The Sarah Jane Adventures 5.5-6 – The Man Who Never Was (parts one and two)

So of course this series came to an end far sooner than planned, but at least we can say that they went out with a very good one. Gareth Roberts’ “The Man Who Never Was” features the awesome Peter Bowles in a small role as one of Sarah Jane’s former editors, and does a brilliant job of subverting the audience’s expectations. The story’s built around yet another must-have consumer good, echoing back to the Bubble Shock drink of the very first story, and Clyde is quite naturally expecting everybody in the neighborhood to start walking up the street like zombies as soon as the mystery baddie switches on whatever malevolent machine is in play.

But beautifully, it’s nothing like that at all. The fad-du-jour is a small laptop called a Serfboard, and it’s not an alien superweapon. It’s basic human junk. It’s the least impressive laptop money can buy, and Clyde and Rani – in a wonderful tip of the hat to fandom, Luke has started calling them “Clani” – even realize that the model they’ve got to test for alien tech comes with one whole free byte of storage space. The all-too human inventor of this expensive paperweight is, however, planning to use alien slaves and their hologram technology to hypnotize humanity into buying it in record numbers. I loved all the Clani stuff – Luke will not stop calling them that – and our son laughed himself silly when Luke and Sky take the reins and start driving the hologram of the American inventor. Unfortunately, Sky’s only experience with how Americans might talk comes from watching Toy Story.

Since the show ended, I have often wondered why Steven Moffat never gave the series a proper sendoff in an episode of Doctor Who. I mean, assuming that Sarah Jane passed away at the same time that Elisabeth Sladen did – and, as it turned out, there was no reason whatever to make that assumption – that would have meant that there’d been an alien supercomputer hanging out in an attic on Bannerman Road since 2011, for starters.

But earlier this year, writer Russell T. Davies, who, with the use of names like “Jackals of the Backwards Clock,” proved that he has lost none of his amazing talent to string words together better than anybody else, penned a little thirteen-minute story set in 2020, at and just after Sarah Jane’s funeral. With a narrator and seven surprise performers sending in their contributions from home studios, “Farewell, Sarah Jane” premiered this past April on YouTube as a delightful, albeit heartbreaking, little piece of lockdown content. I’d held off watching it until tonight, so that our son would be caught up and the family could see it together. I confess to a tear or two.

But the really incredible news from “Farewell, Sarah Jane” is that Nyssa is living on Earth and Luke has passed K9 to a new owner. Seriously! Russell, you’re a genius! Well, we knew that already, but I love this!!

The Sarah Jane Adventures 5.3-4 – The Curse of Clyde Langer (parts one and two)

I made the mistake of misusing the word “fun” when I was attempting to tell our son that this story was a good one. It was certainly the wrong word. It’s fun to me watching the story, written by Phil Ford, come together and go in unexpected directions, but it is not at all fun in the sense of it being a pleasant and entertaining and possibly funny adventure. The poor kid spent the hour wondering when this moody tale of a spirit-being completely destroying Clyde’s life and turning everybody he knows against him was ever going to get “fun,” and it doesn’t, not in that way. It’s a very atypical Sarah Jane Adventure, with a surprisingly unflinching and downbeat ending.

Anyway, I really enjoy this story, and everybody involved really deserves a round of applause for making it work. Once the curse does its whammy on Clyde’s name, so that people instantly start to hate him as soon as they either see or hear it, it means that the characters we love turn incredibly cruel and hateful. This isn’t “teevee possessed” acting; it’s gut-punchingly real and you just want to invite poor Clyde home and give him your spare room.

Part two sees Clyde having to abandon his name to keep anybody else from hating him, and he finds help from a homeless girl called Ellie. The depiction of homelessness is very stark and very real, and all the business of the spirit-thing needing to be defeated takes a back seat to his story. Neat design and special effects, but Clyde has to do his world-saving duty, tries to get back to Ellie, and doesn’t get a happy ending. After the hellish three days he’d gone through, he doesn’t get a happy ending. There’s a very neat twist to resolve one element of the story – there’s a troubling notion that a “night dragon” is kidnapping or stealing homeless people – and maybe somewhere out there, Ellie might have one, but it doesn’t look like it. Sometimes saving the planet from space monsters is thankless and awful work.

