Outside the Government: The Curse of Clyde Langer

(28 comments)

It’s October 10th, 2011. Rihanna is at number one with “We Found Love,” a song whose video, consisting of shots of Belfast, provides a perhaps unintentional but amusing sense of what is meant by “a hopeless place.” One Direction, LMFAO, Dappy, and the Goo Goo Dolls also chart, the latter, still mysteriously, with “Iris.” In news, Paul McCartney gets married again, Steve Jobs dies, and mutterings begin that Occupy Wall Street will be moved out of Zuccotti Park so it can be “cleaned.” 

While on television, The Curse of Clyde Langer, Phil Ford’s final script for The Sarah Jane Adventures. Phil Ford is an odd duck. His two best scripts are co-authored - The Waters of Mars before this and Into the Dalek after. His Torchwood script is quite good, and arguably the highlight of a weak season. His Sarah Jane Adventures stories range from the quite solid to the Curate’s eggs. In many ways, he epitomizes The Sarah Jane Adventures, in that he is a writer one wishes was slightly better than he is, but who could be a lot worse. Certainly, as the primary writer of the series, he kept it at the basically watchable, which is more than one can say of Chris Chibnall on Torchwood

The Curse of Clyde Langer is in many ways the archetypal Ford script, in that it has some lovely bits and some crap bits, and is in other ways the archetypal Sarah Jane Adventures story, in that it could have fallen very flat, but is ultimately saved by Daniel Anthony. In this regard, most of what is good about it is the sort of thing we have come to expect from The Sarah Jane Adventures. The eponymous curse means that upon hearing Clyde’s name people instantly hate him, turning his friends and family against him. Clyde’s sputtering fear as he begs his friends not to abandon him is marvelous, as is his steady determination to survive and figure something out. 

The obvious transition here is that what’s bad about the story is for the most part more interesting. A major plot of the story concerns Clyde’s relationship with a homeless woman who gives her name as Ellie, and who takes him into a homeless community when he’s forced away from home. Some of this is also brilliant. In casting the story, someone had the absolutely brilliant idea of casting Lily Loveless, famous from seasons three and four of Skins, as Ellie. The result is that with very little screentime, Clyde and Ellie feel like a real friendship and budding relationship, as Loveless and Anthony are more than capable of selling the hell out of it. There’s also some great dialogue around it - when Clyde first meets her, before he’s cursed, he gives her money when she begs for it. Sky asks why she needed money, and he answers, “because she’s a scrounger.” Then Sky asks why he gave it to her, and he answers, “because it’s probably not her fault.” Which is an absolutely lovely little scene. 

And this makes the end, when Sarah Jane and company, after figuring out what’s wrong (with the key deduction being made by Sky, for whom this is the traditional “new character proves herself” story), find Clyde and urgently bring him to stop the big evil thing from rising, thus separating him from Ellie, who is off getting coffee to celebrate Clyde’s plan that they should become street artists, quite heartbreaking. Clyde tries to find her, but realizes that, like him, she was using a false name, and finally realizes that she’s hitched a ride with a moving company and started a new life somewhere, and it’s all very sad because they’d kissed and the like.

But this is also where the problems come in. First of all, it’s worth unpacking some bits of the moving company, which is called Night Dragon Hauling, a callback to a street myth Ellie tells Clyde about of the Night Dragon, which takes people for no apparent reason in the night. The Night Dragon, it should be stressed, is fairly clearly established as malevolent in its initial descriptions. While this point is obviously subverted by the final revelation, it’s a tricky thing, given that earlier in the same episode a psychic (who is able to identify that Clyde is cursed with no evidence, so who is apparently legitimate) talks of the Night Dragon as though it’s an evil creature of some sort. So there’s already an unsatisfying reversal built in it. 

But on top of that, it fits into the long and aggravating tradition of sci-fi/fantasy stories coming up with lame justifications for why their magical conceits can’t be used to challenge the underlying inequalities and injustices of society. Which is particularly frustrating for The Sarah Jane Adventures, which usually handles this thing pretty well with a “well, you do what you can, but the world’s too big for any one person” ethos that’s often explicit, rather than implicit. (Not to get ahead of myself, but an example of doing this really, really well appears in the next story.) And yet here we get the rather ghastly spectacle of Sarah Jane looking at the homeless community and blithely talking about how “I just can't believe, after all the things we've seen, the most alien world of all is right here. And no-one knows. Because they don't want to.” Which would all be quite moving if Sarah Jane weren’t a fucking investigative journalist, which is to say, someone who could actually make a real and meaningful difference here.

