...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Day 3943: THE SCARY JANE ADVENTURES: The Man Who Never Was


This wasn't how we'd have wanted it to end; we didn't want it to end. But if it had to end here, it was a good story to go out on: funny, moral, encapsulating the series' entire philosophy that the universe is wonderful, and by good fortune all Sarah Jane's family together at the end. (Except the dog!)

I read one person praising Sarah Jane because she "fought aliens and saved the world" and thought that was actually so wrong, so literally backwards. Because, as this episode proved, Sarah Jane was someone who fought the world and saved aliens.

Actually, I'm really glad that they did this story, getting it in just in time, because it's actually the first time in twenty-seven adventures where the main villain is unambiguously a human. We've had human accomplices before (e.g. "Warriors of Kudlak") or humans corrupted by an alien power (such as Russ Abbott's impressive turn in "Secret of the Stars") or acting bad under the influence of the Trickster (in "Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?" or "The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith" or even Sarah Jane herself in "The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith"). But the nearest we've had to an actual human baddie before was in "Mark of the Berserker" and that was Clyde's dad possessed by an alien device.

(And yes, we went through the whole series to check: Bane, Slitheen, Gorgon, Uvodni (Kudlak and his Empress), Trickster, Slitheen (again) and Xyloc; Sontaran, meteor entity, Mandragora Helix Ancient Lights, Clyde's dad!, Trickster (again), Bane (again) and Sontaran (again); Veil, Ship, Trickster (yet again), a ghost that turns out to be an entity from a distant galaxy, (deep breath) living paint made accidentally by Leonardo from a sentient meteor (yes, all right all right, The Mona Lisa), Blathereen; Extra-dimensional entity, Veil (again), claw Shansheeth (aka Muppet Vultures), robots, um… tricky… we don't know who the shopkeeper is (or his parrot, the Captain) and he's not really the villain anyway, Qetesh; fleshkind and metalkind, entity trapped in a totem pole, and at last a human!)

Actually, reviewing that list, it seems that you are more likely to be genuinely evil if you look human, or at least if you're pretending to look (or sound) human (especially if you're really a chunk of rock).

Of course, you can make excuses – since aliens aren't supposed to come to Earth, any that do may be a bit on the nefarious side already; or, we only see the thrilling adventures, missing out all those times where Sarah Jane and the Scooby Gang just have tea and poetry with a visiting traveller (well… aside from in their very first story!) – and given the Earth-bound nature of the show, the SJAs have got a lot more excuse for "invader of the week" stories than the parent series (where Russell's monster-obsession has nearly tipped the series over into a xenophobic crusade, with only episodes like "Planet of the Ood" and "Midnight" standing up for the "humans can be monsters" point of view). And it's not like there haven't been any nice aliens (a star poet; Captain Tybo of the Judoon; even Mr Dread turned out to be moderately on our side), but it was good to see the series firmly placing itself on the side of "not all strangers are bad".

(And coming on top of "The Curse of Clyde Langer" with its strong "homeless people are people too" subplot, it certainly seems season five is, or would have been, the "message" season. Done well – and it was done well – that's not a bad thing.)

James Dreyfus is rather wonderfully nasty, and more importantly, wonderfully petty as Mr Harrison, the human creep who wants to use alien slaves and a bit of alien hypnosis to cheat people into buying his nasty iPad knock-off.

Oh, yes, the plot involves an elusive genius performing solo at the launch of his revolutionary "device"… it's a timely piece of satire on the late Steve Jobs, all the more remarkable for having been recorded a year ago.

(And the same applies to Tat's observation that the steampunk-powered Serf hologram shows up the ridiculousness of a thing like Doctor Who's Tesselector… somehow getting the satirical digs in before Moffat wrote the conclusion to his death of the Doctor arc. It's another of those continuity errors in the real world.)

And of course "Mr Serf" (played with hilarious abandon by Mark Aiken – "no! proper smile, not sexy smile!") "Mr Serf" turns out to be operated by Serfs!

The Light Sculptors or to be honest Cyclops/Jawas were rather lovely – yes there was Dan Starkey back again, this time out of his Sontaran tights though – managing to be both sympathetic victims and quite funny. I don't care how obvious it was that the monsters were victims not villains (and to be fair, they did quite well disguising that for the first episode), it was a nice reversal and, as I say, about time.

And I should also say what a delight it was to see Peter Bowles turning up as Sarah Jane's old editor and basically just being charming all over the place. Like Nigel Havers a couple of years back, or Ronnie Corbett in the Comic Relief special, or Samantha Bond back in the pilot, or many others, this series has managed to get so many top notch actors, stars I should say, who ought to have been well out of its league.

And it's got to be because this really is the true inheritor of the mantle of classic "Doctor Who". It's not just the half-hour time-slots; it's not just that it's flagrantly done on a budget – achieving the extraordinary in the teeth of having no money just as the old series did; not having money to burn the way twenty-first century "Who" seems to. It's because this series has heart. It has joy. It has success.

Sarah Jane, Luke, Clyde and Rani, and Maria before, time and again they unambiguously win. Too much new "Doctor Who" has concentrated on "the cost", "the price the Doctor has to pay". It's made the Doctor almost a selfish character, as he cuts himself off more and more. Sarah Jane has had almost exactly the opposite trajectory. She starts off alone, in a self-imposed internal exile, determined that if she can't have the Doctor she'll have no one. And gradually, between them, Maria and Luke and then Clyde and Rani open her up to the possibilities of family, and she reconnects herself to the world.

Yes, there are consequences. The kids learn and grow up. Maria moved to America; Luke went to university; Clyde and Rani look like they really are getting together ("Clani" shippers everywhere swooning with joy when the series itself made them canon). Everyone in the Sarah Jane Adventures changes – even K-9 and Mr Smith. But "consequences" doesn't mean things have to get worse. Luke and Sky's relationship goes from fearful and resentful to loving acceptance over the course of two episodes, a microcosm of the series as a whole.

In a way it's entirely appropriate that her last story should feature her old editor, a connection to the time when she was entirely defined by her job. Because for Sarah Jane, consequences mean more connections to people, complications, developments, evolution… in short, a life.

And that is the adventure that continues… forever.

I've not been very good at reviewing every Sarah Jane Adventure as they've come along, but holed up at home with an icepack wrapped around my swollen ankle, CBBC were broadcasting their "Ultimate Sarah Jane" season, and I watched most of "The Lost Boy" through "Mark of the Berserker" and you know what? They really stand up to repeated viewing. So I think we'll be going back to the beginning and watching the series through and I'll try and fill in some of those stories I didn't review first time around. Even the one with the Mona Lisa.

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

Lots of agreement here. My family and I have watched all of Sarah Jane, and noted over and over again how much more adult these programs are than, say, Torchwood. They've managed to touch repeatedly on important issues without ever getting preachy and while consistently being fun and clever. If the acting's not been up to the standard of Actual Doctor Who, that's easy to forgive.

I'm going to miss Liz Sladen, and Sarah Jane, and for that matter Sky. I'm glad that the series went out on such a high note: The Curse of Clyde Langer and The Man Who Never Was are about the best that SJA has ever been, with the possible exception of the first Trickster story.