The Sarah Jane Adventures 5.1-2 – Sky (parts one and two)

And now to October 2011 and the final three Sarah Jane Adventures. These three stories were filmed along with the previous six in one longer production run. Another three were in development, but sadly, Elisabeth Sladen passed away that April. The mysterious Shopkeeper character played by Cyril Nri, introduced in “Lost in Time”, makes a second and final appearance here. Another story with the character had to be shelved, presumably the planned fifth series finale, which would have brought back the Trickster. They were also considering bringing back Sophie Aldred’s character Ace in series six.

So series five goes back to basics and gives Sarah Jane a new adoptive kid. This one’s named Sky, played by Sinead Michael, and, in something of a sci-fi TV tradition, we meet her as a baby and then she grows up, to about age twelve. This does have the feel of going in reverse. The show was made for CBBC, the network’s children’s channel, and Rani and Clyde must be in their last year of school at this point, so something like this was probably inevitable, though. Still, it’s entertaining in a way that SJA does beautifully well. Sky is “born” as a genetically-engineered weapon by a race of aliens, and causes electrical overloads whenever she becomes upset, leading to Clyde’s beautiful line “I’m in the middle of a nuclear power station and I’m carrying Baby Bang Bang!” Our son, naturally, enjoyed the whole show, but that line was his favorite moment.

The Sarah Jane Adventures 4.11-12 – Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith (parts one and two)

Our son was really unhappy with this one for a while. Julie Graham, who I enjoyed very much in Acorn’s Queens of Mystery recently, plays Ruby White, who appears to be another amateur alien-fighter like Sarah Jane, but, to nobody’s surprise, is really another alien. The kid was not fooled for a second. We’re meant to dislike her from the outset before she turns heroic and the good guys welcome her, but the kid stayed unconvinced. He even came close to predicting the resolution. Ruby’s species have separate, second stomachs, and use them to feed on heightened emotions. Our son knew that had to be the way to stop her, but bet on them somehow boring the stomach into starvation rather than overloading it with too much fear. Always bet on overloading the enemy power source / supercomputer / second stomach.

So this is the big finale story, but it’s surprisingly low-key for a SJA finale, with no returning villains or Slitheen. Luke and K9 return for part two, but that’s it. It’s a low-budget battle of wits with few locations or speaking parts or even extras. The story was written by Gareth Roberts and his partner Clayton Hickman, and it’s full of good ideas and a good villain. It’s a shame that Elisabeth Sladen’s sad death meant that Ruby could never come back for a rematch. Julie Graham returned as a different character in series twelve of Doctor Who, and my fingers are crossed that we’ll get a second series of Queens of Mystery, because they sure did leave a lot of unresolved plot threads in that fine little show.

We’ll watch the fifth, final series of The Sarah Jane Adventures in December. Stay tuned!

The Sarah Jane Adventures 4.9-10 – Lost in Time (parts one and two)

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m fascinated by stories that we didn’t get to see. So “Lost in Time” is a favorite with me because it introduces Cyril Nri as a mysterious shopkeeper who is forbidden to travel in time, but, with the assistance of a parrot called the Captain, can send other people to other times to do his work for him. And apart from a very brief appearance in the following season, that’s pretty much all we get.

There’s a delightful bit of extra-canon possibility. Neil Gaiman, who wrote the following season’s wonderful “The Doctor’s Wife” – the high point of series six and second favorite Smith story behind his debut for me – contributed a little text piece to the 2012 Christmas Brilliant Book called “Eleven Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Corsair”, a character mentioned in that story, and Russell T. Davies suggested that the shopkeeper may have been one of the Corsair’s nine lives. One of the Corsair’s female incarnations (there were at least two) finally got a legit appearance in a comic published last year.

As for the actual adventure, it’s really entertaining and our son was practically hopping in place with excitement. Sarah Jane’s adventure with a young ghost hunter in the 1880s thrilled him most. When time seemed to run out and she hadn’t grabbed the macguffin to return to the present, his fists were clenched as tightly as any child’s fists can be.

The Sarah Jane Adventures 4.7-8 – The Empty Planet (parts one and two)

“The Empty Planet” reminds me of a very good episode of The New Avengers called “Sleeper”, especially in the way it amazes me how they filmed it and made sure all the streets were clear of people and cars. There’s even a repeat of the gag in “Sleeper” where Purdey avoids some bad guys by pretending to be a mannequin, only here it’s Clyde avoiding a big robot.

