On what would have been Elisabeth Sladen’s 70th birthday, I thought it’s only fitting that I go back and share my thoughts and memories of her time on Doctor Who, how she captured my imagination and my heart, and why I think Sarah Jane Smith will always be one of the greatest Doctor Who companions ever.
Even though Doctor Who recently has loved being timey-wimey, we’re going to do this from my point of view; which means that we start in 2006 with the brilliant School Reunion. I remember in the news and from the playground that there was this buzz that some old companion from the Classic Series was going to make a return in some way. I must confess that I had just turned 10 the week before this episode aired, and I hadn’t dabbled or even thought about going back to the Classic Series at all. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adored Doctor Who, but only since the revival. That would have been enough for me thank you very much. Plus the monsters looked terrible from the pictures I’d seen.
Then on April 29th, I sat down to watch School Reunion and I was hooked; not by the Krillitanes or the fact that they blew up a school (I mean how cool would that have been?) but for the dynamic between Rose and Sarah Jane and the Doctor and Sarah Jane. It was during this episode that I realised that the companions were largely forgotten about by the Doctor, that they weren’t mentioned at every opportunity, that people leave the Doctor’s life. You have to remember that at this point in the show, I hadn’t said goodbye to a proper companion apart from Captain Jack who I didn’t really have time to really get to know like I did with Rose. This episode made me understand that the show moves itself forward largely on change. Not only did School Reunion show me just how tragic being a companion to the Doctor could be, but it also showed me that, even if you’re aware of the possibility of the tragedy; having those experiences is worth it. Sarah Jane telling Rose that it was absolutely worth the heartbreak is a great moral to send to children. Don’t not do things because you’re scared of the consequences; don’t not try new things in case you don’t like them, don’t purposefully not fall in love for fear of getting your heart broken, just live life and enjoy it whilst you can.
After being given a life lesson by Sarah Jane Smith, inadvertently or not, the next time I saw her was the pilot episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures. I will admit that I haven’t seen every episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, as I thought I was too old for what was essentially a show aimed at the younger end of the Doctor Who demographic, I do remember tuning in for episodes that featured the Doctor in case there was some important lore that I needed to get to know and understand to impress my friends in the playground. From the few episodes I’ve seen of The Sarah Jane Adventures I think it was clear that Elisabeth Sladen absolutely adored the part, being able to entertain whilst still giving a very grounded, moving and believable performance. I think I speak for a generation of younger people when I say that Sarah Jane was a part of their lives.
As time passed, I started getting interested in the Classic Series of Doctor Who; which was partially down to Sarah Jane’s reappearance in School Reunion. The first classic DVD I ever bought was of The Five Doctors and it amazed me just how special Elisabeth’s performance was in the story. I understand that The Five Doctors was essentially a celebration episode, mashing everything together that made Doctor Who loved, but Sarah Jane seemed to be different from the majority of other female companions that I saw in the episode. I’m aware that the female companions ‘function’ during the 60s, 70s and 80s was essentially to ask questions and scream, but Sarah Jane seemed different. Sure, she went over on her ankle and rolled down a hill which led to the Third Doctor having to help her up, but after that she became incredibly strong minded, intelligent, funny and sarcastic. Coming to think of it, Sarah Jane might have been a precursor to Donna Noble. After watching The Five Doctors, I went back and looked at all of her episodes and it became clearer that Sarah Jane Smith was the type of companion that would eventually become the template in the modern era.
All in all, I think that without Elisabeth Sladen’s portrayal of Sarah Jane Smith, Doctor Who would have been a totally different show. The character of Sarah Jane showed that women could be intelligent and beautiful, and Elisabeth Sladen brought such a heart, warmth and devotion to the role. On what would have been her 70th birthday, allow me to say
Happy Birthday, My Sarah Jane!
I’m going to end this article with a beautiful tribute to Elisabeth Sladen from BabelColour which I feel perfectly sums up Sarah Jane Smith.