Outside the Government: The Day of the Clown

(13 comments)

It’s October 6th, 2008. Pink is at number one with “So What,” a state of affairs that continues through both weeks of this story. Kings of Leon, Rihanna, Kaiser Chiefs, Ne-Yo, Katy Perry, and the Pussycat Dolls also chart. In news, following the failure to pass the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (more popularly known as TARP) the day that The Last Sontaran aired, the US House and Senate try again and get it passed this time. Steve Fossett’s body is found, and OJ Simpson is convicted of armed robbery. And on the day the last episode of this airs, Paul Krugman wins the Nobel Prize in Economics, for a variety of reasons, most of which, let’s be honest, come down to his repeated criticism of George W. Bush.

“This,” in the preceding sentence, refers to The Day of the Clown. It is, in many ways, a slender thing. Much of it is based on the simple though largely true fact that clowns are creepy. In many ways this marks a slight bridge too far for some of the underlying tricks of the series. The “Sarah Jane faces something that scares even her” trick is a good one, and, admirably, one the show has not overused thus far - Sarah Jane’s past has only really come into play once before, with Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane. Nevertheless, the idea that Odd Bob is particularly terrifying to her because of a clown doll that seemed to move one stormy night and that she can’t quite get over this is not, perhaps, the most effective job that Doctor Who et al have ever done in making a threat scary. (On the other hand, it makes the Fourth Doctor’s proposed Pierrot the Clown costume a relieving near-miss for her.)

And yet in many ways this might be for the best, because the real underlying threat in this story is one of the most thoroughly unnerving that Doctor Who (broadly construed) has ever tackled. The villain may be a clown framed wholly in terms of fairy tales like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, but the underlying explanation - that he’s a creature who feeds of fear and thus abducts children because there’s no fear greater than the mother of a stolen child - is absolutely chilling. I mean, the whole specifying the mother thing is horrible - does anyone really believe, to go back one story, that Chrissie would be more afraid than Alan if an evil clown had ever kidnapped Maria? But the basic idea of doing child abduction on a children’s show is terribly bold.

In that regard the clown, as a sort of generically creepy object, is a useful buffer. It puts the supposed horror at a slight remove, hiding it in an ostensibly greater fear. There’s an odd accuracy to this - the threat of child abduction is, in practice, largely a threat of concern to adults. To a child any child abductor might as well be an evil clown. The actual concepts underlying child abduction are outside a child’s frame of reference. This helps clarify the odd structure of having Odd Bob particularly terrify Sarah Jane. The stated explanation may be that she has a long-standing fear of clowns, but the real issue is that she’s a parent now, and thus the threat Odd Bob represents is scary to her in a way that no monsters from outer space ever could be. The fear of clowns, like the clown itself, is a hastily drawn veil of metaphor covering a story that is actually designed to be far more adult than it appears.

All of which said, to make The Day of the Clown primarily about clowns is as much a misreading as suggesting that The Last Sontaran was primarily about potato people. This is a story about introducing Rani, the most entertainingly trollishly named character in Doctor Who history, and establishing her as part of the Bannerman Road gang. We talked last time about how difficult replacing Maria was always set to be, and how a like-for-like replacement was necessarily going to be impossible. So now we can start to talk about how they did it. 

First and foremost is the fact that Rani cannot be a character we learn about the world through the eyes of. We know how The Sarah Jane Adventures works better than she does. We don’t need to be told again, and structuring the episode that way would be bizarre. So instead we get a story that’s about how well Rani intuitively understands the show. In this regard the key scene comes in the first part, where we see Sarah Jane and Clyde figure out the plot and then move on to Luke looking after Rani as she reconstructs the plot herself so that they end up at the circus museum as well. It’s clearly the scene where Rani earns her wings, so to speak, but more to the point, it’s a scene where the new character shows that she deserves to be a part of the show because she fits intrinsically into its logic. Instead of being a story about how her world is changed by exposure to world of aliens, we get a story that’s about how this character is already well-suited to this world.

This is familiar as the approach taken to Martha when replacing Rose. The big difference between Martha and Rose was that Martha was basically designed from the get-go to function as a companion. Rose was always partially designed as a soap opera character that got dragged into Doctor Who, whereas Martha was a Doctor Who companion first and foremost. Likewise, Maria, while firmly the plucky female lead of a children’s adventure show, is still the product of another world who is shown to have the requisite mettle to get on in Sarah Jane’s. But from the start, Rani is shown being menaced by an evil clown and working to figure it out. She’s presented as a part of Sarah Jane’s world who just hasn’t quite found out how to fit with it yet.

This is made explicit with her character’s desire to be a journalist, which outright positions her as a prototypical Sarah Jane. It’s a fundamentally different sort of character, in other words. And yet she still provides a similar role - unlike Clyde, we do get a sense of her larger family. Indeed, her father is consciously designed to be a significant character. Even here, though, there are differences. Alan is an important figure to the narrative, but he exists entirely within Maria’s world - indeed, through her pre-existing world. Haresh, however, is a character we first meet outside Rani’s world, as the new headmaster of the school. He’s first established in terms of Clyde, actually, and only later introduced as Rani’s father. Rani’s supporting cast, in other words, is defined in terms of the larger show in a way that Maria’s never was.

And yet for all that this is an episode about introducing Rani, it’s Clyde who ends up being the instrument by which Odd Bob is defeated. This is a very Davies-era ending - not so much the “power of love” as is often accused, but the power of pleasure. It’s the act of taking joy, not just in laughter, but in laughter at bad jokes. This is not dissimilar to how a deliberately over the top comedy scene with Catherine Tate defeats Davros by reintroducing the premise that Doctor Who is fun into the narrative. And tellingly, while Clyde is the one telling the bad jokes, it’s Rani who figures out that this will work, further cementing the idea of her as a character who fundamentally and intrinsically understands the nature of the show. 

