TV Sob. For much of its duration The Man Who Never Was offers an excellent, fairly typical example of The Sarah Jane Adventures albeit with a slightly subversive undercurrent that allows for geriatric flirting and a nob gag. But then, oh then, the montage with its clips from most of the stories past, a glimpse of Maria, glimpse of K9, shot of the Tenth Doctor hugging again and, well, buckets. The show has always had a poignantly nostalgic undercurrent for fans of the classic series, indeed it was brought into being because of that. But this is about celebrating this corner of the Whoniverse, the attic, the family, and now it’s gone.
But this isn’t just the end of The Sarah Jane Adventures, but the premature end of the British Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who, a project begun when he was given the go-ahead, in a corridor fittingly, to bring the parent show back from the dead. He’s made Torchwood’s Miracle Day since, but these episodes produced before that American folly, albeit executive produced from across the pond, are the final expression of the aesthetic and mood begun with Rose. That’s why the choice of David over Matt is interesting. Even more than Chris, he was Davies’s Doctor. Perhaps that’s also why the episode ends on what could almost be Rose’s opening shot running in reverse, pulling away from the Earth.
It’s also, and it’s impossible not to say this without some exhaustion, the end of one of the longest chronological unbroken runs of Doctor Who related first run television episodes in living memory, begun on 14th July with Episode One of Miracle Day. And if it feels even longer, it’s because the first chunk of Who season 6 ended just six weeks before. Accepting that gap we’ve been doing this since the 23rd of April and The Impossible Astronaut. That’s ages. That’s almost as long as a classic season, with a similar in built sense of anticipation of what the next serial will hold. I hope we’ve all savoured it, because unless Captain Jack really is back in January, barring a special, there’ll really be nothing of Who on television now until next Autumn.
Luckily, as I’ve already intimated, The Sarah Jane Adventures, the British Russell T Davies era and um, loads of stuff this year have all gone out on a high. Gareth Roberts’s The Man Who Never Was is amazing entertainment from beginning to end, blissfully funny, camp and forever undercutting our expectations in the way the best drama always should. Beginning as a gentle parody of the reaction of Apple fans to the latest e-book of Job from the technological simulacrum, the Steve parody is quickly exposed to be an actual simulacrum, controlled from below by artists of light, only for it be revealed that it’s all work of yet another dodgy human subjugating aliens and their technologies, James Dreyfus on Master-ful form, beard included.
Even before they were revealed as an oppressed minority, it was almost impossible not to find these Skullions (perhaps named for Porthouse Blue’s college porter) too threatening, with their Jawa cloaks and welding masks. But that’s important because we have to sympathise with their plight and the market in alien slaves shows, the earth is still a planet which is not only constantly visited but with the awareness of humanity. Admittedly, Adriana, the character designed to subliminally hammer the point home about foreign workers being habitually employed in menial jobs, did seem to register some surprise at the appearance of the space ship on the roof so perhaps the effects of the cracks are still being felt. Lord knows what she'll be like when she's working for UNIT.
If this wasn’t planned as the series finale, it made for a fitting conclusion, not least because it also gave the whole ensemble a proper send off, even Luke, back from university for a visit having developed, away from Clyde’s guidance, the hipster look. Luckily he can now just about carry off the scarf. As with Sky’s first story, this would have been another major turning point as Luke passed his mantle, and the rest of his bedroom on to his new little sister, the production team very carefully underscoring their differences (he’s massively observant and she’s electric) neatly bypassing the short circuit that usually develops whenever K9 and Mr Smith are in the same attic and human ingenuity becomes superfluous.
Good episode too for Clyde and Rani, forever now to be known as Clani (and luckily not Ryde which not only isn’t as catchy but has a whole set of other connotations). Their banter in particular is going to be missed, especially now that Anjli and Daniel have developed into such a good double act. Their chemistry is even voiced in scene here with an unusual call back to last week’s episode. Is Clyde now regretful of his behaviour with Ellie? Not sure. Perhaps in an unfilmed story, Rani’s jealousy was given greater weight and this comment was a bookend. Either way, the business in the attic, the goggles investigating the laptop and infiltration of the press conference another expression of SJA's filtering of 80s kids television for a new audience.
But this was also, and it’s impossible to say this without some sadness, an encapsulation of everything which was great about Sarah Jane and Liz Sladen. Part of the approach of the series has been to turn her into a Doctorish figure (as some clever person has said this week and (I’m sorry I forget who) that to some extent Sarah Jane will have been the Doctor for some kids just as Tom Baker or Peter Davison was for a lot of us). The battle of wills between Sarah and Harrison mirrored a similar struggle between Ninth and Margaret Blaine in Boom Town and infiltration disguised as a cleaning lady an old Third Doctor trick from The Green Death, albeit in a slightly less disturbing way.
Roberts’s episode also gives her the opportunity to flirt with Peter Bowles as an old boss and old flame in a piece of casting that also looks backwards as much to an era of television as Doctor Who itself, almost, like Nigel Havers, the production team taking advantage of the franchise’s new found popularity to take in actors who somehow never managed to appear on the show when it was last in full bloom. Bowles was of course marvellous, and it’s perhaps a pity he wasn’t given more to do, though in the alternative vision of the series, he might have been a returning character, which has to be the only reason you’d employ such a massive acting figure in such a tiny part. Unless you’re John Nathan Turner and trying to get Larry Olivier to essay the role of "Mutant" in Revelation of the Daleks (apparently).
Ashley Way began his television Who adventure at the same time as Roberts with the interactive Attack of the Graske with all of the Tardisodes for the 2006 season (remember those?) close behind. He directs The Man Who Never Was with his usual efficiency, making good use of whichever multiplex was employed for the Serfboard launch and loads of close-ups in the attic giving it a genuine feeling of size (though not that even he could making something of the episode’s one bum moment in which Clyde conveniently sits fidgeting with his hard won pen). The Sarah Jane Adventures was never quite as cinematic as its parent series, but given the tiny budget it’s obviously produced on, it always looked smashing.
Which is the problem. Even if I’ve managed to write the majority of this review in the present tense, The Sarah Jane Adventures is now in the past. There’ll still be the endless repeats on CBCC. The inevitable complete box-set. The spin-off reading. All of that will still keep it in our collective memories, still make it available for kids just becoming old enough to watch, a way for parents to indoctrinate their offspring at an earlier age, an age when they might not be ready for Scaroth and the Bandrills, let alone The Weeping Angels or Daleks. Who knows perhaps in twenty or so years, those kids will be showing it to another generation.
That we can still think of it so fondly is a tribute to Russell T Davies for convincing the BBC to base a spin-off series for kids around a much loved character from his own youth, our youth, the BBC for financing it in a way which you can’t imagine another television company doing, and Elisabeth Sladen, Lis for starring and reminding us why we loved her back then and still do. Eventually it’ll just become another chapter in the rich tapestry of stories diverging from Doctor Who, some in books, some on cd, and sometimes, magically, on television. The Sarah Jane Adventures may be over, but we fans can take some comfort in that final caption: “And the story goes on … forever …” Because it will.