Similarly, the shrugging and walking away with a glum acceptance that Ellie is gone to a new life rings terribly hollow one story after Mr. Smith trivially searches all the CCTV cameras in London to find someone. Yes, he warns that it could take a long time (it doesn’t), and searching all available CCTV feeds in the world for Ellie would obviously take longer, but given that there’s no deadline pressure, a simple “Hey, Mr. Smith, could you just figure out where this girl went so we can go track her down and make sure she’s doing OK” would be lovely. I mean, just think how much better this story would be if Clyde and Ellie met after the curse is resolved, and despite their obvious attraction to and feelings for each other acknowledged that they would have to go their separate ways because they had their own lives, and stayed in long distance touch like Luke and Maria do these days. If it had, in other words, had an honest ending that balanced the fantastic and the mundane, and let characters make decisions instead of having fate make decisions for them. (See the lovely pair of Press Gang episodes “Love and the Junior Gazette” and “Chance is a Fine Thing” for an example of doing this amazingly, although if that is our point of comparison we should probably admit that Ellie could well have come back in Season Six. Or Season Five, for that matter.)

Instead of an ending where characters do things, though, we get a really crass, ugly thing where Sarah Jane, an investigative journalist, concludes that it’s awful that people don’t want to see the truth of inequality in society, and then walks away without any sort of comment about how she should write a story about it, or try to raise awareness, or contribute to a charity to help the homeless, or do anything that suggests that there’s anything to be done. Instead we get a story about homeless people that ends on a note of passively accepting the world as it is with no effort to change it, which is, on the whole, pretty much the worst possible message you can send about homelessness and poverty. 


So Phil Ford goes out with his biggest Curate’s egg of them all, a story that’s mercifully buried between a much better one before it, and a contender for the best story of The Sarah Jane Adventures after it. Which brings us to saying goodbye, Sarah Jane. 

Comments

Iain Coleman 3 years, 2 months ago

Rihanna is at number one with “We Found Love,” a song whose video, consisting of shots of London, provides a perhaps unintentional but amusing sense of what is meant by “a hopeless place.”

It was filmed in Belfast.

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Chicanery 3 years, 2 months ago

Yeah, it was filmed in North Belfast. Generally in the New Lodge, a heavily Catholic, heavily poor area. I went to school there, and my dad grew up there. In fact the school I went to us in the video for a few moments.

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Lewis Christian 3 years, 2 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 2 months ago

I was surprised by the negative parts of your reaction, as I found this story just about perfect. What you wanted Sarah Jane to do is what the episode does. And the dissatisfaction the viewer feels at the unresolved ending seems to me to accomplish what you're asking for far better than Sarah Jane making a speech about it -- which is why I think Ellie's being unfindable is a much better ending than having Mr. Smith find her. (And in fairness, what would he look for? He has no photograph of her and doesn't know her name.) I don't think leaving a problem unsolved in a story is a counsel to leave problems unsolved in real life -- here at least, it's a spur to solve them.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 2 months ago

As for the psychic's hints that the Night Dragon is bad, it is for Clyde. She's foretelling that he'll lose Ellie, who'll think he abandoned her.

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Lewis Christian 3 years, 2 months ago

*thumbs up*

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Anton B 3 years, 2 months ago

Agreed. For me, this is probably the best story of any Doctor Who spin-off. The way the issues, of homelessness and street living are addressed by this episode of a 'kids show' would put many adult dramas to shame.

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elvwood 3 years, 2 months ago

I'm going with the crowd, here. This is probably my favourite SJA story, and I too thought it highlighted the problems of homelessness well. I'd have to watch it again to answer the charge that Sarah Jane should have said something about writing a story about it; that sounds reasonable, but I'm not sure it wouldn't have been more of a distraction than anything. This wasn't Sarah Jane's story.

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 2 months ago

For an Anglophile, that's probably as bad as mistaking West Sussex for the Highlands of Scotland...

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 2 months ago

I think Phil is just programmed to find offense if an episode doesn't go as far as he wants to make a social message; same thing with "Night Terrors", remember?

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 2 months ago

I think it rang hollow for me because of how much artifice and narrative expediency there was in pulling Ellie and Clyde apart. The result felt like a moral lesson forced by the author, instead of anything extending out of the characters.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 2 months ago

Less mistaking and more remembering a fact wrong from years ago. Fixed, in any case.

