Outside the Government: The Man Who Never Was
It’s October 17th, 2011. Rihanna is still stuck in a hopeless place. Maroon 5, Christina Perri, LMFAO, and One Direction also chart. In news, Liam Fox resigns as defense secretary, Occupy London starts up outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Israel and Hamas engage in a prisoner swap at a ratio of roughly 1027:1.
While on television, it’s the end of The Sarah Jane Adventures with The Man Who Never Was. Let’s start by reminding ourselves what The Sarah Jane Adventures was. Not just what it strove to be – an intergenerational celebration of Doctor Who’s effect on children. But what it was, which is to say, a consistently well-made piece of children’s drama that was watchable and enjoyable by adults. This used to be one of the UK’s great cultural exports. Now television is essentially devoid of any shows comparable to The Sarah Jane Adventures that aren’t animated, and most of the animated ones aren’t British. It’s a show that boldly held the line on an important sort of television that’s tragically faded from popularity, and its existence and the effort put into making it good was one of the things that the BBC could point to and sincerely, honestly say “look, see, we’re not just another commercial television station, we’re a public good.” At its best, it’s a series that took its audience seriously, treated them with respect, and was unafraid to tell emotionally honest stories about difficult and complex topics. At its worst, it was at least usually all good fun.
It’s not, I assume, a surprise to anyone reading at this point that I strongly consider Gareth Roberts the best writer that the series had. I’ll admit to not being completely unbiased here – Roberts is at this point one of those sorts of casual Internet friends one acquires via things like Twitter. We’ve e-mailed a couple of times, he follows the blog. It’s also the case that I genuinely like his work and look forward to his episodes of things, and that I really do think he was consistently one of the strongest arrows in The Sarah Jane Adventures’ quiver. So it’s a fortunate thing that he’s the one who writes the finale.
It’s an even more fortunate thing that it’s one of his best scripts for anything, ever. There are a load of good things about it. Many are the sorts of things one expects from The Sarah Jane Adventures. The story is, at least in part, about Luke and Sky finally and properly meeting. It handles this well, acknowledging the difficulty and complexity of acquiring a sibling, especially via the foster system, which is at least ostensibly how Sarah Jane adopted Sky. Which is a real thing – there are genuinely unique challenges to forming a sibling relationship with someone who you meet at age twelve as opposed to meet as an infant and watch grow up. The resulting relationships are not lesser sibling relationships, but they have their own unique features, and The Man Who Never Was does a genuinely lovely job of acknowledging that.
Despite having an unusually large cast, everybody gets something to do here in a nice way. The sense that Clyde and Rani are steadily headed towards a relationship gets nicely and satisfyingly reinforced, Sarah Jane gets to movingly and interestingly be a parent, her skill as a journalist is acknowledged, K-9 gets a nod without appearing, the Mr. Smith/K-9 rivalry is similarly mentioned, and, of course, Luke and Sky get loads of good scenes. (And thank God Luke happened to be in the final episode, incidentally.)
And then there’s the actual plot, which is just marvelous. It starts by looking like a Doctor Who cliche – aliens are releasing some sort of computer that, we (and everyone within the story) assume, is going to, once everybody buys it, do some terrible alien mind control thing. Instead, however, the scheme turns out to be an ordinary human who’s using some stolen alien technology and some aliens he’s enslaved and is torturing to create a spokesperson with hypnotic capabilities, which he plans to use to get people to buy a crappy and cheaply made laptop and make a lot of money. That’s his only goal – use slave labor to make a lot of money.
This is all done very well. The banal evil of his scheme is milked nicely, played out as a reveal that’s both subversively funny and properly disturbing. The sheer evil of slavery is displayed in a way that’s both unflinching and still fundamentally light and children’s television appropriate. Luke gets a lovely bit pointing out that slavery transcends culture, that the consensus that it’s evil is historically recent, and that it’s still going on. Lots of characters, most importantly Sky and Adriana, a janitor who, in the first episode, appears like she’s going to be a relatively typical “eaten by monsters in the pre-credits” character, but who comes back in the second full of righteous anger at the injustice she’s seen. (And how marvelous that it’s a janitor, that is, someone with as shitty and exploitative a job as exists.) It’s a story with its heart in the right place that lands its punches where it wants them to land, and ends up feeling like a proper heir to Robert Holmes at his absolute best. It’s a stirring, beautiful reminder of why The Sarah Jane Adventures exists.
And it ends, as it has to, with a montage and voiceover wrapping up the series. The voiceover, if you’re paying attention, is obviously cobbled together from past episodes, but it hangs together well enough, reiterating many of the series’ favorite themes. The montage is a sweet reminder of all the things the show did, silly and brilliant. The final text, “And the story continues… forever,” is absolutely perfect, and hits the note it really has to, which is to differentiate between Lis Sladen and Sarah Jane, and to remind children that while it’s very sad that they can’t make The Sarah Jane Adventures anymore and that Lis Sladen is gone, there’s always room for more Sarah Jane stories in the world. Which is an important thing to say, and is, frankly, a better commentary on death than anything Miracle Day had to contribute. (And it is simultaneously lovely and creepy that the enslaved aliens from this story, the Skullions, are mentioned off-handedly in an episode of Miracle Day.)
So here ends The Sarah Jane Adventures. A somewhat obscure bit of Doctor Who’s history, but one worth loving and celebrating. Of the two Davies-era spinoffs, it is, on the whole, the better one. At its best it was surprisingly brilliant, and at its worst it was never really too offensive. It celebrated things worth celebrating, both in the stories it tackled and in its embrace of the long and beautiful legacy of Doctor Who. It ended too soon. And it was fantastic.
September 8, 2014 @ 2:51 am
Lovely essay thanks Phil, I do though have a bittersweet feeling reading it knowing that we will have no more of this show. Very sad, there are not many shows like this.
September 8, 2014 @ 8:54 am
I think the chance has passed but I would still love, one day, to see novelisations of the unmade stories (Meet Mr Smith, The Thirteenth Floor, The Battle for Bannerman Road). Gareth Roberts, are you here? 🙂
September 8, 2014 @ 10:58 am
"Wizards Vs Aliens" is most definitely its spiritual successor. It may not contain Ms Sladen, but it does prove that if the care is taken, the magic is still there.
September 9, 2014 @ 5:08 am
Oh yeah sure I watched it all and thought generally it was great fun and loved seeing things like the Thirteenth Floor actually get made, Annette Badland and Dan Starkey. In some ways though after watching it I didn't find that as a show it stayed with me in the same way that Sarah Jane did. Still really good tho.
September 9, 2014 @ 5:10 am
Oh yeah that would be fab! I really enjoyed reading about the plots for those stories in the DWM SJA Companion.
September 9, 2014 @ 3:17 pm
I'll save most of my thoughts in case Phil does a post about WvA, but you could definitely see the parallels between it and SJA, to the point of most of the characters echoing SJA season 1 (except that Ursula was the only reoccurring female character). By season two, it had some really good moments, but even its best episodes were at middle-SJA level
September 9, 2014 @ 3:20 pm
That episode was so, so good. And every time I watch season five, I am so, so, so grateful that the half of episodes that were filmed included Luke and Sky together. The bit where Luke walks into his old bedroom–the scheming to contact Clyde and Rani…
There's a reason Smiths+ Doctor is on the top of my wish list if Big Finish ever gets the nuWho license
September 11, 2014 @ 4:48 am
I'm a bit confused. Surely everyone knows slavery is wrong. What's the point writing a story about it?
September 18, 2014 @ 9:19 pm
Luke and Sky. Was there a third sibling planned named Walker?