In 1973 (just think Life On Mars and you’ll get the picture), an investigative journalist by the name of Sarah Jane Smith joined the avuncular Third Doctor on his travels through time and space. Which meant another girl companion and another clutch of ‘what’s happening, Doctor?’ and ‘help, save me Doctor!’ alternately issued from scene to scene.
Or did it? Well, in a word, no. In fact, Sarah Jane was a colossal departure from her predecessor, the hugely popular Jo Grant. Dear Jo was very much the maiden in distress, a role which Terrance Dicks, the then script editor, was more than happy to see continue. But the advent of feminism as more than a fringe movement helped to trigger something of a sea change in the assistant department. So it was then that, on the 15 December 1973, Elisabeth Sladen made her début as Sarah Jane Smith in Robert Holmes’ Season Eleven opener, The Time Warrior. Complete with a smart jacket and slacks, plus all the pluck of an up-and-coming freelance journo, Sarah Jane was the face of feminism for Doctor Who.
Yet, if she’d simply been a bland, women’s rights mouthpiece I don’t imagine she’d have lasted for more than a season. Instead, Sarah Jane became the perfect all-round assistant, able to strike out on her own when needs must, and equally at home being rescued by the Doctor.
It was Barry Letts who hit the nail squarely on the head when he observed that, whilst casting for a new girl assistant, the various contenders could either act frightened or brave – but not both at the same time. At least not until a pretty young brunette by the name of Elisabeth Sladen arrived on the scene, and showed that she could portray these conflicting emotions in the same moment (see The Hand of Fear DVD special feature ‘Changing Time: Living and Leaving Doctor Who’). That’s when Letts realised he had a potential candidate. For he’d cut the Gordian knot of casting an actress who could simultaneously please the feminists and appeal to the traditionalists – the perfect combination.
Sladen’s acting dexterity came to fore right from the word go. For a start, she could hold her own in a more crowded TARDIS, confidently sharing scenes with Tom Baker’s newly-regenerated Fourth Doctor and Ian Marter’s newly-arrived Harry Sullivan. More, she dealt with all manner of character challenges. Robot (1974/75) is a case point. In the space of just four episodes she infiltrates Thinktank and the Scientific Reform Society; befriends Kettlewell’s robot; faces up to the cruel and calculating Hilda Winters; and even keeps her dignity intact during a King Kong-style capture. In short, Sladen’s performance is awesome.
Further examples come thick and fast. The Ark in Space (1975) sees her bravely crawling through the narrowest of service tunnels to produce one of the best ever Doctor-companion exchanges; whilst an episode later she’s standing up to the torturous schemes of the sadistic Sontaran Field-Major Styre in The Sontaran Experiment (1975). Next up she develops the most touching rapport with the mutant Sevrin, in Genesis of the Daleks (1975). Which is to say nothing of her superb performance in The Brain of Morbius (1976). Just check out how she portrays the temporarily-blinded Sarah Jane – brilliant doesn’t cover it. Frightened and brave at the same time? Absolutely.
Sladen was also a dab hand at raising up the characters around her. Her chemistry with Ian Marter, for example, was crucial in making Harry Sullivan a more rounded character, and not just a straight man to Tom Baker’s Harpo Marx. In fact, I’d venture to say that if Sarah Jane had been in TARDIS when Adric slipped aboard – as opposed to Lalla Ward’s rather aloof Romana – the young stowaway might have got off to a better start.
And let’s not forget about the jelly babies. She was – if my watching of Robot serves me aright – the very first person to be offered a jelly baby by the Fourth Doctor. What a moment. I mean, the Fourth Doctor and his jelly baby-giving antics are iconic, and Sarah Jane was the first recipient. She almost deserves the title of icon for this alone.
When she left the series after almost three years – making her the longest-standing companion until Tegan Jovanka – she was given an exit which has become one of the moments in Doctor Who. Dumped off unceremoniously by a Doctor doing his level best to avoid saying goodbye, Sarah Jane’s leaving is one of the most poignant in the series’ history. The emotional undertones in her final scene are unmissable; and the way in which the Doctor and Sarah Jane are quite clearly fighting back their feelings resoundingly demonstrates that Doctor Who pre-2005 did indeed see strong, emotional Doctor-companion relationships.
Of course, that’s only half of her story. Fast-forward almost five years and Sarah Jane made an all-too brief comeback. It all came about when the idea of putting a certain robot dog out to grass became too much for the BBC merchandisers to stomach, or at least that’s my take on K9 and Company: A Girl’s Best Friend. The intrepid K9 needed an equally-iconic mistress or master with whom to team up, and that’s where Sarah Jane came in. Sadly, the idea wasn’t pursued beyond the pilot episode and Sarah Jane once more vanished from our screens until the 1983 anniversary special The Five Doctors, in which she was time scooped into the Death Zone to assist the Third Doctor, her ‘first’ Doctor.
It was quite a wait after that for further news of the plucky reporter. And who didn’t cheer when the news was released that Series Two (2006) would see Sarah Jane make another cameo appearance, once more alongside K9, in School Reunion. It was at this point, I presume, that the cogs began to turn at the BBC for having another shot at a Sarah Jane-based spin-off series. Sure enough, a new serial aimed at the younger end of the Who audience, Sarah Jane Adventures, was launched on New Year’s Day 2007. Once more Sarah Jane was back on our screens and rapidly becoming a household name for a new generation of Whovians – or should that be ‘Sarah Janeans’?
So, let’s tally up. First, she was the best gutsy girl/damsel in distress around – and arguably still is. Second, her chemistry with the Fourth Doctor was second to none. And last, but by no means least, some twenty years after the character was written out Sarah Jane is now the undisputed queen of the spin-off.
What a companion, what an actress, what an icon!
This article originally appeared in Whotopia Issue 19