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 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.

Doctor Who 4.18 – The End of Time (part two)

There’s so much that I like about this story, and so much that’s just so self-indulgent that it aggravates me more than it should. But that’s Doctor Who all over, isn’t it?

Surprisingly, our son’s favorite moment was the special effects padding scene, where Wilf gets to use one of those gun turrets that spaceships often have and shoot down a bunch of missiles. He was completely loving it, and it reminded me of his favorite moment in another Doctor’s final story, “Planet of the Spiders,” which reminded me that the show is for families after all. It needs some comedy and some padding and some unnecessary special effects for the younger viewers to hoot and holler.

The rest of the story is fun to watch, from the silly heights of “Worst! Rescue! Ever!” to the amazing and heartbreaking reveal of the “knocking four times” prophecy. Incidentally, if you haven’t read Russell T. Davies’s The Writer’s Tale, the way this scene was created will blow your mind. As for Tennant’s final act and its endless epilogue, well, you’d have to be a huge stick in the mud to complain about one last celebratory roundup, but there’s a larger-than-sensible part of me that wishes that the episode did not end with the regeneration. I’ve always thought that there should have been another way.

The TARDIS-destroying special effects regeneration blowing everything up could go for starters. It was idiotic then and it was idiotic when the TARDIS dumped Jodie Whittaker out the doors as well. I also detest the music. Imagine it if the Ood song abruptly ends when the doors close. Just give the man a little silence, and let the music pick up as the yellow sparklies start, but not so loudly that it drowns out the dialogue. I think everybody’s with me so far, right?

Now let’s say that the Tenth Doctor did not say goodbye to Wilf and Sylvia at Donna’s wedding. Let’s say instead that we skipped that scene, we let the Doctor regenerate without the explosions, just enough to rip up his clothes and make him a raggedy man, and we fade to black. And then we pick up at the wedding, and it’s the Eleventh Doctor, during the two-year gap at the end of “The Eleventh Hour”, who says his goodbyes, to let Wilf know that he made it okay and he has a whole universe to see with his new eyes. That ties in to their conversation in the cafe in part one and wraps it up very nicely, providing what I believe would have been perfect closure. And then let Wilf ask “Are you still by yourself? Still alone?” and let the Doctor hint about what’s to come. And end on Donna waving at the photographers on her big day.

I like Doctor Who so much that I can’t resist thinking about the what ifs and doing things a different way. Why should a regeneration episode just end with the regeneration? Just because they always do it that way unless circumstances are against them doesn’t mean they can’t change things up.

We’ll take a little breather from Doctor Who for a couple of weeks, but we’ll resume with Matt Smith and Steven Moffat in mid-September. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who 4.17 – The End of Time (part one)

So now we come to a big end, and let’s get the bad stuff out of the way. The Master stuff is appalling. That was my first takeaway then and I feel that way today. John Simm, as I’ve said before, is a brilliant actor but I don’t like his Master at all, yet. And Russell T. Davies goes for the bigger-than-last-time finale again, resulting in worse, sillier, stupider Master stuff than the last time. Now he’s a skeleton man who can jump a hundred feet and shoot lightning bolts.

Bizarrely, the writer even botches the cliffhanger. The Master Race business goes on forever, and then it ends with what’s supposed to be a wild revelation. Timothy Dalton, who’s been narrating, is revealed. It’s Time Lords! Read that like John Lydon rolling his eyes when Bill Grundy asks him about Beethoven. The real cliffhanger is neglected under the fireworks. Donna’s mind-barrier has broken down, she’s remembered series four, and she’s about to die. Nobody cares about the Master, and we certainly don’t care about the Time Lords. We are worried about Donna, nothing else.

However, when the show isn’t detouring into bombast, it’s genuinely wonderful. There’s a perfect little moment with two vagrants talking about President Obama making a worldwide stimulus to end the recession. We also see David Harewood, an actor so talented that he would later take DC Comics’ most boring character, J’onn J’onzz, and make him watchable for the first time in sixty years in Supergirl, mysteriously up to no good as a billionaire working on alien tech stolen from Torchwood. But most importantly, we return to the Nobles after an eighteen-month break. Bernard Cribbins is back, along with Jacqueline King – “You’re not leaving me with her!” – and Catherine Tate. One of Wilf’s friends is revealed to be the delightful June Whitfield, who quietly steals her scenes without anybody minding. She made a career out of doing that.

