The Sarah Jane Adventures were not Elisabeth Sladen’s and John Leeson’s first mutual spinoff from Doctor Who. In 1981, a single episode of K9 & Company aired on the BBC at Christmastime, featuring two of the Doctor’s most popular companions.
The show received respectably high ratings, drawing an audience of over 8 million. John Nathan Turner, the producer for Doctor Who at that time, had hopes that this would lead to a whole new series–but, sadly, nothing further came of it.
The single episode is given its own disc on the recently released BluRay set for Tom Baker’s final series as the Doctor, along with a set of related features.
A Girl’s Best Friend
The opening credits show us Sarah Jane and K9. She sits atop a stone wall in the countryside, reading a newspaper. She sips champagne at an open-air table outside a restaurant. She jogs. She drives around the country roads. He scoots along in his usual fashion. All accompanied by the theme song, an electronic, upbeat melody with the following simple lyrics (sung by John Leeson in his K9 voice–something he apparently still enjoys doing):
K9! K9! [music: blip, blip, bloop, bloop]
K9! K9! [music: blip, blip, bloop, bloop]
K9! K9! [music: blip, blip, bloop, bloop]
Good luck with getting that out of your head after you’ve heard it a couple of times.
But we don’t meet our two heroes right away. The story starts, as so many holiday specials do, with a coven of witches performing a Black Mass in the ruins of an old chapel.
A person wearing an impressive-looking goat mask flicks drops of liquid onto the upturned faces of other members of the coven, then they march in a circle around a fire chanting, “Hecate! Hecate!” A young man (Sean Chapman) watches them through a window in the ruined chapel wall. They burn a photo of an elderly woman.
A jump cut takes us to the same photo on the front page of the local Gloustershire newspaper with the headline: “Local Scientist to Tour America”.
The newspaper sits on a table in the living room of this local scientist, Lavinia Smith, as she and a posh-sounding friend, Juno Baker, have a Bechtel-test-passing conversation about how she wasn’t planning to leave until after the holidays, but her hosts in New York have asked her to come over a month earlier than scheduled due to some other visiting scientist not being able to make it. Juno says this abrupt change of plans has to do with an article Lavinia wrote about witchcraft, and that she’s being “spirited away” from the village.
They also talk about some of the local people whom we’ll be seeing during this show, including the newspaper editor, the postmistress, and Lavinia’s business partner Bill Pollock who thinks he’ll run the orchard and gardens while she’s away.
While they’re talking, two young men in the background carry out boxes and baggage for Lavinia’s trip. She stops them when they bring out a large metal box. That isn’t to go with her, she tells them. She’s holding it for her niece.
The niece’s name is printed on the lid of the box: Sarah Jane Smith.
Aunt Lavinia doesn’t know where her niece is right now; as we know from Doctor Who, Sarah Jane is a journalist and could be anywhere in the world on an assignment. Sarah Jane is expected to come to her aunt’s on December 18 for Christmas. Lavinia will leave the box in the living room for her. Lavinia is also expecting Brendan, who is her ward and not a nephew, although he calls her Aunt too.
Sarah Jane arrives to an empty house. She knocks on the door and gets no answer before a creepy guy emerges from the shrubbery and tells her that her aunt left last week and gives her the keys. His name is George Tracey (Colin Jeavons). He’s responsible for the hands-on management of the orchard and greenhouses that form Lavinia’s market-garden business, but we know he’s a wrong-un since he was among the coven in the opening scene.
Once she gets inside, Sarah Jane phones the telegraph office to find out if her aunt tried to send her a message before leaving the country. No, none. She finds a note about the big metal box, telling her that it’s been up in the attic for years here and at her aunt’s old home in Croydon.
The phone rings. It’s Brendan (Ian Sears); the boy has left school a day early and is at the train station, freezing and waiting to be picked up. Sarah goes out to get him.
When the two return, they meet Commander Bill Pollock (Bill Fraser) waiting for them at the house. He’s one of those fat, jolly, blustering old gentlemen who are always suspect in shows like this. He says that the business is in a slump, but insists that Sarah leave it to him in her aunt’s absence. Sarah Jane is happy to. She’s got work of her own to do, writing a book.
Another phone call. This one from Juno Baker, who wants to invite Sarah over for a little holiday cocktail party that evening. Sarah accepts.
After she hangs up, we go to the Baker house, where Juno tells her husband Art, “She’ll come.” He says, “Good.” A simple exchange, but the tone of it feels ominous.
Bill Pollock advises Sarah not to go. Mr. Baker is a business competitor and the two men don’t like each other.