Still, it’s indicative of how many moving parts an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures can have that a story with a villain defined in terms of Sarah Jane’s fears and a narrative purpose of introducing a new lead character can find its resolution in a plot arc about Clyde and his role as “the joker” in the group. It is in some ways reductive - Clyde becomes a one-word tagline. But within the context of the episode it’s important. For one thing, it makes an odd parallel between Clyde and Odd Bob. There’s a question of harmful joking that runs through this, particularly with Haresh taking an immediate dislike to Clyde. It’s impossible to structure a hugely sound metaphor off of all of this - at the end of the day it’s not that Odd Bob represents a dangerous sort of humor that makes him scary so much as that Odd Bob murders children. But the plot is still very much about allowing Clyde to find utility and value in his nature.


Furthermore, the fact that Rani understands this about Clyde helps clarify why she fits so well into the world of The Sarah Jane Adventures. It’s not just that she’s inquisitive and wants to be a journalist, but that she intrinsically understands the gulf between the adult world and the world she lives in. What’s significant isn’t just that she knows how to investigate Odd Bob, but that she has an intrinsic sense that telling grown-ups about him isn’t going to help. Likewise, the fact that she understands Clyde’s value shows that she gets things that her father, who remains antagonistic towards Clyde, does not. Rani isn’t just curious, she’s capable of navigating the boundaries between adulthood and childhood in a way that keeps to the values of the show. That’s an intrinsic part of how she works and why she "deserves" to be a main character.

Comments

dirkmalcolm.com 3 years, 2 months ago

A strange thing about this story at least to British TV audiences was that Odd Bob was played by Bradley Walsh, best known as a presenter of teatime gameshows and the entertainment vacuum that is the weekly National Lottery draw programme (apparently he did have a stint on Coronation Street a few years previous to the SJA but it passed me by). I'm trying to think of an American equivalent. Remaking IT with Ryan Seacrest, maybe.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 2 months ago

Pity they couldn't get Jimmy Savile.

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Spacewarp 3 years, 2 months ago

You win this years Nobel Prize for Bad Taste sir!

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Galadriel 3 years, 2 months ago

And while public opinion tends to be split on Martha, I don't know of anyone who really hates Rani. Granted, that may be due to the smaller audience of the SJA, but I think Rani fits better into a pre-existing structure than Martha does. The lack of a love triangle helps some.

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Spacewarp 3 years, 2 months ago

I think you'll find that's "fan opinion tends to be split on Martha." I don't think the public were as bothered as the fanbois on GB about the fact that she wasn't Rose.

As for Rani, she's a great character, and makes an excellent double-act with Clyde, alternately playing the part of his older sister or his best friend. Their relationship develops so well over the rest of the series, staying just the right side of Teen "yuk" territory. I'm so pleased that both Anjli Mohindra and Daniel Anthony have moved on to other drama since SJA as I always thought they had potential.

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Ross 3 years, 2 months ago

It bugged me a bit, especially after 'Whatever happened to Sarah Jane', that Maria was basically forgotten and replaced, but Rani never really felt like she was trying ot be the replacement goldfish, whereas Martha was largely defined in terms of "she should be fine, but she's not Rose"

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heroesandrivals 3 years, 2 months ago

I think Rani was immediately accepted because she has great chemistry with the cast and places no narrative burden on the show by joining it -- she steps right into the verve the group has developed instead of making the show stop so she can have an acclimatization period. She participates in advancing the plot rather than hindering it with her newness, a fault many late-addition characters suffer from that builds resentment among viewers.
Plus she's just fun and I love her mum!

This is the beginning of the slow drift towards Clyde being the main character of the show though.

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storiteller 3 years, 2 months ago

The comments about the idea of children being kidnapped being scarier for the parent than the child reminds me of Neil Gaiman's comments on his book Coraline. In the book, a little girl wanders into the realm of the "Other Mother" because her parents are a little distracted and overworked. While the Other Mother seems wonderful at first, she turns out to be evil and wants to keep Coraline in her world. Gaiman said that parents found the book much scarier than their children - and sometimes wouldn't allow them to read it, even though the kids were fine with it - because having your child kidnapped is much scarier of an idea than being kidnapped. I think with that book, it's particularly true because Coraline is kidnapped in part because of her dissatisfaction with her parents and the associated guilt, but I don't know if that applies in this case. As a new parent, I can definitely say I'm much more panicky about things happening to my child than I would be about things happening to me.

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jonathan inge 3 years, 2 months ago

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 2 months ago

To highlight the underlying absurdity of the notion of "deserving" in this context.

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Daru 3 years, 2 months ago

I have to say that I was so happy when Rani's character and the actress playing her came along. I just did not really enjoy Maria that much. And yes I think it was the chemistry between her and the other leads that really worked and kicked things off to a new level. Oh - and Rani's mother who I adore!

there's something about Sarah Jane taking the place of a kind of mentor for Rani which I kind of like.

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Ross 3 years, 2 months ago

I remember one particular thing in this story that I found sort of shockingly horiffic. It's this moment where something utterly functional that I suspect no one thought too hard about crosses over into abject horror. Plot problem: Oddbob makes children vanish into some weird timeless pocket dimension. Plot solution: destroy Oddbob and the kids come back because destroying the monster magically undoes everything it did, a la Power Rangers. Complication: Oddbob's been doing this for centuries, so won't that leave us inundated with a bunch of kids pointing up in the sky and screaming in terror about the iron birds? Mercenary solution: Oddbob says that the kids he's trapped simply cease to exist after a while.

Bang. Holy crap, this is now the scariest fucking TV show ever.

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jonathan inge 3 years, 2 months ago

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