Sarah Jane Adventures: The Curse of Clyde Langer
(2 episodes, s05e02, 2011)
Where were you on the day of the storm?
Clyde shows Rani the superhero comic he created, The Silver Bullet, and she’s impressed. She’s less enthused about his idea for story starring an adventurer named Susie June Jones. Meanwhile, Sarah Jane and Sky meet with Haresh Chandra about enrolling in the school. They are interrupted by a storm of fish raining from the sky.
The Bannerman Road Gang consults Mr. Smith on the unusual storm. The supercomputer comes up with a possible link to a Native American totem pole on display at the Museum of Culture. Legend says that when the artifact was removed from its hiding place, a storm of fish soon followed.
The team arrive at the museum. After Clyde gives Sky a lesson about homelessness, they inspect the totem pole. Clyde gets a nasty splinter and tries to remove it while Doctor Samantha Madigan, an anthropologist, relates the tale of Hetocumtek. A scan of the totem pole shows no alien activity.
Clyde returns home and has dinner with his mother, after which he finishes his comic book and goes to bed. After he nods off, his name starts to glow on anything that bears it.
The next morning, he visits Sarah Jane to show her his comic. She praises it until Clyde says his name aloud, after which she becomes furious and forces him out of the house. Confused, he crosses the street and consults Rani, but after Haresh says Clyde’s name, the Chandras turn on him as well.
As Clyde retreats, Sarah Jane tears up all of the pictures from Clyde that she can find. Mr. Smith is concerned about Sarah Jane’s attitude, and Sky has a calming effect on her. Sky mentions Clyde and Sarah Jane bans her from seeing him ever again. She orders Mr. Smith to set an alert for Clyde’s presence, Sky seems unaffected by whatever is going on.
Clyde calls Luke only to find that he is affected too. Clyde’s old friend Steve offers to play football until he says Clyde’s name. The footballers turn into an angry mob who smash Clyde’s phone and chase him until Clyde hides.
Clyde notes that his finger still hurts and makes the connection back to the totem pole. He asks Doctor Madigan about Native American curses but he’s soon cut off as Sarah Jane arrives to research the totem pole. He finds out that anyone who mentions his name becomes affected by the curse. That includes his own mother who kicks him out of the house.
Now homeless and begin pursued by the police, Clyde tries to get some money from an ATM, but the screen only fills up with his name. As night falls and a thunderstorm begins, Clyde seeks refuge in a doorway. He breaks down in despair but finds solace as the homeless girl he helped earlier beckons him to join her.
After a bit of sleep in a “cardboard city” under a bridge, the girl introduces herself as Ellie Faber. Clyde, inspired by a discarded pizza container, takes the name of Enrico Box. Ellie’s been on her own for two years after her father died and her mother remarried. She tells him of the “Night Dragon”, a threat that causes homeless people to disappear without telling anyone.
Sky investigates the new hatred of Clyde, but Sarah Jane and Rani aren’t forthcoming. At the museum, an electrical storm surrounds the totem pole, so Doctor Madigan calls Sarah Jane to help. The artifact appears to be alive and teeming with alien energy. Sarah Jane urges the anthropologist to close the exhibit.
Clyde and Ellie try panhandling but fail, so Ellie decides to find something to eat. They visit a soup kitchen and meet Mystic Mags, a woman who sees things in tea leaves. She warns that the something worse than the Night Dragon is coming and has put its mark on Clyde. He runs to save Ellie, but she pursues calling him her lucky charm.
Sarah Jane tells Mr. Smith that the totem is no longer dormant. Additionally, Sarah Jane, Rani, and Clyde’s mother are aware that they’ve lost something special but can’t quite figure out what. Sky visits Clyde’s mother and notes the glowing name on an envelope. She connects the dots as, back at the museum, one of the totem pole’s faces starts to move.
Once again sheltering from the rain, Clyde decides to light a fire with his Silver Bullet artwork. They discuss the fish storm, signs, and portents. Ellie tells Clyde that she had lost hope of ever reclaiming her life. Clyde has given her hope again.