After the old commander leaves, Sarah and Brendan finally open the box. What a surprise: it’s a mechanical dog.
Brendan is looking this strange and, to him, unfamiliar creature over, when K9 activates and starts talking to them. He calls Sarah Jane “Mistress” and introduces himself as K9 Mark 3, a gift from the Doctor.
This show answers a question I’ve long wondered about. In The 5 Doctors, made a couple of years after this (and which I will review eventually), Sarah Jane has a K9 with her, and she still will have him when she meets the 10th Doctor in 2006. Since she left Doctor Who before K9 was introduced, I wondered for decades where she’d gotten him from. It’s right here that they meet.
Brendan spends some time going over K9’s computer capabilities. He’s a nerdy boy fascinated with this kind of thing, and K9 is far beyond the top of the line computers available to the public in the early ’80s. This is the era of the TRS-80, remember.
Sarah Jane leaves them to it; she’s got other things to do.
She first visits the postmistress to follow up on that missing telegram her aunt was supposed to have sent her. This woman is big, friendly, and middle-aged with a broad country accent, and she makes a fine cuppa tea for her visitor. She tells Sarah Jane that Lavinia was often forgetful, as clever people are, and probably never sent the intended telegram at all. She mentions those witchcraft articles Lavinia wrote and says that it stirred up a lot of people around the village. They are simple farming folk, and they still believe that supernatural help will make their crops grow.
An agricultural theme runs through this entire story, beginning with the troubles Lavinia and Bill Pollock are having with their gardening business. Bill will later tell a story about how a section of their orchard was wiped out just before the harvest in a freak hailstorm, and not covered by insurance due to an Act of God. While Sarah Jane is out, Brendan asks K9 what he knows about soils, and goes out to fetch a sample for K9 to analyze. George Tracey will witness this, which kicks off the plot.
Sarah Jane then goes to the Bakers’ cocktail party. Among the other guests, she meets the editor of the local newspaper and gets into another conversation about those witchcraft articles her aunt wrote. He encouraged the controversy, since it led to a lively exchange of views in the letters to the editor that went on for weeks. Probably more excitement than a little local paper sees in most years.
Brendan meanwhile is spending a fascinating evening at home asking K9 about his capabilities; it’s a subject that gets as much attention as agriculture and witchcraft, although it isn’t as central to the plot.
Things soon liven up, however, when George Tracey and his son Peter–the boy who was watching the coven at the beginning–creep into the house. They attack Brendan, but K9 saves the day by zapping Peter. Brendan ties Peter’s wrists with his old school tie.
George Tracey gets away and hides by the greenhouses out back. K9 goes in pursuit after him, but is distracted by a garden gnome; he knocks down some poles, breaking the glass wall and roof of the nearest greenhouse. George flees into the night.
When Peter comes to, he warns Brendan: “Get away from here, before they come after you!”
Peter’s father has run home, and is telling someone we don’t see about K9: “A white dog. Hecate’s familiar!”
He reports that this supernatural beastie got his son, but Peter shows up a minute later.
Peter managed to get free and escape while Brendan was phoning Sarah Jane at the Bakers’. By the time she gets home, there’s nothing to see but a necktie lying on the floor in the front hall. They phone the police and Brendan describes his attackers.
George Tracey wants Peter to go back and kidnap Brendan. Peter doesn’t want to, but his father pushes him into it.
Peter grabs Brendan the next night as the younger boy checks the front door before going up to bed, then cuts the phone line.
Sarah Jane doesn’t realize that her sort-of cousin is gone until the next morning. She can’t phone the police since the line is down, but she knows enough about the Traceys by now to guess who’s responsible and drives over to their house with K9 in the back seat. When they get there, no one’s home. She leaves K9 in hiding under the stairs before telling Bill Pollock and going to the police station with him.
When she reports to the police, they don’t seem to think it’s a big deal. Peter is also gone from home, they tell her. Teen-aged boys, you know, are apt to go off without telling anyone, so she should go home and wait for someone to call.
Leaving the police station, Sarah meets up with the postmistress, who expresses her sympathies. She’s carrying a shopping bag loaded with holly and mistletoe.
Why are the police so dismissive of Sarah Jane’s concerns? Because they already know all about it. At least one of them was also in the coven at the beginning. After Sarah Jane has gone, that constable goes to see George Tracey and ask where the boy is. Tracey won’t tell him.
The constable doesn’t like this. As part of a farming community, he has no qualms about slaughtering a goat or chicken, but he draws the line at human sacrifice. There hasn’t been one in the village since 1891. “And I’m a policeman!”
