Next week is the series finale of the Sarah Jane Adventures, the slightly more kid-oriented Doctor Who spinoff starring the late Elisabeth Sladen. And we're going to remember lots of things about this show with great fondness — but most of all, we're going to remember that it was sometimes just as good as Doctor Who itself.
And luckily, one of those times was this week — with "The Curse of Clyde Langer," an episode that totally blew me away. Not only did it focus on the show's greatest character other than Sarah Jane herself, but it also had a second half that managed to be powerful and moving, while only being moderately cheesy. A lot of shows have done a very special episode about homelessness, but few of them have managed to handle the subject as sensitively and non-lecturingly as SJA. (Okay, there was a bit of lecturing. But not that much, really.)
I could recap the whole thing, but I kind of don't want to give away some of the clever bits in the ending. And the whole thing is on Youtube, for now. (No telling when, or if, it'll appear on American television, so this is one time we can watch the Youtube version with a clear conscience.) Here's both parts, in their entirety:
So I'm going to assume you've watched the above segments. Spoilers ahead...
So it starts out as just a sort of cheesy "OMG Clyde is cursed" thing, where an alien entity trapped inside the totem pole puts a whammy on Clyde after he gets a splinter of its wood stuck in his finger. At first, it's just sort of everyone's worst nightmare — as soon as someone says Clyde's name, they turn against him forever and are filled with an irrational hatred of him. In fact, just hearing Clyde's name cause people terrible agony, and when they see him, they're filled with rage. Except for Sky, Sarah Jane's new adopted daughter, who's not quite as annoying as she'd appeared at first.
But in the second half, it becomes clearer that this is a metaphor for what homelessness, and poverty generally, does to you. As Clyde says at one point, everything you were, everything you dreamed about being, gets chipped away bit by bit, until there's nothing left. Clyde, in part two, is no longer ostracized and attacked — instead, he's just invisible and erased, and all of his friends and loved ones are aware of an empty space in their lives but they're not sure what, or who, is missing. Meanwhile, Clyde bonds with Ellie, a ridiculously beautiful young homeless girl who looks after him even after all the other homeless people decide he's cursed.
Maybe I was just happy to see some television with real characters after Monday's episode of Terra Nova, but Clyde's journey in this episode really worked for me. He eventually does get reunited with Sarah Jane and Rani, and there's a whole process of reclaiming Clyde's name so he can be a person again. His friends have to chant his name, and then Clyde has to stand up to a ridiculous CG totem pole and shout, "Are you dense? Who the hell do you think I am? I'm the goddamn Clyde Langer!" (Okay, not really.) But in the process, Clyde has let down his friend Ellie, whom he promised to wait for. And when he goes back to find her, she's... vanished. It's almost like, having rejoined the ranks of the non-homeless, Clyde can no longer traverse their realm. The whole thing is more than a little reminiscent of Neverwhere, especially when we find out just what the mystical-sounding Night Dragon really is.
Clyde's already been to other planets and been suffused with the Artron Energy of the TARDIS, and he's met two different Doctors and even swapped bodies with one of them, and so on. But this time around, Clyde's whole identity is stripped away, and he's all on his own, with nobody else to rely on except Ellie. And in the end, Clyde is saved because his friends remember him in time, but also because he's got that Clyde Langer will to succeed — he's already cooking up a scheme to become a portrait artist in Covent Garden and get Ellie and himself out of the streets.
Still, this is an unusually hard-edged story for the usually cheery Doctor Who spinoff, and it works really well as a metaphor for how easily any one of us can be erased by poverty. Definitely worth your 40-odd minutes.