysteries.
The intent had been to launch a series, but despite the best efforts of Sladen and Leeson, everything else about the show was a disaster. Nevertheless, it paved the way for their return in The Five Doctors in 1983, and later School Reunion in 2006, so it’s as ‘canon’ as you can get… much to the chagrin of many!
However, the story really begins with 21st century Doctor Who, and the incredibly popular character of Captain Jack Harkness. The bisexual 51st century conman was played with typically camp gusto by John Barrowman in the latter half of Christopher Eccleston’s sole series as the Ninth Doctor, only for the character to be massacred by the Daleks during the episode’s climatic battle. When a TARDIS-powered Rose revives Jack, he is accidentally blessed with the gift of immortality, and left behind by a fearful Doctor to help Earth recover from the Dalek assault.
Jack manages to transport himself back in time to try to find The Doctor again, but ends up in 1869, where he is recruited by sinister secret agency Torchwood, set up by Queen Victoria after the events of Doctor Who episode Tooth and Claw. And there he stays, out of harm’s way, avoiding other versions of himself already on Earth in the 1940s until he can meet the Doctor once again.
With the destruction of Torchwood One during the Battle of Canary Wharf, depicted in Doomsday (another Who episode), Jack’s Cardiff-based team become the only real surviving version of Torchwood in operation. This includes tech-wizard Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), lothario Owen Harper (Burn Gorman) and admin-expert Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd). Jack soon recruits an inquiring mind in the form of policewoman Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), who is forced to lead a double life – keeping her top secret job hidden from her boyfriend, Rhys (an always note perfect Kai Owen).
Along the way, Jack, Gwen and the team investigate mysterious goings-on in Cardiff, which has become a temporal hub of strangeness following the events of Ninth Doctor story Boom Town. These range from fantastical beings like ghosts and fairies, to nefarious alien presences – most of whom seemed to have a penchant for sex.
You see, Torchwood was pitched as Doctor Who for adults… a sort of X-Files meets This Life, and early on at least, this shows. Characters fight, f**k and swear for no real reason other than they can, and quite often, this teenage maturity feels oddly forced and uncomfortable.
Thankfully, by series two, the tone was fixed, and humour replaced much of the previous crudity. This may be thanks to the temporary recruitment of Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) post TARDIS travels, and Jack’s brief return to Doctor Who in between seasons, but nevertheless, for a time there, Torchwood was rattling along very smoothly indeed.
Yet Torchwood was a show in which nobody was safe – and the second series saw a shake-up to the system as both Tosh and Owen were given painful, heartbreaking demises. The third series – Children of Earth – saw a format change, as the standard Who-esque 13 part seasons were replaced with one five part narrative featuring future Doctor, Peter Capaldi, and letting Ianto Jones join Tosh & Owen in the great Torchwood graveyard in the sky.
By the time it’s forth series trundled around in 2011, Torchwood had become an American co-production. Only Barrowman, Myles and Owen remained series regulars, and they were joined by 8 Mile star Mekhi Phifer, soap star Alexa Havins and acting legend Bill Pullman, for a very different show indeed. Miracle Day, as it became known, put Jack, Gwen and Rhys into a tale of 24 inspired paranoia, given an added alien invasion twist, in which one day, no-one on earth can die. It failed to find its footing in the same way as past adventures, and since then, Torchwood’s adventures have been in limbo…
The same cannot be said, sadly, for The Sarah Jane Adventures, which began a few weeks after Torchwood on New Years Day, 2007. Following the character’s return to Doctor Who, she and K-9 stumbled upon a genetically engineered boy genius, and a small gang of inquisitive local school kids who would assist Sarah Jane as she defended the Earth, the way The Doctor had taught her all those years ago.
Aimed primarily at a younger audience, the show nevertheless quite often managed to outstrip its low budget and CBBC branding to make some truly wonderful pieces of television, some of which could teach Torchwood a thing or two about making emotionally moving pieces of drama. Stories like “Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane Smith” and “The Curse of Clyde Langer” tackle serious issues with great aplomb, in a way that children’s television so rarely bothers to do anymore.
As a more mature Sarah Jane, Elisabeth Sladen excelled, acting as mother hen to her adopted son Luke (Tommy Knight), his insecure but wisecracking friend Clyde (Daniel Anthony), and her successive neighbours from across the road – sensitive Maria (Yasmin Paige) and her replacement, the intuitive Rani (Anjli Mohindra). As the show progressed, Clyde and Rani became almost an equal focus, with Luke relegated to recurring status as the series only teenage character to be portrayed by an actual teenage actor with real life exams to worry about.
Together, they gave the show another layer – a will-they-won’t-they hint that was never explored in depth, but made them feel all the more real. And Lis… oh, magical Lis… she owned every scene she was given, as a consummate professional. It also helped that, unlike Torchwood’s references to the parent show, The Sarah Jane Adventures got to be more directly linked with its lineage. Both the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors would turn up along the way, as did Pertwee-era stalwarts Nicholas Courtney and Katy Manning as The Brigadier and Jo Jones (nee Grant) respectively.
Sadly, it couldn’t last. After filming the fourth series, the first three stories of the fifth were also put in the can, before production ceased as a budget saving measure. The idea was to come back and film the second half of Series Five, and then the entirety of Series Six, but it was not to be. Elisabeth Sladen – like Nicholas Courtney at the same time, had developed cancer, and just a few months after her old friend succumbed to his battle, so too did the world lose Lis Sladen. Her death made news headlines around the world, and her final stories were transmitted to great acclaim later that year.
The untimely end of The Sarah Jane Adventures coincided with the final (to date) run of Torchwood episodes, and the climax of Series Six of Doctor Who’s 21st century incarnation. The parent show would be off air for almost a year afterwards, and as both shows came to an end, it couldn’t help but feel like the climax of a golden era for fans. In 2008, for example, there were 14 episodes of Doctor Who, 13 episodes of Torchwood, and 12 of The Sarah Jane Adventures, plus regular documentary series chronicling the making of the first two. By 2011, all but the parent show were gone, as the production office began to gear up to the epic plans for the 50th anniversary.
Nevertheless, the legacy left behind by Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures looms large, and greatly expanded the world of Doctor Who. Many dismissed them for various reasons – the former for being too ‘adult’, too dark and sleazy; the latter for being made for children. Yet both made their mark, and when they got it right, just like the Doctor himself, they could make the universe feel like a better place.