Tracey responds that Hecate’s Laws are higher, and if she isn’t appeased it will mean doom for them all. It’s the White Dog he’s concerned about, that sign of the goddess’s displeasure with them. So inadvertently, this is all K9’s fault.
K9 is still hidden under the stairs at the Tracey house, listening to all this. When Sarah returns, he tells her about it. They head out to get help to find and rescue Brendan.
Riding his bike down a dark country lane not far ahead of them, the policeman meets with an unfortunate accident. This is the closest the show gets to an actual supernatural event. Hearing a strange sound, he stops his bike and asks if anyone’s there–then suddenly shudders and twitches as if he’s being electrocuted.
When Sarah Jane and K9 come along, they find him lying in the middle of the road. A white billy-goat stands in the pasture just off to one side, looking over the fence at them.
The rational explanation given is that the goat startled the constable and gave him a heart attack, but Sarah Jane finds that rather suspicious. Really, in her association with the Doctor, she’s seen a lot more weirder stuff than this.
She goes to Commander Pollock the next morning to tell him what K9 overheard–although she claims that she’s the one who heard the conversation while lurking outside the Tracey cottage, since Bill doesn’t know about K9. He says he believes her, but urges her to wait.
Meanwhile, George Tracey tells his son that, since he’s always wanted to join the coven, now’s his opportunity since there’s a vacancy. They need 13 to make up the number for their upcoming ceremony. Peter may have once wanted to join, but he doesn’t anymore. Like the constable, he balks at the idea of human sacrifice. His father insists that he must be initiated tonight, or else he will end up just like the constable.
That night, Peter is forced to join the coven. My thought while watching this scene, and the ceremony the following night is that those poor boys must have been freezing. These scenes were filmed on November nights, and are set during the end of December. For his initiation, Peter wears a short red tunic with no sleeves and open sides. When he’s brought out to be sacrificed, Brendan’s in an even skimpier white shift. Everybody else has on a long, black robe and gets to stand closer to the fire.
Sarah Jane next goes to the Bakers, who seem to think she’s being hysterical and over-imaginative. Fortunately, Sarah is written to be perfectly cool-headed and sure of herself; I especially like when Art Baker tries to suggest to her, “Isn’t it possible that you misheard?” and she shoots back, “No, it’s not possible.” Plus, she’s suspicious of the Bakers as well as of Bill Pollock by this point. Hell, everyone looks suspicious. While they could be somewhat stupid upper-class people who don’t buy into the idea of the local farmers’ superstitions and are reluctant to believe her because of that, they might also be trying to gaslight her into doing nothing until it’s too late to save Brendan. But Sarah’s well aware of that.
Since no one will help, it’s up to her and K9 alone. They’ve gathered enough information between them to understand the connection between the coven’s activities and the failed harvest, and that a big ceremony with a blood sacrifice is coming up that very night, the night of the midwinter Solstice. K9 contributes that witches’ powers are believed to be increased if they perform their rites on hallowed ground.
Sarah Jane gets out a local ordnance survey map and K9 locates all the churches within a 5-mile radius, then plans out the most efficient route to follow to check them all before midnight, when Brendan is expected to be sacrificed. It’s late afternoon at this point. Off they go!
After dark and late into the night, they’re still searching. K9 observes that a private chapel is marked on the map within the grounds of the manor house, Bill Pollock’s estate. K9 also helpfully adds that it’s now 11:57.
Nearly midnight, and the dazed and drugged Brendan is being carried up by the coven to be placed on the altar.
Can Sarah Jane and K9 make it there in time?
Of course, they do. British children’s television in the 1970s and ’80s was remarkable in a number of ways, but they weren’t going to show a young boy being killed by witches during a holiday special.
The ending of this show puts me in mind of The Witches and its resemblance to The Wicker Man. Once again, we have a modern UK village where the local folk practice pagan rites, and you’re not really sure who’s involved and what’s going on–and then there’s a rush to save a teenager, probably a virgin, from being sacrificed. But in those other instances, the hero didn’t bring along a mechanical dog who could zap people with a laser shooting from its nose. Nor did Edward Woodward or Joan Fontaine kick coven ass the way Sarah Jane does. Things would have turned out differently for them if they had.
Before you know it, everyone’s lying flat out or scattered in fear. Sarah Jane checks that Brendan’s okay, then looks over the familiar faces of the members of the coven on the ground around her. She pulls off that goat mask to see who the leader of this group is…
There’s a lot I like in this story. It’s got several good character actors in supporting roles, and a strong feminist bent in the characterizations of Sarah Jane and her aunt–who is fine in the States, by the way, and phones after all the excitement is over.
At the very end, K9 sings “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
I wish they had done just a few more episodes.