Russell T. Davies is so good with the small stuff. He’s one of television’s best. The scene in the cafe, with the Doctor and Wilf talking about their fears and what’s going to happen next, both men almost in tears, is completely amazing. It’s one of those scenes I’ve sat down to rewatch almost a dozen times, just to marvel at the pacing and the way that Tennant and Cribbins play it.

Davies has a power with words and names in Doctor Who that is almost unrivaled. Maybe Robert Holmes was about as good. Davies makes it seem so easy, so casual. His Doctor talks of the Phosphorus Carousel of the Great Magellan Gestalt and the Red Carnivorous Morg and the Shadow Proclamation and the Lost Moon of Poosh and Clom and the words are magical. Davies won’t be quite finished with the world of Who after this – there are still nine Sarah Jane Adventures to come – but even with so many great and wonderful adventures in the eight series that have followed this one, there is a Russell T. Davies-shaped hole in Doctor Who. It’s impossible to watch this story and not feel a little sad. It’s the end of a great era.

Doctor Who 4.16 – The Waters of Mars

I warned our son before we got started that this is the most bleak episode of Doctor Who. He asked what bleak means, and he’ll probably associate the word with this story from here on out. He hated it. It was too scary in the first place, and the horror movie deaths of everybody, culminating in Adelaide’s suicide (!), was one nail in the heart too many. It’s brilliantly made, a co-write by Russell T. Davies and Phil Ford, and everything from the scene above in the airlock to the destruction of the shuttle is just amazing, but there’s certainly no joy or happiness in this one.

The story is set on Bowie Base One in 2059. One day about five years ago, not too long before he died, it occurred to me that David Bowie would make the greatest companion in all of Doctor Who. Not as an actor, as himself. Just imagine Capaldi’s Doctor in the usual silly Christmas romp, a celebrity historical where the celebrity plays himself. And at the end of it, the planet saved from Santas or Christmas Trees or Little Drummer Boys or whatever dopey holiday thing they come up with, the Doctor says his goodbyes to Bowie like he did Dickens and Shakespeare and “Herbert” Wells and Christie and whoever and Bowie says “You know, I think I’ll stick around. Do a little traveling. Broaden the mind.” Maybe not for a series – but why not? – but maybe five or six episodes.

We all learned too soon after I spent that evening licking my lips at the magic of my idea that Bowie was far too ill in 2015 to have done anything of the sort. Later still, I learned that they did something somewhat similar in one of the comic books. I’ve never been tempted to read it. Maybe one day down the line, one of Who‘s producers will break the modern companion mold in a huge way and let our hero travel with somebody internationally famous, or historically famous, even if they cast a present-day actor to play somebody incredibly unlikely like Ray Bradbury or Rod Serling. It’d make a great change from twentysomething British girls.

Doctor Who 4.15 – Planet of the Dead

The kid absolutely loved “Planet of the Dead,” a one-off episode first shown in April 2009. It was co-written by Russell T. Davies and Gareth Roberts, and shares a similarity or two with an earlier Who novel by Roberts called The Highest Science. When that rumor started buzzing, there was some speculation that the TV show was finally going to give us an appearance by the Chelonians, an incredibly fun race of war-loving turtle creatures. Eleven years later, we still don’t have any Chelonians, but we did get some fly creatures called Tritovores and a gigantic swarm of flying metal stingrays, so the kid was in heaven. He absolutely went nuts with excitement, and says this is one of his all-time favorite stories.

Joining the Doctor this time, it’s Michelle Ryan as a rich girl thrill-seeker called Lady Christina. Captain Erisa Magambo, who we met in the parallel timeline of “Turn Left”, is also here in the company of comedian Lee Evans as UNIT’s hero-worshiping scientific adviser. I’m sorry to be an old fogey, but I like UNIT best when people are telling the Doctor to see here, he really has gone too far this time instead of saluting him and saying “I love you” repeatedly. So the UNIT stuff is, frankly, utterly awful, but Lady Christina and the Tritovores and the five passengers stuck in a bus on a desert planet are incredibly watchable and entertaining. I don’t know why I’ve never returned to rewatch this episode before. It’s mostly great fun, and I like Lady Christina a lot.

