The death this week of Elisabeth Sladen, the actress who played Doctor Who companion Sarah Jane Smith, has proved something of a “Diana” moment for science fiction fans. It’s not just me having this tearful response to the loss of someone I have never met. Middle-aged men who claim never to cry are telling The Guardian they’ve shed tears, while young viewers of the CBBC spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures leave pages of heartfelt tributes on a Newsround forum, saddened by Sladen’s death from cancer, aged 63.
So why did Sladen’s portrayal of Sarah Jane make such a connection? Regularly cited as Whovians’ favourite ever companion, she appeared in the series for three-and-a-half seasons from 1973 to 1976 during a period of high viewer ratings for Doctor Who. Indeed, the reason Sarah Jane is so feted partly relates to the overall strength of the show in the mid-1970s, when under producer Philip Hinchcliffe it achieved the mix of horror, humour, adventure and pathos that became the template for the tone of the show’s modern era.
The character of Sarah Jane, a critical element of this success, is introduced in a story called The Time Warrior opposite the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee). She is a spiky journalist who has infiltrated a military research centre by pretending to be her aunt, a virologist. The Doctor rumbles the ruse, but promises not to expose her, joking that he needs someone around to make coffee. “If you think I’m going to spend my time making cups of coffee for you…” she replies, automatically indignant. The writer, Robert Holmes, immediately establishes Sarah Jane as a modern feminist who will castigate anyone who treats her like a child.
Sarah Jane’s refusal to be patronised by either the paternal Doctor or her pompously chauvinistic co-companion Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) gives rise to some teasing. In the 1975 story The Ark in Space, for example, Sarah Jane volunteers for a dangerous mission but succumbs to tears as her body is jammed in one of the space station’s narrow cable conduits.
“That’s the trouble with girls like you,” the fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) shouts up the shaft. “You think you’re tough but when you’re really up against it, you’ve no guts at all. Hundreds of lives at stake and you lie there blubbing.” The accusation incenses her and spurs her to winch herself out, only for the Doctor to reveal his reverse psychology tactic. “Conned again,” she says, relieved. “You’re a brute.”
It would be wrong to say Sarah Jane was the first feminist companion, as that title belongs to scientist Liz Shaw (Caroline John), who appeared in a single series in 1970, only to be replaced by dolly bird Jo Grant (Katy Manning) – an ultra-screamer who was infinitely more likely to require rescuing. Sarah Jane’s era was bookended by the blonde helplessness of Jo and the instinctive aggression of warrior Leela (Louise Jameson), whose feminist appeal was inevitably undermined by her notoriously skimpy leather costume. Sarah Jane – or just plain Sarah as Tom Baker’s Doctor usually called her – exhibited both Leela’s toughness and Jo’s vulnerability. It was a practical combination for the show’s scriptwriters, as it meant she was brave enough to wander off on an alien planet, but prone enough to abduction to provide the Doctor with heroic opportunities.
So while Sarah Jane had her share of screaming companion moments, this was balanced by her daring and defiance, even when in danger. She was independent, chirpy and a little chippy. Sladen, described as “ferociously talented” by current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, was skilled at controlled tremulousness and the kind of wide-eyed curiosity that blends into panic when confronted with evil.
Towards the end of her tenure, the character’s status as inquisitive reporter gave way to a more passive function, reflected in her softer styling. Sarah Jane was granted a wardrobe of Seventies fabulousness, with Christmassy jumpers, wide-collared shirts and sleeved floral dresses that would sell out in Topshop today. An Andy Pandy get-up in The Hand of Fear is probably best forgotten, but a pink nautical-themed trouser suit in The Android Invasion was a classic against the odds, while the hooded yellow raincoat in which she wanders around the planet Skaro in Genesis of the Daleks is sci-fi’s contribution to festival fashion.
I watched these episodes as a child when they were repeated in the 1980s on the satellite novelty known as Super Channel. Having waited two decades to see Sarah Jane again, her return in the 2006 episode School Reunion was brimful of the kind of emotion that only the trigger of childhood memories can produce. I like to think that the tenth Doctor, David Tennant, is not acting, but channelling his own fan-boy memories as he joyously greets Sarah Jane, who we learn is still an investigative journalist and still vocal when it comes to gender politics.
“You can tell you’re getting older. Your assistants are getting younger,” she says when introduced to companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper). Sarah Jane glumly suggests that she has found it difficult coping with life on Earth after her “taste of that splendour” in the Doctor’s Tardis. The Doctor, meanwhile, implies he didn’t come back for her all those years ago because his Time Lord lifespan is so much longer than that of humans, hinting at the unbearable sense of loss that comes from outliving those you love.
It was this appearance in School Reunion (written by Toby Whithouse) that reignited affection for Sarah Jane and prompted the commission of The Sarah Jane Adventures, a kids’ show in which she leads a band of teenagers through various perilous encounters with alien foes. The status of her character as wise matriarch stood out at a time when the BBC was attracting increasing amounts of flak for “disappearing” older women from our screens – another reason why Sladen’s contribution to television should be celebrated.
“It is not logical that you should feel sorrow,” says the robot to Sarah Jane in a 1974 story called, er, Robot. And yet I, like many fans of Doctor Who, just do. The fairy tale continues this Saturday, however, when the opening episode of its 32nd season looks set to be dedicated to Elisabeth Sladen.
Laura Slattery is a journalist with The Irish Times, where she hides down the back of the newsroom and blogs about commerce and current affairs at http://www.irishtimes.com/blogs/theindex. Follow her on Twitter: @LauraSlattery