Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Doctor Who: Memories of Sarah Jane Smith

Oh, this one really hurts.

It hasn't been two months since Doctor Who fans lost Nicholas Courtney and now actress Elisabeth Sladen, who played the Doctor's definitive companion Sarah Jane Smith, has passed from cancer at the age of 63.  Sarah Jane is the only original series companion so far to return to Doctor Who since it relaunched in 2005 and she received two spinoffs of her own, the pilot episode for K-9 and Company and the considerably more successful series The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Although I didn't start watching Doctor Who regularly until the late Tom Baker era story "The Keeper of Traken," my first memories of Sarah Jane were from the story "The Seeds of Doom."  The Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane were walking around a dark and snowy Antarctica and there was considerable concern over someone mutating into a Krynoid.  Even with only a 14-year-old's casual interest in what was going on, I noticed how spunky Sarah Jane was as she traded lines with the Doctor and how she could really belt out a scream of absolute terror as only the original series companions from back in the day could.

About a year later, I saw Sarah Jane again in "The Five Doctors" 20th anniversary special.  I hadn't seen her exit from the series, so I remember being a little thrown by seeing her with K-9.  As far as I knew from my preliminary research into the series, Sarah Jane never traveled with K-9, but I figured there had to be an explanation in the many Tom Baker episodes I hadn't seen.  Of course, the explanation was in K-9 and Company, but I wouldn't know that for a couple more years later.  In any case, it seemed odd to see Sarah Jane paired with the Third Doctor (whose episodes I also hadn't seen yet) instead of the Fourth and even then, the sight of her rolling down a not-very-steep hill intended to be a deep chasm was pretty amusing.  Still, the scene with the Raston Warrior Robot encounter was fun and it was nice to see her shake hands and introduce herself to Tegan Jovanka.

Eventually, though, my local PBS station, WVIZ out of Cleveland, Ohio, went back to the first Tom Baker story "Robot" after finishing with Peter Davison's era, so I was able to catch up on Sarah Jane's earlier exploits with the Fourth Doctor and finally see "The Seeds of Doom" good and proper.  The characters obviously had chemistry with one another and it was good to see Sarah Jane getting some quality screen time in stories such as "Genesis of the Daleks," "The Masque of Mandragora" and her final Doctor Who story (at the time), "The Hand of Fear."  I remember her going on about how "Eldrad must live" and all that, but Sarah Jane's exit where the Doctor accidentally drops her off in the wrong location still sticks out in my mind to this day.

WVIZ cycled through the Davison stories again and then Colin Baker's era, but then they finally went back and aired Jon Pertwee's.  It took four seasons of episodes with Liz Shaw and Jo Grant, but eventually I saw Sarah Jane's first story, "The Time Warrior."  At the time, I was struck at how much of a hardened feminist she was initially, although watching a 1973-74 story in 1987 probably made that stand out even more.  However, I finally understood why the Third Doctor and Sarah were paired together in "The Five Doctors," especially after learning the reason why Tom Baker had not appeared in the story.  Pertwee and Sladen complemented one another well enough, but I knew by now that the best was yet to come.  I later watched as a ginormous fake spider jumped on Sarah Jane's back in "Planet of the Spiders" and saw her tears as theThird Doctor regenerated at the end of the story.  And then, at that important series moment, I finally had the missing piece that enabled me to picture Sarah Jane's full story -- and an important period in Doctor Who's history -- in my mind.  The whole series just clicked in my head at that point, creating the framework that I would keep adding memories and information to year after year.

I figured that was pretty much it for Sarah Jane after that.  I eventually saw K-9 and Company, painful though it was, but appreciated it for one last adventure with Sarah Jane.  It was after 1989 by this time and Doctor Who, as much as we knew at the time, was never going to return to TV screens again except in reruns on PBS or VHS tapes.

And then in 2006, something wonderful happened...

A year after Doctor Who was introduced to an entirely new generation of fans with the Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, his successor David Tennant took over and the Doctor was soon reacquainted with a couple of old friends.  In the episode "School Reunion," we caught up with Sarah Jane and K-9 as they encountered the Krillitanes.  The 2006 Sarah Jane (now looking a bit MILFy, or CILFy if you will) was still investigating after all these years, as it should be, although we learned she harbored some resentment at not having a proper goodbye after leaving the TARDIS.  She also had issues with the considerably younger Rose Tyler, which quickly turned into a somewhat bitchy "missus and the ex" confrontation.  Thankfully, Sarah Jane resolved her issues with Rose and the Doctor and even encouraged the Doctor to take on Mickey Smith as a full-fledged companion.  The episode was a great return for Sarah Jane and also a great farewell for the character...or was it?

It turned out the success of "School Reunion" paved the way for a Doctor Who spinoff series geared toward younger viewers, The Sarah Jane Adventures.  Debuting in 2007, the series developed Sarah Jane like never before, giving the character an actual setting and "graduating" her to the lead heroine with her own son named Luke and a set of young companions in addition to K-9 and a sentient computer named Mr. Smith.  The series managed to add to the overall Doctor Who mythos, bringing back villains such as the Sontarans, the Judoon and the Slitheen, as well as characters like the Brigadier and Jo Grant (Jones).  Most importantly, it featured a reunion story with the Tenth Doctor and another featuring Sarah Jane's only encounter with the Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith.

We had a few more appearances by Sarah Jane on Doctor Who in the midst of her own series.  She returned in "The Stolen Earth/Journey's End" with her son Luke when Davros and the Daleks transported Earth across the universe.  As she left the TARDIS once again following the adventure, she waved goodbye to the Tenth Doctor and also to the audience, it seemed, not knowing if they (and we) would ever meet again.  Thankfully, we got one final glimpse of her in part two of "The End of Time," where she exchanged one last, meaningful look with the dying Tenth Doctor after he saved her son Luke from being hit by a car.  Being David Tennant's final episode, the scene was particularly bittersweet but appreciated nonetheless.

And now, Elisabeth Sladen and her iconic character Sarah Jane Smith are gone but definitely not forgotten.  As Sarah Jane once said, "The universe has to move forward.  Pain and loss, they define us as much as happiness or love.  Whether it's a world, or a relationship...Everything has its time...and everything ends."

Thanks for the memories, Elisabeth.  Rest in peace.


  1. Nice post. I first started watching the show back in fifth grade, and specific memories are a little hazy, but as Tom Baker's run is where I started (like you, on a UHF PBS station), it's very possible that she was my first companion ever.


    R I P

  3. im so sorey that she did die i lovd her shows i men i loved her so mich i kud die to i lovd her like a mom