I just looked up Michelle Ryan to see what she’s done recently and see that Big Finish have cast her in a few Lady Christina audio adventures. And sure, that’s typical of Big Finish to give every supporting character they can think of an audio spinoff of their own, but I’m telling you, if the BBC is going to insist on a year’s break in production after every run of episodes, whether or not there’s a pandemic screwing with filming, then they could do a whole lot worse than bring Ryan back for some more solo stories while we’re waiting for them to make more adventures of the Doctor.

Doctor Who 4.14 – The Next Doctor

Doctor Who‘s 2008 Christmas episode climaxes with a giant steampunk robot rising out of the Thames and menacing the city. “I. Want. A. Toy. Of. That,” our son said. Who can blame him? Astonishingly, there doesn’t seem to be one. You could get a little Cyberking statuette in one of those partwork magazine collections, but nobody’s made a two-foot tall steampunk Cyberking to stand alongside a fellow’s Shogun Warriors. Character Options evidently don’t have any nine year-old boys in their test audience.

Anyway, the Cyberking overshadowed the rest of the story for our son. It was amusing at the time, letting the audience wonder whether guest star David Morrissey was going to play the eleventh Doctor. I’m not quite sold on Morrissey’s “Doctor” performance, which feels mannered to me, but it hardly matters because the real man – Jackson Lake – is so convincingly human and heartbroken and real. Dervla Kirwan, who we saw in a Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) earlier this year, plays the villain. I certainly enjoyed how the story seems like it’s going straight to the well of the Cybermen’s human ally being dragged kicking and screaming into their inevitable betrayal, only to have a devilish, albeit unlikely, trick up its sleeve.

Doctor Who 4.13 – Journey’s End

As I’ve said before, Donna is my all-time favorite Who companion. And as I mentioned last time, I have always avoided spoilers, but of course I knew that Catherine Tate would only be in the show for just one series. They were heavy with the hints that Donna would die, and I never believed them, and what Russell T. Davies came up with was a lot worse. I’ve watched this scene in the TARDIS more times than any other scene in the modern version of the show. It’s a flawless, heartbreaking masterpiece. It’s the saddest thing ever. There are times, late at night, that I just want to listen to sad songs. Once in a while I pull out this episode for the same effect.

Not many people seem to know this, but Donna gets a completely brilliant little epilogue in a one-off comic called “The Time of My Life.” It’s collected in Panini’s The Widow’s Curse book. Every page of that edition’s a treat, and “The Time of My Life” is a delightful and sweet little surprise.

Anyway, the bigger picture is that “Journey’s End” is triumphantly over the top and ridiculous and I don’t think it stands up to very much scrutiny, but this two-parter is one of the most fun rollercoasters the show has ever come up with. Everybody comes back for a team-up – if you don’t know, you can look them up – it moves at a thousand miles an hour, and billions of Daleks explode. Every new plot revelation hit our son like a truck and he could hardly contain himself either last night or tonight. He loved it all tremendously. It’s a great payoff for audiences, full of smiles and hugs and triumphs for everybody, with an ending that just plain destroys me. Who could ask for anything more?

We’ll return to Doctor Who in late July. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who 4.12 – The Stolen Earth

Back in 2008, as I mentioned in an earlier entry, we were watching Doctor Who five days after its UK transmission. I was vaguely aware, from online friends, in the five days between “The Stolen Earth” airing and us watching it, that something wild happened.

Then, that Thursday night, we saw that cliffhanger, with the Doctor starting to regenerate. I went into complete lockdown, terrified of being spoiled. I didn’t go online for anything. This was probably easier in 2008 than it would be today, but it was still maddening. The only online place I went to for any reason at all was my email. I even closed every one of my million open tabs in Chrome.

Days crept by. I wanted to see part two so badly. Were they really going to do it? Were they going to sock us with a surprise regeneration? I had no idea and I loved it that way. I was working then for an insurance company in Dunwoody that didn’t want me playing online anyway. The day of the episode came. It had already aired in the UK five days previously. I had lunch in the building cafeteria and went back to my desk. I came back to an email from the girlchild, who was staying with my mother since school was out.

It read “Dad, I know who the new Doctor is!” And nothing else.

I almost cried. I was so miserable. I’d got so close to seeing the episode without a single frame being spoiled for me and my own damn daughter blew it. Work crawled. There didn’t seem to be a lot of point to anything anymore.

