“This song is ending, but the story never ends …”

The last time Sarah Jane Smith laid eyes on her time-traveling friend the Doctor he was standing grimly outside his TARDIS, in the midst of making his “victory lap” to visit his friends and help them all out one last time as the man they knew from four years of journeys through time and space. The look on her face as he entered the TARDIS told us that somehow she knew what we all knew at home; that the man with the spiky hair, the sideburns, and the long coat would soon die, and be reborn as … well, who knew, then? A younger fellow with a strange face and floppy hair, sure, but what would he be like?

Nearly ten months later, we the viewers at home know that the Doctor is all right; less cocky, less angst-ridden, more at peace with his unique place in the cosmos, but still continuing his crusading joyride through time and space, fighting monsters and saving people and entire civilizations with new friends by his side. And now, while his ongoing story takes a break, it’s time for him to let those he left behind know that his story, indeed, has not ended.

Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith and Katy Manning as Josephine Jones.

The Third Doctor's longest-running companion meets her successor on-screen for the first time in the latest episode of the latter's self-titled show, THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES.

Unfortunately for the Doctor, it seems he’s been trapped on some wayward red-hued junk-strewn planet, and a race of creepy harp-playing vulture puppet undertakers have decided, with the help of a stunningly gorgeous UNIT colonel, to tell two of the Doctor’s oldest and dearest friends on Earth that, in fact, the Doctor has been killed — hence the title of this story, “Death of the Doctor.”

I never do watch THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES unless some DOCTOR WHO guest star is popping by; I watched the first part of “Enemy of the Bane” to see former Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart drop by for old times’ sake, and of course I couldn’t miss last season’s “The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith,” which was a touching story in its own right beyond the appearance of David Tennant as the Doctor. While I was certainly counting down the days last time, I think that more had to do with how starved I was for more DOCTOR WHO last year; this year my excitement has more to do with the fact that I can’t get enough of Matt Smith as the Doctor. We got a full thirteen episode season, even one lacking one of those “Doctor lite” episodes we were given in years past, and I still feel starved for new adventures of the eleventh incarnation of the last of the Time Lords. And irritatingly (yet unsurprisingly for a story where the Doctor is presumed dead — again, it IS in the title) he doesn’t pop up until the last two minutes.

As a consolation prize, though, we do get a whole lot of Katy Manning as Jo Jones, the former Jo Grant, and the former companion of Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor. (The other key figures of the UNIT era of DOCTOR WHO, Lethbridge-Stewart and Liz Shaw, are cited as being in Peru again and on the moon, respectively.) Because of the way she left the Doctor’s side, falling in love and accepting a marriage proposal from a long-haired environmentalist and scientist as she drifted away from the man who showed her the cosmos, she presents an interesting contrast to Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith, a companion who lived a full life after ending her travels in time and space — traveling the world, protesting against waste, corruption, and corporate greed, and having a whole brood of children who have likewise given her a baker’s dozen of grandchildren. And yet, when Sarah Jane tells her that the Doctor came back to visit her just a few years ago — and more than once! — look at the shock, the sting of it on Jo’s face. Sarah Jane spent decades of her life in a holding pattern, but eventually the most amazing person she’d ever met did come back — wholly by accident, but he did come back.

Even when you set aside the fannish glee of continuity references and the return of the Doctor to our screens, it’s quite a good episode, with a perfect DOCTOR WHO-style cliffhanger (oh, how I still miss those). The usual stretch where everyone thinks Sarah Jane is mad to think the Doctor couldn’t possibly be dead is well handled, and while the effects are ropey, they’re charmingly ropey in the way the effects were back in the era of DOCTOR WHO this story is referring back to. The UNIT base is impressively designed, even if it’s obviously a digital matte painting. My only quibble is that Russell T Davies — yes, this was written by ex-DOCTOR WHO head honcho Davies — seems to be writing Matt Smith’s Doctor as David Tennant’s, and while Smith is definitely acting it as his own Doctor, it’s still coming off as a shade wrong. The mean-spirited barb he directs at Jo, for instance, sounds like something Tennant would have said, only he would have started it with a cry of “Oi!”

A little disappointing that the trailer suggests there won’t be a whole lot more of the Doctor in the next part (which I’ll be writing about Friday) but I am curious why the hunchbacked vulture puppets are after the Doctor, what they’re doing with the TARDIS, and most of all, why in the heck UNIT — and specifically Colonel Drop Dead Gorgeous — is helping them. So far the vultures are trying to put Jo and Sarah Jane into a trance and do something to leech their strong memories of the Doctor, but to what end? Thank goodness THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES runs the second part of its stories the next day. As of this writing (Tuesday night) I’ll have the answers to those questions in — ooh, mere minutes! Yay!