REVIEW: The Man Who Never Was

With the next issue of Whotopia soon to be published, we thought we’d share a little something from the forthcoming issue with you. Issue 23 features our review panelists casting their eyes over the most recent season of Doctor Who as well as the final season of The Sarah Jane Adventures.  And with that in mind, we’d like to share Gary Phillips review of the final story of Season 5 of the Sarah Jane Adventures, “The Man Who Never Was”

The final Sarah Jane Adventure is a light, yet exciting tale of business corruption, slavery, family ties and romance. Gareth Roberts combines a hitherto unseen penchant for high adventure (I’ve said before that The Shakespeare Code, 2007, and The Unicorn and the Wasp, 2008, were lost opportunities), with his undisputed talent for gentle comedy as so brilliantly witnessed in The Lodger (2010) and Closing Time (2011). The story is also helped by the fact that director Joss Agnew is, for once, on top form and eschews his usual penchant for banality to take the Sarah Jane Adventures out with a bang!

There is on Bannerman Road a certain amount of underlying family tension as Luke returns from university to meet his new ‘sister’ Sky. The fact that Luke went off to university is, to this reviewer, no great loss. As I have said in past reviews, Tommy Knight is more interested in medicine than acting, as is often shown by his bland and lacklustre performances. Yet, it is nice to have him return to Bannerman Road rather than be shipped off to university and be forgotten about.

Luke returns to the fold just as Sarah Jane has received an invitation to witness the rehearsal of the launch of the SerfBoard, a new laptop computer developed by the reclusive Joseph Serf (Mark Aiken). One wonders if Roberts ‘borrowed’ the name from the pseudonym used by Patrick McGoohan in directing The Prisoner episodes A Change of Mind and Many Happy Returns?

It goes without saying that Luke, Clyde, Rani and Sky tag along to the launch and meet Sarah Jane’s first editor, an elderly charmer called Lionel Carson played by veteran actor Peter Bowles. Bowles gives us a wonderful performance and the most likeable and endearing guest character to grace Sarah Jane Adventures since Phylidia Law’s wonderful Bea Nelson Stanley in Eye of the Gorgon.

I was deeply concerned by the casting of comedy actor James Dreyfus as Serf’s so-called Head of Publicity John Harrison, but Dreyfus makes a superb villain and Agnew keeps a tight reign upon his acting so that he gives us a memorable performance, coming over as both avaricious and cruel.

Harrison is a thoughtful manipulator and has constructed a full biography for Serf. It is a shame that at this juncture the story briefly drifts into cliché as, having gained an interview with Serf, Sarah Jane learns that Serf won’t shake hands “Because he has a peanut allergy” coos Harrison. “You might have been in a nutty environment” he continues. If Sarah Jane hasn’t been in a nutty environment previously then she certainly is now!!!!

The fact that Harrison is up to something is confirmed when, back in the attic at Bannerman Road, Clyde and Rani discover that the Serfboard is no more than an ordinary low-specification laptop. Rani doubts Clyde’s opinion, recalling the rackweed from the story The Gift. An endearing touch here is that Clyde briefly recalls Ellie from the previous story, The Curse of Clyde Langer.

The next scene is both surprising and puzzling. Snooping around Serf HQ, Sky and Luke discover a race of Jawa-like aliens pulling and pushing levers which operate Serf’s every facial and bodily movement. Okay, so Harrison is only human but you would think that he could have come up with something more sophisticated and push-button to operate his Serf hologram than a load of levers which look as though they died out in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Then again, the levers and their operation are a far better indication that the aliens are slaves than any console or computer could have done.

An amusing moment in Serf’s Office follows as Serf intones: “I am the most amazing man you have ever seen!” Sarah Jane’s reply is blunt and loaded with innuendo: “I prefer something I can get hold of!”

At this point Harrison threatens Sarah Jane with an alien gun, but the real cliffhanger comes when Sky and Luke are discovered and the aliens are revealed to be one-eyed creatures. Rather like the Rills in Galaxy 4 (1965) despite their appearance the aliens are gentle enough creatures and Harrison controls them by activating a collar around their leader Plank’s (Dan Starkey) neck in much the same way as The Melkur/Master controlled Kassia in The Keeper of Traken (1981).

Harrison now admits that the SerfBoard is rubbish and is little more than profit making for him, a sly nod methinks to the bankers and businessmen who have ruined the European economy – good on you Gareth Roberts!!!! It’s a great pity, therefore, that this journey into hedonism is spoilt by the clichéd line Roberts affords Sarah Jane: “I am going to stop you.” Isn’t that what she has done with every villain in every story? Thankfully, in retort Harrison is awarded a line worthy of Dreyfus’ more camp characters: “What are you going to do? Hit me with your handbag?”

After this encounter Sarah Jane meets a Serf employee called Adrianna (Edyta Budnik) who initially accuses her of “hurting the little people”. This is soon sorted out and Adrianna and Sarah Jane agree to join forces to help the aliens, which we learn Harrison bought after their ship crashed in Asia, as there is (apparently) a black market in alien life forms – one notes here the manner in which Henry van Statten acquired his collection of aliens and alien artefacts in the 2005 Doctor Who story Dalek.

An insight into the growing relationship between Clyde and Rani comes from their infiltration of the premier of the SerfBoard as husband and wife journalists; and Clyde’s talent for comedy as he intones: “Do I look like a Trevor?!”

As this is the prematurely final story of the Sarah Jane Adventures it is nice to have a link to K9 as Mr Smith sets up a high-frequency signal with the instruction to grab Harrison’s pen. At this point Harrison’s cruelty reveals itself in much the same manner as that of Halpen (Tim McInnerny) in the Doctor Who story Planet of the Ood (2008) as he informs the aliens that they are working for their lives.

Excellent though it is, the story’s and the series’ climax comes over as a bit of a jumble. Whilst the aliens are on the roof with Sarah Jane and Adrianna, Clyde and Rani are operating Serf who gives the instruction, “Grab the pen!” which is, in turn, destroyed by Lionel Carson whom we haven’t seen since the SerfBoard press rehearsal at the start of the story. With a bit of help from Clyde and Rani, Serf admits that the board is rubbish and tells everyone to go home.

Sadly here Joss Agnew returns to mediocre form as the alien ship appears. As the aliens depart Harrison screams “No! I paid billions!” in such a manner that one is reminded of Anthony Ainley’s classic over-the-top lines “He dies!!!!! The Keeper Dies!!!! (The Keeper of Traken, 1981) and “My web!!! My Web!!!” (Castrovalva, 1982). Here, having had a splendid 45 minutes, Dreyfus and Agnew between them really let the side down.

The fact that Sarah Jane gives Adrianna a UNIT card and says that she is just what they need is a lovely touch and after two episodes of emotional uncertainty Luke gives Sky his room, making one wonder – if the series had continued – if he would have returned to Bannerman Road again.

The series ends with clips from past stories and a reminder that: “Life on Earth can be an adventure too.” And that: “The story goes on… forever”.

Following the intense The Curse of Clyde Langer, The Man Who Never Was is lighter in tone but still has a lot to say about business corruption and slavery, making it a pertinent, if sadly premature end to a series made in a way that kids TV hasn’t been made for years – the number of big name guest stars it attracted is proof of that. The story was exciting and colourful, and a fitting send-off to both an actress and a series that will be much missed.  9/10

Reviewed by Gary Phillips

Image copyright 2012 by Thomas Evans

c 2012 Whotopia – May not be reproduced in any format without the prior permission of the publisher

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