To date the only Doctor Who companion to receive not one but two spin offs, Sarah Jane Smith epitomised the established role whilst providing the groundwork for further development with future friends of the Doctor. It is truly hard to believe that such a key character in the show’s history made her debut over ten years into the series.
Sarah Jane Smith was played by the late Elisabeth Sladen. In terms of her characterisation across the three programmes, Doctor Who (1973-6, 1983, 2006-2010), K-9 and Company (1981) and The Sarah Jane Adventures (2007-2011), Sarah Jane is remarkably consistent considering her tenure spanned almost 40 years. Stereotypes of classic Who companions tend to generalise, placing the majority into the damsel-in-distress role and the rest into the questioning audience surrogate. In a fair few stories Sarah does fulfil this role however her introduction and portrayal prevents her from becoming a nuisance. Sarah wastes no time in investigating and quizzing the Doctor as both are on the trail of some missing scientists…she is a journalist after all. Although she initially gets the wrong end of the stick, believing that the Doctor is behind the disappearances, they soon become quite the double act. This was strengthened further when Tom Baker took over the Tardis.
Sarah Jane Smith’s characterisation was definitely consistent, she enters classic Doctor Who as a no-nonsense investigative journalist, she was re-introduced into the new series in much the same way and she began her own series in a similar manner. This isn’t a bad thing at all. It just means that the fundamentals were so strong in her introductory story that the character did not really need further tweaking. Doctor Who is first and foremost an adventure series so depth of personality and emotion were not exactly priorities but, then again, I don’t think anyone actually goes into watch Doctor Who, especially the classic series, expecting novel-esque character development, despite its serialized nature.
I once read an article, possibly an essay, about how Sarah Jane Smith was an interesting case study regarding the portrayal of second wave feminists in fictional media. Whilst the plotline was phased out following her first couple of stories, the emphasis placed on Sarah’s career does distinguish her from the companions immediately before and after her. She was not the first or last Doctor Who careerwoman but she is the most iconic. Who else would educate the people of the planet Peladon on ‘women’s lib’?
Evolving into a more maternal figure through her second and more successful spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures followed the escapades of Sarah, her adopted son and his teenage friends as they battled aliens on earth. Sarah Jane was the group’s focal-point and throughout all 5 seasons she imparted lessons, kept her good-humoured individual nature and dealt with her own fair share of character struggles. It was very much the same Sarah Jane Smith we were introduced to in 1973 which just goes to show what a bullseye they had hit the first time round.
The Sarah Jane Adventures has recently been put back on BBC iPlayer so it is once again free to watch. Check it out if you haven’t watched yet…or even if you have!