Our son enjoyed it very much. It’s a great mystery story where Rani and Clyde have to work out where everybody else on the planet has gone except for them and a thirteen year-old kid called Gavin. I also liked how the writer, Gareth Roberts, tossed in a couple of Smiths references with a “son and heir” and some bloody awful poetry. Must’ve been listening to The Queen is Dead a lot that year.

The Sarah Jane Adventures 4.5-6 – Death of the Doctor (parts one and two)

I hate myself for doing it, but I just can’t stop looking at Doctor Who stories and wondering whether plans might have been changed along the way, and something dropped for some budgetary reason or other. One of my favorite examples in the whole continuity is Russell T. Davies’s completely delightful and huggable “Death of the Doctor,” in which a rogue UNIT colonel, allied with some alien undertakers with a memory machine and the stolen TARDIS, get Sarah Jane and another classic companion, Jo, together. Their machine will turn their memories of the TARDIS’s key into a real one, and the villains can hop off into time and space.

So it ends with all of their memories overloading the machine, which is the sort of thing that happens in action-adventure shows, and there’s a big explosion, largely offscreen, as you expect. But I swear this script was building up to Sarah Jane and Jo remembering something jointly from their travels together and bringing that into the room with the baddies. True, they both met the Daleks, but bringing one of them into the situation would just make things a lot worse. However, in episode one, they specifically telegraph that they both went to the planet Peladon and met the royal beast, Aggedor. I might love this story, but it’s conditional love. I’d love it even more if they’d remembered Aggedor back into being and it chased the villains out of the room into the arms of some UNIT soldiers who weren’t bent, and then the Doctor calmed the beast down by singing “Klokeda Partha Menin Clatch” to it.

Of course, the kid loved it to pieces. I gave him the gentlest of heads-up that he was due for a big surprise, but it’d take him a minute. And yes, Katy Manning returned, kooky as ever, and it took him a few seconds, but then his eyes widened and he smiled real big and facepalmed as Jo babbled away. It helped that he’s rewatched a couple of her adventures – “Carnival of Monsters” and “Planet of the Daleks” – pretty recently, and she hadn’t been forgotten. And Matt Smith is here, delivering one of my favorite lines: “Have you been telling people I’m dead?!” Our son cackled even more loudly than I did.

I really love the revelation that there was a lot more to the Doctor’s farewell trip than the reality of TV production let us see in part two of “The End of Time”. The Doctor tells Jo that while he never looks back, his sentimental old tenth self checked up on all of his old friends before he died, and so he knew that Jo was, in 2010, happily married with seven children and twelve grandchildren – thirteenth on the way – and the whole clan is endlessly busy protesting and fighting corporate greed around the world. The show ends with Sarah Jane noting that Tegan, Ben, Polly, Ace, Ian, and Barbara are all still active and doing good work in 2010. She also mentions Harry Sullivan in the past tense, suggesting that he has passed away.

UNIT’s come up in the world, again. Not content with the helicarrier seen in series three and four of Who, this time we learn they’ve got a moonbase, where Liz Shaw, another former companion, is working, and they’ve got this grand thing built into the side of Mount Snowdon in Wales. Sorry to be such a traditionalist, but I kind of prefer the country houses of the seventies.

The Sarah Jane Adventures 4.3-4 – The Vault of Secrets (parts one and two)

“The Vault of Secrets” is a delightful love letter to the films of Barry Sonnenfeld, with little winking tributes to his Men in Black stories as well as a couple of hat tips to his pair of Addams Family movies. It brings back the villain Androvax from the previous season and puts our heroes in a skirmish between him and a trio of Men in Black. They’ve been patiently guarding a hyper-dimensional vault full of captured alien tech in suburban London for decades.

I actually really love this idea. Apparently there was once a group called the Alliance of Shades, and they spent twenty years on Earth – 1953-1972 – trying to keep humanity from learning about extraterrestrials. By 1972, I guess they figured it was a lost cause and disbanded. In fairness to them, Pertwee’s Doctor and UNIT were saving the planet from alien threats every four or six weeks, and they couldn’t possibly keep it under wraps forever. But Men in Black lore continued, of course, into the present day, and one of the last people to have her mind mostly wiped by them has been running a society of UFOlogists. Just as well BURPSS never had any joint meetings with that LINDA lot. Maybe that would have been too meta, even for the Doctor Who world.

