This review contains spoilers.
5.5 The Man Who Never Was Part 1
It seems that every couple of weeks now there’s a new Apple product launch. Whether it’s a phone that can play music, or a clipboard that can make phone calls, every time there’s a new iWhatever, people want one. And writer Gareth Roberts is clearly no stranger to those 8am queues outside the phone shop, if the latest episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures is anything to go by.
Treading rather more traditional territory after last week’s excellent character piece The Curse of Clyde Langer, The Man Who Never Was tells the story of the charismatic Joseph Serf, whose new laptop – the SerfBoard – is due to launch, amidst a wave of anticipation. But when Luke and Sky spot something odd about Serf, the gang go into full investigation mode. What is the secret of Joseph Serf? And is the SerfBoard going to enslave the human race..?
Fittingly, given that this story has the unenviable (and unfortunate) task of being the de facto series finale, it’s absolutely Sarah Jane Smith’s episode, and Roberts gives her the best lines and the lion’s share of the action. For the first time in a while, we see her doing the day job, as it were. She’s not at the press launch because it’s weird (to begin with), she’s there because she’s the best there is at what she does.
And she’s having such fun, too. When Sarah Jane goes into her interview with Serf, there’s a glint in her eye which is sure to remind all viewers of a certain age exactly why they fell in love with Sarah Jane Smith all those years ago. She’s cunning, confident and determined, but with just a hint of mischief and playfulness. This is absolutely the same character who travelled with Messrs Pertwee and Baker: the villain of the piece even tries to hypnotise her at one point!
Ah yes, the villain of the piece. It is not, unfortunately, the charismatic Mr Serf, nor indeed the rather fantastic (if Jawa-like) Sculptors, that the gang are up against. Instead, it’s Constable Goody from The Thin Blue Line.
That’s a little unfair, admittedly. Compared to his past sitcom performances, James Dreyfus is positively restrained here. But it’s still a performance that sits on the wrong side of ‘arch’, with a lot of villainous pouting and eyebrow-raising going on. It’s a performance that works well enough when we’re asked to believe him as an underling, but is less effective when he’s supposed to be the maniacal mastermind behind the whole thing.
If anything, that role would’ve been better allocated to guest star Peter Bowles, who puts in a cameo as Sarah’s former editor (and, cheekily, almost much more). He’s absolutely charming with his few minutes of screen time, and feels slightly wasted in such a minor role.
The main subplot of the episode involves a contractually-obliged visit from prodigal son Luke, as he and Sky meet for the first time. Neither Tommy Knight nor Sinead Michael are the most accomplished actors ever to have graced the attic, but their awkwardness actually pays off here, as the pair struggle to come to terms with the situation. It also says a lot about the creative team that they confront this issue head-on. A lesser show would’ve had them acting as one big happy family the moment Sky turned up on the doorstep. Children’s TV needs more shows with this level of intelligence, and we can only hope there are some shows of a similar calibre lined up to fill the hole that Sarah Jane will leave in CBBC’s schedules.
The events of last week are addressed, too. There have always been hints of a potential relationship between Clyde and Rani (with Luke going to far as to honour the fan community by using a ‘Clani’ moniker), and so last week’s story did cast a shadow on that, as Clyde found someone else. It was slightly jarring to see them behaving as if nothing had happened this week, so kudos again to the writers for having Clyde eventually bring it up in a quiet moment between the two.
While this episode may not be an instant classic, it’s a solid ensemble piece with a decent sci-fi setup, and a chance to see Elisabeth Sladen at her twinkly best. And what could be better than that?
Read our review of the last episode, The Curse Of Clyde Langer Part 2, here.
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