For me, the Golden Age of Doctor Who stretches from the beginnings of the show in 1963 right through to the moment that Sarah Jane Smith left the Doctor’s side in 1976. Within that period were many highs and lows, one of the highs being the time that Sarah Jane was aboard the Tardis from ‘The Time Warrior’ to her final appearance in the classic series, ‘The Hand of Fear’.
Along with millions of others, I loved Sarah Jane Smith. Doctor’s companions tend to be like the Doctor himself in that you warm to them immediately and sense their ‘appropriateness’ for the show, or they irk you and you simply tolerate them until their time is done. Some later companions were of the irksome sort. But Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane was a hit from the beginning. This had, of course, plenty to do with the way she was portrayed by Sladen as plucky, inquisitive, able to laugh, and expressive -but there was more to it.
The role of a companion in Doctor Who is clearly that of a bridge between the story’s outlandish settings and wild fantasising and the viewer sitting at home on (or behind) a sofa. The Doctor himself was usually remote, even when affable. The technology he commanded was supposed to be far beyond the grasp of humanity, as exemplified in the Tardis and other gadgets that he would use from time to time. The stories featured the infinite backdrop of all of time and space (or as much of it as a BBC budget could try to capture). There really wasn’t any other way of convincingly putting this across to the audience than through a very human companion, and the show was and is arguably at its best when that companion is more human: Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler and Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble are other examples that come to mind. If the show played with the idea of a companion too much and tried to extend it into the non-human, as with the examples of Romana or Leela, something was lost: the story became a game that we could watch but in which we could no longer quite participate in the same way.
Sladen’s Sarah Jane was very human: impulsive, ‘nosey’, able to make a joke and to express fear and terror in abundance; she was a person in her own right and reached out to viewers with every appearance. The added dimension to her performance, as with most companions, was the inherent dramatic irony that occurs in relation to that role.
What does that mean? It means that we as viewers not only get to identify with a Doctor’s human companion, we also get to enjoy a kind of wry distance from them at first. We know that when Sarah Jane stows away in the Tardis in ‘The Time Warrior’, she will be puzzled and amazed by the fact that it is bigger inside than out (though we don’t get to see that directly in this episode); as she stumbles around in mediaeval Britain in that story, imagining at first that she has wandered into a themed fair of some kind, we get to smile smugly at her situation because as loyal watchers of the show we already ‘know what’s really going on’. In ‘The Time Warrior’ there is a distinct point where Sarah Jane decides to trust the Doctor, and from that point the nature of our relationship with her changes and the dramatic irony lessens -she gradually grows more and more over the rest of that serial and the next, into someone ‘in the know’ about the Doctor and the Tardis, like the rest of us.
Sarah Jane carries us along through the rest of the Third Doctor’s adventures, endearing herself to us with her sparky, feisty, independent spirit, particularly in ‘The Monster of Peladon’ where she gives the Queen a talking to about the role of women. Her role has matured enough after the transition to the Fourth Doctor and at the end of his first adventure (‘Robot’) for us to share the same ‘dramatic irony’ moment with her and the Doctor as Harry Sullivan reacts to entering the Tardis for the first time. Her knowing smile to the Doctor is an indicator of how far she has come over the last few stories and exactly sums up how we felt when she first had that experience herself.
Sarah Jane is the perfect example of a companion who grows into that ‘bridge’ for the audience so that we can eventually be her, accompanying the Doctor on their adventures. One example of this maturity happens in the famed ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ story when it is Sarah Jane, of all the people in the universe, who stresses the moral case for the Doctor as he questions the ethics of putting an end to the Daleks in their incubation chamber by touching two wires together. Very few other companions either before Sarah Jane or afterwards, were in the position of being able to talk in this way to the Doctor.
It’s no accident that Sarah Jane appeared in spin-off shows and then got her own series. Stephen Moffat, in a way, has tried to recreate her in his character Clara Oswald, using Sladen’s middle name Clara and then trying to’inject’ Clara into the Doctor’s complex history as the ‘Impossible Girl’ in an attempt to create the ‘perfect companion’. But in doing so he short-circuited the trail that Sarah Jane had blazed in the arc of her development: we never get to see a stable progression from the dramatic irony of Clara’s first entry into the Tardis through to maturity. We end up getting a more mature and quite powerful character (brilliantly acted by Jenna Coleman) later in the new series, but without seeing fully the hows and whys. That’s why many feel ‘robbed’ by Clara -they miss being able to follow her development in a more linear way.
With Sarah Jane Smith, we get closer to the Doctor than almost any other companion, because we have grown close to him with her. A similar trajectory happens with Rose Tyler, but it then moves, with a younger Doctor and a new modern audience to satisfy, into romance, leaving writers with little alternative but to produce a somewhat awkward and contrived ending of her character arc by having her disppear into a parallel universe with a quasi-Doctor. Sarah’s relationship remains more ‘real’ to the end: without romance, but with a deeply felt friendship based on unique shared experiences, she walks away from the world of the Doctor but stays close to our hearts.
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