I drove to Smyrna to pick them up. I opened the door and said to the girlchild, who was, of course, on my mom’s computer playing Club Penguin, to go to my old room. I didn’t say another word. I closed the door and she immediately babbled that she knew nothing about any sort of new Doctor or what was going to happen, that her brother put her up to it.

It was, I quickly realized, a breathtaking clever and evil prank. My son knew that I’d know it was a stunt if it came from him, because he knew that I trusted him to have a brain about these things. But he also knew that his motormouth sister, who has no filter at all, would, if she were to read a story about a new Doctor, go straight to me at maximum speed and maximum volume without remembering that I wanted it a secret.

So I stayed quiet, thanked my folks for watching the kids, and drove home in the silence of the graveyard. I ignored their questions. The girl whispered “I told him it was just a joke.”

I sent those blasted kids to my room and, quietly but firmly, read them the damn riot act. I spoke softly about how I’d really been looking forward to this evening and tried so hard to keep it a secret, but I spoke with the biggest stick of all, my eyes cruel and full of fire. I kept it up for almost two minutes, as the blood drained from their faces. Finally, and I’ve no idea how I kept the quiet rant going for so long, I raised my voice.

I said, loud enough for the neighbors to hear, “I’ve only got ONE THING to say to you!!” I paused. They looked like they knew this was the end.

And I said, “Well done, children. You got me good, fair and square.” They cheered and we hugged and part two, which is much better than part one, was worth every second of it.

Doctor Who 4.11 – Turn Left

I think “Turn Left” is one of Russell T. Davies’s best scripts for the series and one of the very best hours that Graeme Harper directed. It’s an amazing story with lots of layers and things you pick up on repeated viewings and I love it to pieces. It gives us callbacks to five recent adventures and shows just how badly things would have gone down without the Doctor there to fix them, descending, inevitably, to a totalitarian Britain unable to cope with its own refugee crisis. It’s an ugly and frightening and breathtaking hour, with a brilliant performance by Bernard Cribbins.

I wasn’t sure how the kid would feel about it, and while I’m sure some of it – like the horrifying labor camps moment – went over his head, he otherwise enjoyed it a lot and was incredibly excited. Interestingly, the idea of the Trickster’s Time Beetle climbing on peoples’ backs was inspired by the 1974 serial “Planet of the Spiders”. We only watched that story once but our son must remember it vividly. As soon as the creature starts scuttling across the floor at Donna, the camera showing us its POV, before it even climbs on Donna’s back, he jumped a little and said “It’s one of those giant spiders!”

Also of note: UNIT gets its first repeat character in the revival. Capt. Magambo is not in the next story like she should be, but she does return in “Planet of the Dead” a bit later on. Billie Piper seems to have had a mouth full of cotton in some of her scenes, but it’s nice to see her again anyway, and our son patted himself on the back for spotting her “Easter egg” appearance in the previous episode.

Doctor Who 4.10 – Midnight

Happily, our kid seemed to really enjoy Russell T. Davies’s “Midnight.” I was a little worried it would be creepier than he prefers, but it hit a good, sweet spot with him and kept him riveted instead.

I adore this one not only for the great acting and claustrophobia, but also because it gives us lots to chew on and no answers. I think the lifeform that enters the broken down bus is not necessarily malicious at first, but once it identifies that these scared and paranoid humans are a threat, it exploits the situation in defense. The Doctor is making things worse, because his bluster and his ego are not what this situation needs, and as soon as it understands that, it knows what it needs to do to survive, and our “clever” hero walks right into it.

We saw George Pastell in an episode of Department S the other night, and that reminded me of his scene opposite Patrick Troughton’s Doctor in “The Tomb of the Cybermen”, where the Doctor explains that he knows his way around situations by keeping his eyes open and his mouth shut. You should listen to your younger self sometimes, Doctor. Speaking of Troughton, that’s his son David as the initially congenial Professor Hobbes in this one.

Our son told us that during the amazing scene where something is banging on the hull of the bus, he had thought it was Daleks out there. Nothing’s supposed to be able to live on the surface of this planet, but they’ve got those armored shells, just like the bus. We persuaded him that Daleks really don’t need to hang around 500 clicks from the only habitation on a planet where nothing organic can live just in case somebody’s tour bus breaks down. But since Daleks are on his mind, he only has five days to wait…