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!!

Department S 1.6 – Six Days

And now back to 1968, and a show I’ve only seen a single episode of: Department S, one of the famous ITC adventure series from the day. This one was never purchased by an American network, and only aired in a few markets in first-run syndication. It’s never been released in Region 1, although weirdly the sequel series, Jason King, was. Some years back, before I got a multi-region player, Marie and I watched all of that. I said that if our son enjoys Department S, we’ll add it to our blog rotation, but I’m afraid we’re not off to a very strong start with him.

Department S is one of those special international investigation units common to the day. Joel Fabiani is the American leader of the team, Stewart Sullivan. Peter Wyngarde is, of course, the show’s star, the ideas man and novelist Jason King, and Rosemary Nicols is Annabelle Hurst, who can operate computers and break into locked rooms. They report to Interpol’s Sir Curtis Seretse, played by Dennis Alaba Peters, and none of this is made at all clear in “Six Days,” the episode chosen to start the program’s run in the UK’s ATV region. Our son was baffled; there were far too many characters in this, he wasn’t sure who the heroes were, probably because, as I read after we finished, this was actually the sixth one made. Maybe it was chosen to be shown first because it has a powerhouse guest cast more familiar to me than three of the stars, including Peter Bowles, Geraldine Moffat, the great Bernard Horsfall, and Neil Hallett.

At one point, Annabelle and Jason start talking about somebody called Mark Caine, as though he’s another member of the team. Now, Marie and I know, because we’ve seen the sequel show, that Mark Caine is the star of a successful series of adventure novels that Jason writes, and he approaches every problem as though it’s a challenge for Caine to solve. But that’s not mentioned at all in “Six Days.” We’re going to segue into the production order and start with episode one next time. Maybe they’ll introduce the characters. I guess the TV stations in April 1969 were waiting for their publicity department to do that for them or something.

The case this time involves an aircraft that everybody assumes went down with no survivors on July 11th suddenly showing up at Heathrow on the 17th, with none of the passengers or crew apparently aware they have been missing for six days. Someone’s gone to a great deal of trouble to get their hands on something or someone on the flight, and is happy to start killing their inside men. There’s lots of nice location filming at Heathrow and around London, but it’s not a particularly action-oriented story, and it left our kid behind. Hopefully the next – first – episode will smooth things over for him.

Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.3 – The Best Years of Your Death

Peter Bowles guest stars as the headmaster of a school with a very strange secret and a growing body count in tonight’s episode. So Jeff and Jeannie go undercover, but Jeff is so breathtakingly ill-equipped to teach history that it became so cringe-inducing that Marie left the room entirely. Humor built around embarrassment makes her incredibly uncomfortable.

She also wasn’t really thrilled with the interview scene, where Marty makes short work of the other three candidates for the teaching position, although my son and I were howling with laughter. The third guy gets sassy with Jeff about his chances, so Marty uses his newfound power of possession to completely ruin the interview. Possessed, the guy starts babbling about big walnuts and shouting incoherently.

Our son has, of course, been reading Captain Underpants, and he’s discovered the cartoon series on Netflix. This scene reminded me of the shenanigans that George and Harold inflict on Mr. Krupp. It must have struck a chord with him as well, because I thought he was about to stop breathing.

The Avengers 6.13 – Get-A-Way!

I was mentioning last time out how we got used to some pretty beat-up prints of the Tara King episodes, and were always glad when the A&E network showed one that was an upgrade. With that in mind, “Get-A-Way!” looks particularly sublime compared to the old print that they used. Since the story is actually kind of repetitive, it’s one that I shrugged about and didn’t revisit very much. It’s nice to see it with fresh eyes, and looking so excellent.

Our son really enjoyed this one, and was full of ideas about how the three prisoners, enemy agents being detained by the most incompetent guards in Britain, were vanishing. I was underwhelmed by Philip Levene using the hoary old plot of two of Steed’s oldest friends being targeted, but I enjoyed seeing the guest stars Peter Bowles, Neil Hallett, and Andrew Keir.

The Avengers 5.3 – Escape in Time

I’d like to think we do a good job teaching our son to be quiet and respectful when we watch TV together, and say as little as possible, but one of this episode’s first scenes features our heroes meeting up with a man from the ministry, and I thought that was probably Geoffrey Bayldon. “I think that’s the man who played Catweazle,” I said, and, after a beat, he replied “It IS Catweazle! I recognize his voice!” And he was so pleased that he just kept talking and we had to go back and watch the scene again.

Philip Levene’s “Escape in Time” has another great collection of familiar faces. The great Peter Bowles is the main villain, and his accomplices include Judy Parfitt, who’s known to contemporary audiences as Sister Monica Joan in Call the Midwife, and known to classic TV fans as appearing in darn near everything else, Imogen Hassall, who died at the stupidly young age of 38, and Nicholas Smith. I said that I didn’t know who that guy was, but he was definitely in an episode of Spyder’s Web. I was right, but he’s probably best known for seventy-some episodes of Are You Being Served?.

I think this is an episode more about the iconography than the story, which is about a supposed time corridor that is said to allow criminals on the run to escape into one of four previous time zones. The script is kind of humdrum, especially once the audience figures that the corridor’s a fraud, but it just looks so good! The corridor effect is a really great bit of trick photography, Peter Bowles gets to have fun as the cruel Elizabethan-period ancestor of his main character, and there’s a great scene where Mrs. Peel, carrying a stuffed crocodile, is menaced by a guy on a motorcycle wearing fox hunting gear. I think comic book writer Grant Morrison saw this episode as a child and had nightmares about it for years. His series The Invisibles definitely has a little “Escape in Time” in its DNA.

Our son enjoyed it, too. Once we got the confusion of what they were after sorted, I thought that he was finding that the story was incredibly easy to follow, with the escape route revisited twice and the enemy agents very easy to differentiate. On the other hand, he somehow didn’t understand that the escape route is a big hoax, and thought that Steed was actually traveling through time in the climax, rather than just walking from one set-dressed room to the next!

The Avengers 4.10 – Dial a Deadly Number

Another story by Roger Marshall, “Dial a Deadly Number” was almost impenetrable for our son, even after several pauses to broadly sketch what all this talk of shares and investments is all about. It’s definitely television from another world, as the murders are committed using these incredibly novel and modern “bleeps” that gentlemen carry in their breast pocket. You might remember such things as being called “pagers.”

Still, he says that he enjoyed it, and of course he isn’t shy in telling us when he doesn’t. It does end with a great fight and it features fun guest appearances by Peter Bowles, Clifford Evans, Anthony Newlands, and Gerald Sim, all of whom would return in later Avengers episodes. I didn’t realize that Bowles is still working. He’s the Duke of Wellington in the current Victoria series. When this was made, he still looked like a baby.

Strangely, my clearest memory of this episode is watching it on A&E, when that channel bought The Avengers in the early nineties and gave the videotape episodes their first American airing. For some insane reason, A&E just ignored the clear fade-to-black ad breaks in the episodes and just dropped commercials in whenever they felt like it. There’s a wonderful moment in a wine tasting contest where Steed identifies a Château Lafitte-Rothschild with hilarious specificity – “from the northern end of the vineyard” – and his opponent’s monocle pops out of his eye. There – there! – is where A&E decided to insert a commercial!