Welcome to the first in a series of articles studying the characters of Doctor Who!
When Elisabeth Sladen died last year, I saw a post online that said, “It feels like the internet is crying.” That sounded about accurate. To generations of science fiction fans, Sladen had been THE Doctor Who companion in the form of Sarah Jane Smith. That she was, by all accounts, a wonderful, lovely person made her passing all the sadder.
Sladen began her career as Ms. Smith alongside Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor in the introductory Sontaran story, 1973’s “The Time Warrior”. She was a journalist who had infiltrated UNIT suspecting something sinister was afoot. Accordingly, she trusted no one, including the Doctor, and, indeed, genuinely feared him when he and her were sent back in time to the 12th century.
But by the end of the story, she’d come to trust the Doctor, at least somewhat, and eventually became a part of the “UNIT family”, which included Captain Yates, Sergeant Benton and, of course, Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart. With the Third Doctor, she visited Peladon, fought the Daleks, chased down dinosaurs and was with him at the bitter end, when he regenerated.
Throughout her brief time with the Third Doctor, Sarah Jane proved to be smart, capable and not willing to put up with a lot of crap. She was a strong, well-written character who didn’t often stand in the corner screaming as many companions had before her.
Sarah Jane changed quite a bit once the Fourth Doctor came along. He’s the Doctor she’s most associated with, and to be fair, the actors did really gel well and had a great chemistry. The two characters seemed to just have so much fun traveling through space and time together, dealing with, again, the Daleks, meeting Davros, fighting off the Cybermen and, as we were once so memorably reminded, finding the Loch Ness Monster.
But while the characters and actors worked well together, something seemed very different with Sarah Jane’s character during this time period. By the time of her last Fourth Doctor story, the feisty girl reporter was gone, replaced by a woman who wore pink striped coveralls with stars in the middle (frankly, it’s a wonder they didn’t give her pigtails to go along with it). Her character decayed quite a lot, and the unkind side of me suspects another actor on the series didn’t want his character upstaged. When she finally grabbed her “goodies” and left, it was probably for the best.
This was not, however, the end for Sarah Jane Smith. There was speculation that she’d rejoin the Fourth Doctor, but those plans were scrapped. She eventually returned, alongside K-9, in the pilot for a TV series called K-9 and Company. That show did not launch, which was for the best. She and K-9 returned later, however, in “The Five Doctors”, where she was reunited with the Third Doctor. Ok, him having to rescue her when she fell down a very un-steep slope was a little silly (the questionable scene happens at the 5:14 mark in the video below), but it was still epic to see them side-by-side.
Then the series entered the Wilderness Years. From 1989 until 2005, there was no new Doctor Who on the air (the TV movie not withstanding). But that didn’t mean that Sarah Jane Smith was gone, oh, no. She returned first in a direct-to-video story called “Downtime”, where she, the Brigadier and Second Doctor companion Victoria dealt with an alien invasion.
Sarah Jane also returned in the Big Finish audios. She never appeared alongside any of the Doctors, but she did have her own two-season long set of adventures, detailing her life on Earth in modern times. It is also worth noting that, not long before her death, Sladen signed a deal to appear alongside Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor in a series of audios. Yeah. We were that close to having the two together again.
Sarah Jane Smith is probably best known to modern audiences for her appearances on the revived series, which eventually led to a series of her own. Beginning with 2006’s “School Reunion”, both she and K-9 stormed back onto our screens. That then ushered in a new era for the character in the form of The Sarah Jane Adventures.
In this series, she was working as an investigative reporter who tried to keep alien invasions at bay. She had contact with the Brigadier (who had his last appearance in the SJA story, “Invasion of the Bane”), carried a sonic lipstick (…sigh), and with her own version of the Scooby gang, she kept Earth safe. She even got a visit from the Tenth Doctor (“The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith”), and the Eleventh Doctor (“The Death of the Doctor”); a visit which also introduced her to the other major Third Doctor companion, Jo Grant.
Throughout both The Sarah Jane Adventures and her Big Finish series, the character was as she should be; tough, feisty and strong. Gone was any hint of pink coverall stupidity, and in its place we had a fantastic female lead.
The Sarah Jane Adventures ended when Sladen died, which is for the best. Trying to carry on would have been awkward (though I’d love to see Clyde and/or Tommy on Doctor Who). Her passing was an extremely unfortunate event, but at least she left us with a great body of work and a great, memorable character in the form of Sarah Jane Smith.