Monday 24 October 2011

The Sarah Jane Adventures - The Man Who Never Was

And so the end has come. With the transmission of parts one and two of “The Man Who Never Was”, The Sarah Jane Adventures has come to a premature finish. Many people, myself included, erroneously believed that this story had always been intended to end the season, so even though it wouldn’t be wrapping up the whole show, it would at least wrap up the season. It’s perfectly normal for television episodes to be filmed out of order, so there was nothing unbelievable about this idea and the rumour spread far and wide. (I could have sworn I first read it on the Doctor Who News Page, which is generally a very reliable source of information, so I believed it; however, having just done a search for it, I can’t find any mention in any post on the Doctor Who News Page, so I must have seen it somewhere else.) As it happens, the truth of the matter is, “The Man Who Never Was” was always intended as the third story of the season, and so does not provide the sense of closure that many people no doubt hoped for. However, it does have a certain sense of closure to it, particularly through the meeting of Luke and Sky, and it doesn’t leave the audience consciously thinking about any of the show’s loose plot threads.

Written by Gareth Roberts, “The Man Who Never Was” is a fun story that combines together the meeting of Luke and Sky with a tale about a sinister new computer (the “Serf Board”), an evil corporate villain, and some deft social commentary on human trafficking. It’s not the greatest Sarah Jane Adventures story ever (that title probably goes to last week’s “The Curse of Clyde Langer” or perhaps “Death of the Doctor”), nor is it particularly epic in style, but it is an entertaining romp which perfectly encapsulates the true heart of the series. If any random story had to be selected as the finale of the series, this one works better than pretty much any other. SPOILERS FOLLOW

Elisabeth Sladen is in fine form, as always. In particular, she shines during Sarah Jane’s interview with Serf. The scene itself drags on a bit, but Sladen manages to keep viewers interested despite the fact it’s getting repetitive. It’s great to see how much confidence Sarah Jane exudes throughout the story, from the interview with Serf to how she deals with Harrison in general. She is rightfully proud of being “one of the country’s top journalists”. It’s also been nice to see, in the last couple stories, some references to her career outside of saving the world from aliens (or in this case, saving the aliens from humans) and just how she manages to afford all the stuff in her attic.

I’ve been rather critical of Sky for the last few stories, and while I am still not really impressed by her, I must admit that she is less annoying in this story. She is paired up with Luke for most of the story, as we get the subplot of her and Luke meeting for the first time and learning to get along with one another as brother and sister. Luke is also one of my least favourite characters in the show. I’ve always found him a bit dry and dull. However, Luke and Sky together seem to work much better than either of them alone. Their attempts to control Serf during the press conference make for one of the most hilarious scenes I’ve ever seen on television. I could barely see the screen through teary eyes, I was laughing so hard.

Even though the story focuses on Sarah Jane, Luke, and Sky, Clyde and Rani get some good moments as well. Luke’s use of the name “Clani” to refer to them together was good fun. I’ve never been very fond of the romantic hints between the two of them from last season (mainly because there’s a dearth of male/female pairings on television that don’t result in romance), but there’s no doubt that they make a great team working together, and the use of this fan-made name is a great nod to the viewers. There is only the slightest of references to the potential Clyde/Rani romance in this story (absent from earlier stories this season). From Clyde’s very touching mention of Ellie from last story and Rani’s reaction, I got the impression that Clyde and Rani have moved on from this and that the potential romance is in the past for them. However, from reading some reactions on-line, it seems some people got the opposite impression, so who knows what the actual intention was? With the show over now, we as viewers can imagine it however we like.

Guest star James Dreyfus as Harrison is a touch over-the-top, but in a good way. He doesn’t go too far, instead putting in just enough to make the character entertaining, but still clearly villainous and sometimes downright sinister, particularly in the nonchalant way he says that the aliens “merely need a firm hand” in response to torture he inflicts upon them. Dreyfus manages to make the character fun for children to watch whilst never turning Harrison’s downright horrific actions into a farce.

Much like “The Curse of Clyde Langer”, “The Man Who Never Was” manages to throw in some surprise social commentary through Harrison’s enslaved aliens. The first episode very cleverly makes it look as if Harrison is either working with or for the aliens, who seem to be the masterminds behind Joseph Serf and the Serf Board. However, the revelation next episode that the aliens are, in fact, slaves of Harrison, who bought them on the black market, is a fabulous twist that gives a fresh energy to the second half of the story, which changes from a tale about defeating the aliens into one about saving the aliens. Through the aliens’ plight, the story also throws in some subtle commentary on real-world human trafficking, but like “The Curse of Clyde Langer”, never in a preachy way. Indeed, it’s never even directly referenced, and the story can be enjoyed without even noticing that aspect. However, the parallels are there for those who want to look deeper.

The additional twist that there is absolutely nothing special or sinister about the Serf Board is also a stroke of genius. When it was first seen on screen, my initial thought was that it was a surprisingly clunky looking computer for something that was supposed to be so advanced and, presumably, some form of alien attempt to conquer the world. It seemed hard to believe that the youth of today would ever be interested in it when they also have the option to buy iPads or similar, less clunky, more streamlined machines. However, the clunkiness is probably quite intentional as a hint that the computer is really nothing special (or as Harrison himself calls it, “rubbish”). The real plot is Joseph Serf’s ability to hypnotize people into buying a rubbish computer, thus making Harrison billions for no real work.

Although this story was never intended to be the final story, the unfortunate fact is that it is, and so the production team very wisely included a heart-warming montage of clips at the end, accompanied by one of Sarah Jane’s monologues from the first season. It gives a sense of finality to the series whilst at the same time leaving it open enough for us to imagine and create our own ongoing adventures for Sarah Jane and the gang. It was a truly touching tribute, and the final caption is likely to bring tears to the eyes of even the most hardened viewers.

The Sarah Jane Adventures has been an excellent series and a shining example of just how good children’s television can be when it treats its audience with intelligence and doesn’t talk down to them. I will miss it greatly. So at the risk of being overly sentimental, I’d like to thank all those involved in bringing it to our screens. Thank you to Russel T Davies for initiating it and bringing new life to Sarah Jane. Thank you to Phil Ford, Gareth Roberts, and all the other writers. Thank you to the production team itself, from producers and directors to camera crews and everyone else behind the scenes. Thank you to Daniel Anthony, Anjli Rohindra, Tommy Knight, Sinead Michael, Yasmin Paige, Ace Bhatti, Mina Anwar, and all other cast members. And most importantly, thank you to Elisabeth Sladen for bringing to life a character that has been an inspiration to multiple generations.

Farewell, Sarah Jane.

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