Heroes of Doctor Who: Sarah Jane Smith

By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues

copyright BBC

Once again we wander with the Doctor through the many people in his travels who helped define the man, the time traveller and the character. Of all the ones we’ve covered so far, it’s arguable that none have been more important that today’s…

You know that old saying you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone? Well, I never really knew what that meant until Elizabeth Sladen passed away.

It’s hard to believe it’s over two years (20th April, 2011) since this talented actress passed away from cancer. Indeed it’s easy to think she’s still out there making a brand new series of the Sarah Jane Adventures.

When her death was announced it was like a family member died. Liz was so young looking and full of life and yet, in the space of a few short months, she was gone. It truly was a blow to fandom and the showbiz world in general. No one had a bad word to say about her and she was genuinely loved. She was the bridge between generations, amassing a whole legion of new fans as well as all the classic Who fans.

Sarah Jane debuted in the third Doctor story the Time Warrior, a spirited journalist who ended up fighting a Sontaran in medieval England. She was deeply suspicious of the Doctor at first, believing he was behind the disappearances of the world’s leading scientists. Not only did she witness this new monster but it was also the first story to name the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey. It was also June Brown’s only Doctor Who appearance and is now the nation’s favourite busybody Dot Cotton in EastEnders.

Realizing her mistake, Sarah Jane struck a quick rapport with the Doctor, battling Ice Warriors, seeing a dinosaur invasion, Daleks and giant spiders which ultimately led to the Pertwee regeneration into Tom Baker.

And here was where the magic really began. To this day no other era or companion stirs such fond memories as the fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane. Together they embarked on true classics which seemed to just flow week after week. She was the first to encounter Davros, the deadly creator of the Daleks which came full circle in Journey’s End when she faced Davros once more alongside the tenth Doctor. From the Zygons, to the Krynoids and Mandragora, Sarah faced them all, her relationship with the Doctor was one of deep love and friendship. She and Tom had a fantastic chemistry off screen which translated on screen, cementing the fourth Doctor and Sarah in everyone’s hearts. It seemed she would be there forever and became the second companion ever to be thrown off the Tardis (the first being Susan) because the Doctor had been recalled to Gallifrey and aliens were forbidden and in the comic strip the seventh Doctor told her he changed that rule when he became president. To change a fundamental law that had stood for centuries is a true testament to how much the Doctor admired and respected Sarah. It could be said that he wanted to travel alone after this because it hurt too much when Sarah left.

But such was the impact of Sarah Jane Smith that she was asked to return to see in the fifth Doctor’s arrival but Liz declined. But she did return in the first ever spin off – K9 and company. Intended as a launch pad to a new series, it wasn’t to be but she teamed up with the third Doctor in the Five Doctors where she faced the Cybermen and a Raston Warrior robot. She appeared in Downtime, a video spin-off staring Sarah Jane, Victoria and the Brigadier. This was stuff of pure fan boy dreams and just left people wanting more.

Although she continued her adventures in numerous novels and comic strips, it wasn’t until the tenth Doctor’s first season that the bridge was truly made between the old Doctor Who and the new and it came in the form of Sarah Jane Smith when she and K9 met the Doctor again in a battle with the bat-like Krillitanes in a school. The moment she saw the Tardis and turned to face the new Doctor was pure magic and for me personally, this was the moment David Tennant became the Doctor. Seemingly having forgotten the events of the Five Doctors, Sarah revealed she had been in love with the Doctor and she waited for him but when he never came back, she thought he was dead. This meeting freed her from the past and she left with a brand new K9 (above) and zest for life but not before telling Rose life with the Doctor was worth getting her heart broken.

And of course Russell T. Davies had other ideas and children’s television asked him to create a new show for younger viewers. So the Sarah Jane Adventures was born. Sarah would become the Doctor figure with two young friends and a new son in the form of Luke who had been created by the squid like Bane (top). The show was a ratings success and used its parent show’s aliens, including the Slitheen, Sontarans and finally brought back the Brigadier for one last adventure before his death tragically a few months before Liz herself, as well as creating new villains and monsters of her own. The kids loved it and so did everyone else. K9 returned eventually before being carted off with Luke to university. For a kid’s show, it dealt with hard-hitting adult themes including Alzheimer’s disease and the plight of the homeless in the Curse of Clyde Langer which showed even Sarah Jane and her team were helpless in the face of real human problems. Even the tenth and eleventh Doctors returned in two stories and so did Jo Grant (below) to stand beside Sarah Jane in the Death of the Doctor. Both series were tied together in brilliant and imaginative ways and the cast became ambassadors for the show as much as the Doctor Who team and the joy was that fans didn’t see them as a separate entity but part of the Who universe.

Liz was due to rejoin the fourth Doctor in a brand new series of adventures for Big Finish but her untimely death put paid to that. When the announcement of the team up came, people were genuinely excited at the old magic returning, but it wasn’t meant to be.

With only three adventures completed for broadcast, the last story was one of family and the cementing of new character Skye as Sarah’s daughter alongside Luke, her adopted son.

And that was it. It is hard to believe she’s gone and so is the series and we will never see or hear her again in new adventures, but the body of work that is genuinely loved by people all over the world is breathtaking and a real achievement to the lady herself.

If I achieve even half of what Liz Sladen has, I’ll be a happy man.

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