TV The home release of series five of The Sarah Jane Adventures in 2012 brought to an end what many would agree is one of the great legacies of the main show’s revival, an often brilliant adventure series that manages to introduce the youngest of younglings, perhaps those too young for the Saturday night programme to the world of Doctor Who.
If you profess to be a fan of the franchise but haven’t watched then do it as soon as possible, especially the later series when the show’s scripts and storytelling confidence increase exponentially, reaching its apogee in these final two seasons, filmed together just before Lis Sladen’s untimely death. That can't help giving these episodes a tragic edge outside of what's on screen.
The atypical The Empty Planet is arguably its greatest instalment, a kind of John Wyndham story for kids, but it’s The Curse of Clyde Langer which sums up what the show was at its best, a kind of socially conscious Grange Hill in a fantasy setting. Here’s my original review in tribute because it says everything I might now anyway:
"Clyde discovers homelessness" should be the most problematical story concept in the history of The Sarah Jane Adventures, but it’s perhaps a compliment to the production team that a premise which elsewhere might have seemed facile and exploitative didn’t create any sense of concern when The Curse of Clyde Langer was announced. This is a show which in the past has sensitively covered such other difficult topics as Alzheimer's and absentee fathers and one which continues to have sense of duty to it’s young audience to treat them with respect. While it’s true that this was a more sanitised version of homelessness than might fill a post-watershed slab of grimness on BBC Three or a Comic Relief film, there was enough content between the lines for inquiring minds to fill in some of the blanks. Or decide they didn’t want to.
Writer Phil Ford’s mechanism for throwing Clyde onto the streets is the genus of SJA story in which an alien or alien artefact causes reality or awareness of reality to bend around a particular character, arguably first seen and very effectively in Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? On this occasion for all the utilisation of alien totem poles, the sudden alienation of Clyde to friends and family is especially shocking and anyone who has seen those post-watershed slabs of grimness on BBC Three or Comic Relief films or you even real life, cleverly mirrored what can happen in some cases when people become homeless, the perception that everyone they know has turned their back on them, that their lives would be better without them, and the disappointing element of pride involved.
The ever presence of a person’s name in the modern world is one of the reasons this blog’s been relatively monosyllabic in subject lately, but the curse of not being able to be too personal on a personal blog has nothing on what Clyde had to endure.* Daniel Anthony is up to the challenge of switching from the light version of the character to one who appreciated the gravity of his situation. The contorted faces of Sarah Jane, his mother and Rani helped to convince us of that hopelessness, Anjli’s Bambi-like eyes shifting into some other level of viciousness which suggests she’d be perfect as a future incarnation of her Whoniverse namesake. Tommy’s absence left Daniel selling Luke’s rejection which he succeeds with quite well, and implies Sarah Jane’s first surrogate, more susceptible to the curse, is also more human than Sky.
What followed was not as raw as miserablist Cinema du look classics like Les Amants du Pont-Neuf or even So-Called Angels, the Christmas episode of My So-Called Life in which Rickie is homophobically kicked out of his house, no Julianna Hatfield hiding around a corner ready to busk her way into our broken hearts. But it is at least sensitive enough to leave the investigation of the fantasy plot elements with newcomer Sky and simply allow Clyde to tour the lifestyle with his new friend “Ellie”, even playing on our expectations slightly with talk of the legendary Night Dragon suggesting a Fisher King-like confrontation, budget permitting. But arguably Clyde is fighting an even greater demon – his capacity to retain his sense of self amid a situation in which even his own name could lead to his destruction.
It would be interesting to know what research writer Phil Ford undertook before writing these scenes, but what is clever about them is that by keeping the focus on a single character he is able to imply so much more at the margins. Certainly the ambiguity of the experience “Ellie” had been through before saving Clyde from the rain suggested all kinds of horrors, as did the intelligent underplaying of Lily Loveless (from RTD favourite Skins). With the exception of a single too on the nose line from Sarah Jane (a touch of the Tasha Yars in TNG’s Symbiosis), this was very good at showing the fragility of our lives, how any of us could let the situation go too far if we’re not careful.
Some might argue that “Ellie” was sprinkled too heavily with the manic pixie dream girl dust. But it’s always important for us to remember that SJA is made for a younger audience and there are compliance issues in bringing in the more hardcore "issues" like prostitution or drug abuse. Emotions here have always been painted in broad strokes and only rarely has a character been portrayed with moral ambiguity. It’s important for “Ellie” to be a romantic, likeable figure for the central themes of the episode to be put forward and Ford et al are also to be applauded for not including the obvious scene in which “Ellie” learns Clyde’s real name and turns against him. Making us love her also deepens our understanding of Langer’s loss at the end, knowing that in leaving her, he’s taking some more of her hope with him.
Many lovely moments then. As Paul Thomas Anderson (and The X-Files) have demonstrated there's nothing more amusing than amphibious life falling from the sky and the shot of a school yard full of fish is an excellent start. Sky trying to keep her electric personality under control. The camp-fire scene (see above) in which Clyde is forced to burn his comic book in order to keep him and "Ellie" warm, romance blossoming in the embers. The casting of distinguished stage actor Ewart James Walters as the wise homeless man at the end explaining the disappearance of "Ellie" to Clyde. I last saw him as Hymen in As You Like It at Shakespeare's Globe a couple of years ago fulfilling a similar function of gaining our immediate attention through his curiously deep voice and looming height.
As expected, as Sky, Sinead Michael’s ably relaxing into the role of filling in for Luke who in similar stories was usually the person who’s alien make-up was unaffected by whatever’s befallen the gang. As expected too, the brotherly friendship scenes between Clyde and Luke have now transmuted into sisterly conversations at school with the sweet moment over school dinners. It’s a pity we won’t ever enjoy the scenes in which Sky tries to integrate with the other kids, not really understanding anything they’re saying. Never mind Mels, Sky’s also an unearthly child redux, and we’re really going to miss the episodes when Haresh exasperatedly attempts to put her on the academic straight and narrow.
Then the tears. The sense of loss. A more melodramatic version of this story would have not have just turned Sarah Jane and co away from Clyde but made him their antagonist outright, chasing him down like some common Weevil. Instead, they mourn even if they know not what for. Tears of grief. That’s more dramatic somehow because it’s about Sky’s ability to persuade her new Mum and friend to change their mind, overcome their mental conditioning, about discovering the source of those tears. That’s another, still more subliminal message about realising who your loved ones are and cherishing them. Remembering them. That can’t have been an easy few hours on set. Lots of hugs. It’s a triply difficult scene to watch now too, for obvious reasons. The Doctor Who Magazine tribute is out next week.
Once again we’re left with the disappointment that a show this entertaining, that’s reached the zenith of its powers can’t be made any longer. The Sarah Jane Adventures continues to be branded as just a kids show even by Doctor Who fans, and especially fans without kids. I don’t have kids but even I can still see it for the show that it is, still being made with the care that seemed to desert some of its creators when they made the US-based series that followed. True, I’ve been critical of it myself in the past, and especially Phil Ford’s writing, but he’s delivered his best script here and that needs to be said. One story to go and it’s by Gareth Roberts and reports suggest it’s the show going out on a high. Well good. It deserves to.
* I have no idea what this is referring to. I genuinely can’t remember. Funny. Probably a perception filter. Biodampener. Something like that. Mr Smith, I need you…