Sarah Jane and Rani discuss their feelings of loss in the attic while Sky consults Mr. Smith about the splinter and Clyde’s curse. She forces them to be analytical and they realize that Hetocumtek needs Clyde to be isolated in order to gather power and break free. To break the curse, Sky encourages Sarah Jane and Rani to say Clyde’s name aloud. Acting against their instincts, they do so, break the curse, and resolve to get Clyde back.
Clyde shows Ellie a sketch he made of her, offering to draw for money. Ellie kisses him and leaves to get them a coffee. After she departs, the Bannerman Road Gang arrives and reunites with their missing family. Clyde resolves to find Ellie when the crisis is over.
They return to the attic where Mr. Smith transmats the totem pole. It fights as Clyde confronts it, yelling his name into the artifact until it dissolves into dust. The gang celebrates, then Clyde returns home to an emotional reunion with his mother.
Clyde then embarks on a mission to find Ellie, worried that she’ll think that he abandoned her. He finds out that she took the name from a famous singer’s poster. He also spots a truck labeled “Night Dragon Haulage” which works with a shipping company. A nearby homeless man explains that the drivers often take the homeless to different locations, offering a new chance in a new location.
That night, Clyde lies in his own bed and thinks of Ellie. He hopes that she’s found a better life. All he has left of her is the picture that he drew.
This story digs deep on so many levels.
First is that, as a children’s television series, it is legitimately tackling the subject of homelessness. Moreso, it puts a human face on the epidemic, both from a Clyde’s new perspective and Ellie Faber’s long-term view. It’s a subject that I’m keenly aware because of where I live and where I grew up. Atlanta, Georgia has a huge epidemic of homelessness, driven by a lack of affordable housing, unemployment, and poverty, and much of it can be linked back to the strings of financial crises in the United States. The State of Utah put a different spin on it in the 1990s and 2000s with religion and homosexuality, particulary among the teenage population who came out to their Mormon parents and were promptly disowned and disavowed.
It amazes me that this episode exists, especially as one in a children’s television program, and is hardly mentioned in today’s era of (shall we say?) vigorous discourse about political and social justice topics in Doctor Who. It’s also worth noting that one of the executive producers on this show was Russell T Davies, a man who is no stranger to political and social topics in science fiction.
The second level that I admired was the power of names. Across many cultures and time periods on this planet – spanning Muslim, Jewish, Egyptian, Vedic, Hindu, Christian, ancient and primitive, and more – there is a belief that knowing the name of something or someone gives one power over it. I have met people in recent years that weren’t comfortable telling me their full names until we had gotten to know each other because, in their beliefs, I could use that power for evil. It’s a fascinating belief and it is given life here since the curse of Hetocumtek doesn’t fully engage until Clyde signs his comic. After that, the use of his name sparks the senses of dread, anger, and pain, eventually leaving Hetocumtek as the one who controls it.
The third level was Native American curses. In particular, the mention of the Curse of Tippecanoe. It’s also known as Tecumseh’s Curse, the 20-year Curse, and the Zero Curse, but the basic idea is that Presidents of the United States who were elected in years that end with the digit 0 and are divisible by 20 are cursed to die in office. The curse references then-Major General William Henry Harrison’s military expeditions, specifically when defeated Native American tribes led by Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa at the Battle of Tippecanoe on November 7, 1811.
Historians claim that the curse is coincidental, but adherents will point to the presidents who followed the pattern: William Henry Harrison (elected in 1840), Abraham Lincoln (1860), James A. Garfield (1880), William McKinley (1900), Warren G. Harding (1920), Franklin D. Roosevelt (1940) and John F. Kennedy (1960) constitute seven of the eight American Presidents who have died in office. The presidents who meet the criteria and were elected after 1960 – Ronald Reagan (1980), George W. Bush (2000), and Joe Biden (2020, incumbent) – did not (or have not) met the curse’s destiny.
It’s a fascinating piece of Americana.
To wrap this up, the obvious bit of Doctor Who trivia is Pyramids of Mars. After all, it’s not the first time that an alien has posed as a god, is it?
Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.