The Glass Teat


The Last Dance of Sarah Jane Smith, Part 3

Adventures in the family

'Nothing's too good for my sister!'

Managing Editor, True North Perspective
Originally published at Edifice Rex Online

'I've seen amazing things out there in space. But strange things can happen wherever you are. I have learned that life on earth can be an adventure too. In all the universe, I never expected to find a family.'

It's done. The Sarah Jane Adventures is no more.

Mousy child of a famous parent, quiet sister to a brash and outrageous sibling, it was a program of modest ambitions that quietly went about its business of just telling stories. Not given to epic scope or grandiose claims, it offered tales that could — to paraphrase a writer of some note — entertain its viewers, excite them and, maybe, deeply move them.

Children's tales, no less.

And yet, over four and a half series, the program captured the enthusiastic attention not just of children, but of teenagers and adults also.

Did it end well?

Not entirely. That would have been last week's The Curse of Clyde Langer. Perhaps appropriately for a wonderful but often-flawed program, its last episode was a good one, even a moving one, but not a one for the ages.

The Man Who Never Was opens with a classic low-budget thrill. A young cleaning woman investigates a strange sound; an elevator door slides open to reveal an apparently empty car until a set of monstrous fingers suddenly appear. A quick cut, and the woman is dragged violently into the elevator. The door slides shut and we break into the program's frenetic theme.

It's a exciting and scary start but the plot does not live up to it. Fortunately, the sub-textual stories of friendship and family make up for the problems.

What doesn't work is simple.

First, the idiot plot. Sarah Jane walks into a lion's den for no good reason and without a plan to get out again. Second, the villain's technology is utterly improbable (though it looks cool in a faux steam-punk sort of way) and, third, the resolution relies on the too-easy arrival of an off-planet cavalry that offers no real dramatic tension at all.

In keeping with the program's better episodes (though not with its best, which balanced both elements) the adventure in The Man Who Never Was is just the means by which another, more subtle, tale is told.

Clyde: 'Well, I'm delicate — in a very manly way!'

The Man Who Never Was is about connections, about friendships, and especially, about family as a chosen construct, not a genetic imposition.

It is a theme The Sarah Jane Adventures has visited and re-visited since Sarah Jane adopted the genetically engineered boy Luke, and when Maria, the girl across the street also got involved in her dangerous life.

Since then, Sarah Jane has been both reluctant but enthusiastic mother and mentor, an impossible (and so, wonderful) combination of responsible adult and charismatic hero, forever leading her young charges into appalling dangers.

An older woman portrayed as both warrior and mother-figure is perhaps not unique in popular culture, but I can't think of another example. In any event, the program tread — usually successfully — a very fine line between character and adventure, yet never slipping into soap area.

As a telling fer'instance, The Man Who Never Was quite properly acknowledge Clyde's traumatic experiences in the season's masterpiece, last week.

Breaking orders to investigate the mysterious Serf computer, Clyde and Rani banter as they work.

"This is like the old days," she says after a while. "You and me, having a laugh."

"Yeah," says Clyde, suddenly subdued. "I meant to say, all that ... stuff with Ellie ..."

Rani shakes her head. "It's okay." There is work to be done, so the two share a nod and get on with it.

The scene lasts all of 13 seconds and does not actually tell us what is or is not going on between the two. But it acknowledges that they matter to one another, that there was a bad patch between them, that they know it and that they are working to repair the damage.

This is script-writing that treats its characters as people with individual agency, not just as players.

Is there a romance brewing between the two? Who knows? We're not told and we shouldn't be. This is a children's program, where love has its place but romance does not. (And honestly, if you're over 20 and you're shipping Clani, you oughta be ashamed of yourselves!)

Rani thinks no small beans of her own brains and talents.
Clyde: from joker to hero.

The Man Who Never Was is a story built on pairs. Clyde and Rani; prodigal Luke and his newly-adopted alien sister, Sky; and Sarah Jane herself, along with Adriana, the young cleaner who I thought had been killed in the opening scene.

If it seems strange that Lis Sladen's role is a small one in her final program, it shouldn't. The Sarah Jane Adventures has been an ensemble project from the beginning, with Sarah Jane only first among equals, so it is appropriate that it ends this way.

Along with Clyde and Rani, it was a pleasure to see Tommy Knight's Luke bond with his new sister, jealous sibling quickly giving way to protective big brother; and a bitter-sweet pleasure to get another hint of the character Sky herself might have become.

And it was, especially, a harsh pleasure indeed, to see Sladen in action one last time, resourceful (once the idiot plot was out of the way), courageous and inspirational. In a scene reminiscent of that in The Last Sontaran, when Sarah Jane found herself locked up with the astronomer's daughter, she is instrumental in opening Adriana's eyes to her own potential and, especially, to her own considerable moral virtues.

Sarah Jane's reaction, when Adriana insists, "We must help the little people," is an understated delight.

Understated is about the right word to sum up the end of The Sarah Jane Adventures. There was no extended farewell tour, no angst, no histrionics; instead, we were gifted with a final look at healing friendships, and only a brief collage, accompanied by Sarah Jane's own, familiar monologue, to give us the chance say goodbye.

Sarah Jane Smith:
Heroine and family-woman.

One line in particular bears repeating. "In all the universe, I never expected to find a family."

It is tempting to find something sexist, something demeaning, in the title character's need for (or acceptance of) connection, but why should we? The making of connections is arguably the most important things human beings do.

To criticize Sarah Jane Smith for not acting like a stereotypically "male" hero is to miss the point, that there is diversity in heroism as there is in anything else.

The Sarah Jane Adventures did not so much turn the standard heroic tropes upside down as set them aside as irrelevant. Sarah Jane's heroism is in no way diminished by the fact she accepts the responsibilities that come from not running away once the monster has been vanquished.

The program seldom (if ever) stooped to preaching, and so, never distanced itself from its fundamentally humane vision. Friendship and loyalty (but never blind loyalty!), love and acceptance, all served to illustrate one quietly radical lesson: that family is an active choice, not something imposed by heredity or tradition.

In a world where so many children grow up not as part of a nuclear family, but travelling between two of them; with a mom and a mom, or a dad and a dad; or with only one dad or one mom — and when gender roles and even definitions are in confusing flux, The Sarah Jane Adventures showed, again and again, that what matters is one's moral vision, not the social trappings of sex or gender, race or class.

Showed, I said. The Sarah Jane Adventures was not meant to improve its viewers, but to entertain them. The lessons came, I think, through the values of its writers and, I like to think, through the values of Lis Sladen herself.

By featuring as its star an older woman as an alien hunter, a supporting cast that was largely non-white and as often as not mostly female, the program was a powerful statement of possibility, for implicit in its matter-of-fact casting and story choices was the thesis, This too is normal..

I am going to miss Sarah Jane Smith. I am going to miss Clyde's sensitive clown and Rani's over-confident nerdliness; I will continue to miss Maria and I will miss Luke. And I am sorry I will not get the chance to miss Sky — I think I would have liked her, too.

I'm going to miss them all. And from time to time, I'm going to re-watch an episode or two (or three, or four), and let myself be drawn once more into the pleasures of a silly children's tale that so far transcended itself.

All right. I've gone on long enough (or too long, more likely). But I'm not sorry. I'm in mourning.

Yet I will not say, "Its like will not come this way again." It will, if we want it to.

Me? I've got the first draft of a young adult fantasy moldering in an electronic file somewhere.

I'm starting to think it's high time I give it another look. I seem to remember there was some good stuff in it, and lord knows, this hard world needs its escapist fantasies from time to time.


Last week: The Curse of Clyde Langer.

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