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Iain Coleman 3 years, 2 months ago

In what sense is the notion of Belfast as a "hopeless place" amusing, and why would it be presumed to be unintentional?

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 2 months ago

Well, it's unintentional inasmuch as the song is widely read as being about Chris Brown, with the hopeless place not being tied to literal geography at all.

Amusing inasmuch as I find a location-shot video adding a vague half-meaning to a song that consists, basically, of declaring the location a hopeless and awful place funny, albeit bleakly so.

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Chicanery 3 years, 2 months ago

Oh, don't worry Iain, everyone in Belfast found it hilarious.

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Andrew Bowman 3 years, 2 months ago

And I have now caught up! I've been working my way steadily through this excellent blog since April, I think, and have been informed, intrigued, irritated, irradiated and intellectualised in equal measure. I have been commenting here and there, most memorably (for me, at least) on the League of Gentlemen post. Phil, you have written a true meisterwork here, and I'm only sad that I've been financially unable to support you in your many endeavours.

I'm also thoroughly enjoying The Last War in Albion; Grant Morrison's Zenith, from 2000AD, has very strange memories for me, as I was in hospital when it started, having been run over by a car. So, looking forward to the time when Morrison's work is covered in more detail, with the relevant scans of 2000AD covers.

On topic, I felt that this episode was excellent, all in all. Yes, I can see where you're coming from, Phil, in that Sarah Jane's response was a bit... surprising given her career, but people have been doing worse things than ignoring the plight of the homeless for years in the name of journalism. In any case, this is really Clyde's story, and it is to Daniel Anthony's credit that it's a story that works so well in spite of any perceived failings (although my motive does indeed vary on that score).

So, thank you, Phil, for providing me with months' worth of pleasure, and I look forward to reading your thoughts as they come hot off the press as it were.

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nimonus 3 years, 2 months ago

This section of Eruditorum is interesting for me. I have yet to watch the final few episodes of the Sarah Jane Adventures. After Elizabeth Sladen's death, I couldn't face it immediately, and since then, I've been hoarding her days like Kazran Sardick in A Christmas Carol. I couldn't quite accept the prospect of never seeing Sarah again, so I have never gotten around to seeing her final stories. The files are sitting on my hard drive, waiting for me.

These entries may prompt me to break down and actually watch them finally.

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Jarl 3 years, 2 months ago

I keep reading that as Anthony Daniels, which always disappoints me. He would have fit perfectly in a fourth doctor story, I feel.

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Galadriel 3 years, 2 months ago

Are we going to have an "Outside the Government:" on Wizards vs Aliens? The season two episode "The Thirteenth Floor" was originally going to be SJA season five.
And I thought this episode was good. I understand why you found the ending trite, but I think leaving it hanging was good sense.

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 2 months ago

Well, it is a kids' show; it can be socially relevant, but don't expect the second coming of Waiting for Lefty... :-S

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 2 months ago

Unfortunately, he wouldn't have done it; he HATED science-fiction, even with Doctor Who being only tangentially related to that word...

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Iain Coleman 3 years, 2 months ago

I dare say, although I gather there was a farmer in Bangor who was less than impressed with a scantily-clad Rihanna cavorting in his field.

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Chicanery 3 years, 2 months ago

He was also a DUP councilman. They get offended by women existing.

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Iain Coleman 3 years, 2 months ago

He certainly sounded the type.

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Jarl 3 years, 2 months ago

I didn't know that. I did know he wasn't interested in Star Wars until he saw Ralph McQarrie's picture of C3P0, though.

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Wm Keith 3 years, 2 months ago

I'm still avoiding the final episode of "Blake's 7".

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 2 months ago

He infamously walked out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and was reportedly rather difficult to work with on the first film.

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Daru 3 years, 2 months ago

It has been quite some time since I watched this story, but I found the loss of Ellie one of the saddest moments in the Sarah Jane Adventures. She was a stunning character and could maybe have given a lot to the series and even shaken it up a bit. But still, within the context of the story I think it pretty much works, at least on the basis that the series was not complete and it looked like she may come back through the mystery of what was happening with the Night Dragon. I know that in the SJA DWM special that does not get mentioned (I think) but I still feel it was being foreshadowed to be important later and what we are seeing is something incomplete. I do sort of agree with the feeling of artifice you mention Phil, but the story is saved for me by the performances of Ellie and Clyde.

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