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.