By Arturo R. García
Since there’s at least a few Doctor Who fans among our readers, I’d like to open up a space for us to remember Elisabeth Sladen, who played one of the series’ cornerstone characters, Sarah Jane Smith. Sladen, 63, died Tuesday after a battle with cancer.
Sladen’s character was only on the show for three and a half of the show’s 36 seasons, but as Charlie Jane Anders noted in her excellent obituary for her at IO9, she was a pivotal figure:
… at first, Sarah Jane Smith was conceived of as a sort of plucky girl reporter, like Lois Lane, who would spout lines about “Women’s Lib” every now and then. In her very first scene, Sarah Jane has a stereotypical 1970s feminist moment with the Doctor, who asks her to make herself useful by making coffee. Later, Sarah Jane gives the struggling Queen Thalira a crash course in standing up for herself. Watching those early episodes, you sense that the show is cluelessly trying too hard to make Sarah Jane a strong female character.
And by the time Tom Baker took over as the Doctor, Sarah Jane was being pushed into the traditional “damsel in distress” role more often. She spends a lot of Baker’s first year squealing, screaming, being pushed off cliffs, getting sick and being trapped in impossible situations that the Doctor and Harry have to get her out of. Sladen has mentioned several times that she complained to the producers about this state of affairs, and seriously considered leaving the show after her second year.
Instead, the character of Sarah Jane changed, and became what the producers had originally struggled to make her: a strong, independent woman. In Baker’s second season, Sarah Jane figures stuff out as often as the Doctor does, and frequently stands up for herself. On the DVD of “Pyramids of Mars,” director Paddy Russell (one of the show’s few female directors) explains how she and Sladen reworked the scripts, giving some of the Doctor’s lines to Sarah Jane — so instead of the Doctor explaining stuff to Sarah Jane, it became Sarah Jane working things out on her own.
Just as Sladen worked hard to give the character relevancy during her stint on Who, credit should also be given to Russell T. Davies, the showrunner for the show’s return to television in 2005, for helping to bring Sarah Jane back to prominence in more recent years. Written by Toby Whithouse – the man behind the original Being Human – SJS returned in “School Reunion,” a Who episode where she not only established herself as a hero in her own right, but made peace with The Doctor, who had dumped her years ago.
The positive response to Sarah Jane’s reappearance led to the creation her own spin-off series, helmed by Davies, The Sarah Jane Adventures. And as it improved over its’ four-year run, the show also featured something wonderful: not one, but two Companions of color: the brainy Rani and the smart-aleck Clyde, each of whom learned to be their own heroes, as well. Filming had been completed for six episodes of a planned fifth season, but it remains to be seen whether they will air. For now, if you’re a Whovian, and want to share your memories of Sarah Jane, this space is for you.