Spoiler Level: High
Sarah Jane Adventures returns for a fourth season, and it's got a tough act to follow with Series 3 having featured the return of K9 as a regular, the introduction of Rani Chandra, and a guest appearance by the Doctor.
"The Nightmare Man" is a good start. The titular villain is very creepy, especially to someone like me who's had a lot of bad dreams over the last few years. The cliffhanger to Part 1 pushes the boundaries for being downright terrifying for a children's series... or at least it would have if it hadn't gone straight into the previews for Part 2.
But this show's strengths have always been in its characters, and that's still the case. Part of the reason that the Nightmare Man is effective as a villain is because he plays on the characters fears; Luke has passed his "A Levels" and is headed off to Oxford, and his nightmares consist of everyone being glad he's finally out of their lives. By contrast, Clyde's afraid of never amounting to anything, and Rani, who wants to be a journalist like Sarah Jane, is afraid that her drive for journalistic success (and perhaps integrity) will force her to betray her role model. And the Nightmare Man tries to make Sarah Jane afraid of being alone again, playing on her being abandoned by the Doctor all those years ago, and reminding the audience of how much she's grown since this series started. These nightmares aren't just boogie-man scary-movie stuff; they're real fears that real people face, and it shows how strongly the characters rely on each other.
In an American kids show, this episode would have ended with "Oxford may be ready for me, but my place is here, with my mum and my mates. Oxford can wait!" Since I have a ten-year-old I've seen a lot of those, so all through the episode I was wondering if he was actually going to leave or if he'd stay. So I was somewhat surprised when the ending came and Luke drove off with K9 at his side. I have to admit, I totally cringed at the end of the pilot when Sarah Jane adopted him, but the series really made it work. The writers gave it just the right amount of depth and character that I felt it really made Sarah Jane grow more than her four years on Doctor Who ever did. And Luke's naivete and friendship with Clyde made him work as a character as well. So I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm sorry to see him go, and wondering how well the show will work without him. As Rich said to me after we finished watching it, he's the one who cements the cast together; Sarah Jane is his mother and the kids are his friends. Oh sure, Clyde and Rani have become Sarah Jane's Scooby-Doo Crew, but it makes more sense for the kids to be going over to Sarah Jane's house to hang out with Luke. If I recall correctly (and with me that's always a big "if"), Rani's parents weren't that sweet on Sarah Jane to begin with. It will be interesting to see how well the dynamic holds up with Luke out of the picture.
And speaking of Clyde and Rani, this changes their dynamic a bit as well. Before it was three friends hanging out; now it'll be a teenage boy and a teenage girl hanging out. Potential romance? It did seem like Luke was trying to push Clyde in that direction. I'm not opposed to it per se, but I have to confess I never saw it coming. Since this show is intentionally a kids show and a little more in the vein of the original Doctor Who, I always felt like there's no hanky-panky in the attic.
It's also interesting to note that with Luke and K9 gone, this now means that none of Sarah Jane's companions (it always feels funny to say that!) are the same as the pilot.
Some final thoughts on K9: I'm sorry to see K9 leave (again), but I have to admit, with Mr. Smith in the picture K9 is a but redundant. Having him leave with Luke as he starts his own adventure feels very fitting, as that's how K9 Mks I and II both went. And it's not like I'm going to have a chance to miss him when I still have 22 episodes of his own show left to watch...