The Sarah Jane Adventures 4.1-2 – The Nightmare Man (parts one and two)

And now back to the autumn of 2010 and series four of the huggable The Sarah Jane Adventures. This was the series where the team mostly drops to a trio. Tommy Knight left the show and this is Luke’s final appearance as a member of the regular cast, although he shows up in a few more stories to come.

This story feels like a really strange one to launch the new series. It feels like the season cheapie, with almost no additional speaking parts or locations. The Nightmare Man is a being from another dimension who feeds on dream energy. It doesn’t feel like anything that original’s going on here, but it’s done with style and is sufficiently creepy. Our son demurred, saying it’s “more Halloweeny than creepy,” and assuring us that he would not be horrified by the Nightmare Man’s bad dreams. He’s just say “So what? Bored,” and wake up. Then again, this kid has probably had fewer bad dreams in nine years than anybody else in the world. He probably doesn’t understand why people are bothered by them.

The most interesting part of the story is the Nightmare Man himself. He’s played by Julian Bleach, the most recent actor to play Davros in Doctor Who, and he seems to have borrowed his body language from the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I thought it was quite a fun performance.

The story ends with Luke driving off to Oxford to start university with K9 in tow. I wonder how he’s going to explain the tin dog to his dorm’s resident assistant.

The Sarah Jane Adventures 3.11-12 – The Gift (parts one and two)

One thing after another got in the way back in 2009, and we never actually watched this episode. In fact, when I got the DVD and saw a familiar villainous face on the cover art, I said to myself “I don’t remember any Slitheen in this series!”

There are a couple of Slitheen in this story, but the main baddies aren’t the green baby-faced fiends that we’ve seen before. These are orange-yellow Blathereen, a different family who claim to be much nicer, although no less disgusting, than their distant cousins. They are voiced by Miriam Margolyes and Simon Callow, who I hope really enjoyed the experience of doing something that actors of their caliber rarely get to do: play some belching “simple farming folk” with terrible table manners. And as for their different skin color, the BBC have come a long way from the days when they painted a red Axon costume mostly green for a different monster in “The Seeds of Doom.”

While there is a plot that has to do with the Blathereen, our son was most focused on the B-plot. Clyde brings K9 to school to help him cheat on his biology test. Every line, every camera revelation, every slow burn as Rani silently lets Clyde know what she thinks of this scheme, had him in stitches. Eventually the comedy turns serious when an alien plant sends some spores into the teacher’s face, and the kid was too busy roaring to notice the tone had changed.

That’s all for The Sarah Jane Adventures for now, but there’s more to come. We’ll start series four in October, a couple of weeks after we finish series five of Doctor Who. Stay tuned!

The Sarah Jane Adventures 3.9-10 Mona Lisa’s Revenge (parts one and two)

And then there was that time that the Mona Lisa came to life and started stomping around a gallery with a Sontaran blaster, trapping people in paintings. Is this the silliest, most wonderfully ridiculous story ever? Yes.

“Mona Lisa’s Revenge” is one of my favorite stories from the series. It’s written by Phil Ford and features Suranne Jones, most recently the star of Gentleman Jack, as a pissed-off painting come to life, looking for her “brother,” another living work of art. Jones plays her as a Batvillain with a northern accent, full of appropriate puns like putting people in the picture.

To help in her scheme, she releases a highwayman from his centuries-old painting. Clyde tries a little small talk with him, asking whether he knows Dick Turpin. The highwayman can’t answer; he was painted with only a mask, and no mouth underneath. I giggled through the whole story because it’s hilarious and huggable, especially cackled at the Dick Turpin gag and our son joined in, despite having no idea who Dick Turpin is. Afraid he was a little lost by this one, complaining between episodes that it was very confusing.

Of course, it might also have hit a little close to home for him. Sarah Jane and Luke are still on the outs after an argument about his untidy bedroom. Today’s actually the big cleaning day for us; the kid’s always had a much larger material world than any child needs, and it really is long past time he let go of some of his preschool-age toys. It’s a tough one, because he donated his Thomas the Tank Engine trains and tracks, which he cared for and loved and treated so incredibly gently for years, to the afterschool program for the littler ones, and watched with horror as the five year-olds went at them like that bit in Toy Story 3 where the smallest daycare kids beat the daylights out of Woody and his crew. He may be too old for Bob the Builder, but if he keeps his big Scoop under the bed, nobody smaller than him can destroy it.