When I first started writing this series about heroes in 21st century literature last year, Sarah Jane Smith, portrayed by the late Elisabeth Sladen, was one of the first names to come to mind, but somehow, I never got around to her. On one level, she seemed to belong clearly to the 20th century, much like Batman, Superman
and the Doctor himself
, and I had done enough on the bits of the 20th century that had survived into the 21st. I was -- for the purposes of this series -- more interested in the new
, and even in the Doctor Who
mythos, I had more interest in writing about the likes of Jack Harkness and Martha Jones than I did Ms. Smith.
But -- even as I haven't quite got around to solidifying my thoughts about either -- Sladen's death had a way of putting everything into focus. Because in a very real way, Sarah Jane Smith is one of the very, very
few characters who had a way of signifying greater cultural shifts not just once, but twice. And that's something worth looking at.Writes Charlie Jane Anders (whom I always seem to be quoting)
, "When her character, Sarah Jane Smith, was added to the show in 1973, she was a direct reaction against the ditzy, spacey Jo Grant, her predecessor. And 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."
It's true, and when she wasn't being written as a cartoon, she was given -- to cite an old interview with Sladen which I can't quite find right now -- lines that were pretty much reduced to, "yes, Doctor." To say she was thinly written was an understatement, but it was the '70s, and much
of television writing was like that. The two salient points to take away from that time is that A.) Sladen was a good enough actress to make a cardboard-cutout character real and memorable for a large number of viewers, and B.) At the very least, the show was trying
Diversity is the sort of thing that gets handled terribly clumsily most of the time, even (perhaps even especially) by the well-intentioned. There was a sense that something was going on, but because they were immersed in their times, the very British writers and producers had little sense of how to handle it. It was done badly
, but at least it was done. If one waits until one knows they can make a change like that perfectly, nothing will ever
happen. So, yes, perhaps even the clumsy and cynical attempts at these sort of things deserve some credit. And it all worked out well enough. Sarah Jane Smith's return to the new Who
series in 2006 was overwhelmingly successful, even garnering her her own spin-off, the Sarah Jane Adventures
Writes Anders, "Sarah Jane Smith went from being a former companion to being a Doctor-ish figure in her own right, serving as mentor and protector to an ever-changing cast of kids and young adults, including her own adopted son Luke. At its absolute best, her spin-off show has been capable of tremendous cleverness, but the characters were always front and center. You may have wished the Doctor would sweep you away in his magical time machine, but Sarah Jane was the guide and friend that we'd all want to go visit. Even though she had a magical supercomputer and a futuristic robot dog, she was still all about nurturing the potential of the young people around her."
As Anders and others have noted, Sarah Jane went from being a pantomime of a feminist character, to being an actual one. Smart, determined, capable, and not needing to be completely alienated in her own personal life to be so (although there is little room for romance on the SJA, and what little there is, ends badly. Still, she lives her own life, leads her own career, and raises her small, ad hoc family. Her life isn't perfect, but whose is?) Sarah Jane is a hero who continually rises to protect the Earth, sacrificing much in the process, certainly, but also doing so -- like the Doctor -- largely without resorting to violence.
The Doctor's influence looms large on the show, and calling her the Doctor's Apprentice isn't far from the mark. But that influence went both ways, and in a lot of ways, it was Sarah Jane Smith that began to thaw the distance between the Doctor and his companions. She was the one that paved the way for the contemporary, more realized (if, by necessity, flawed) relationships he has now. While other companions had been enjoyed by audiences before, Sarah Jane Smith was the one that made them vital, and has gone a long way toward driving the audience's investment in the show. It's not insignificant that, at the end of "Journey's End," Sarah Jane is the one who reminds him that he has a family of people who love him, a family comprised of the people whom he's shown the stars.
But I think, to get a firm handle on Sarah Jane's role in the Who canon today, one needs to look at the new companions. Particularly the aforementioned Martha Jones, with whom she shares much in common. In the new Who, the Doctors' relationships with his companions are the central narrative. The Doctor's relationship with Rose Tyler was, from any meaningful perspective, a love story, and he's more than once referred to Donna Noble as his "best mate." But what of Martha?
In a lot of ways, Martha is the Doctor's other
disciple, even if he doesn't always agree with the choices she makes. The obvious parallel is that he's THE Doctor, and she's studying to be a
doctor. That's significant. And in "The Last of the Time Lords," it's Martha that spreads his Gospel, which eventually leads to his being able to save mankind (or, more precisely, his being the instrument of mankind saving itself):
I traveled across the world. From the ruins of New York, to the fusion mills of China, right across the radiation pits of Europe. And everywhere I went I saw people just like you, living as slaves! But if Martha Jones became a legend then that's wrong, because my name isn't important. There's someone else. The man who sent me out there, the man who told me to walk the Earth. And his name is The Doctor. He has saved your lives so many times and you never even knew he was there. He never stops. He never stays. He never asks to be thanked. But I've seen him, I know him... I love him... And I know what he can do.
... and later ...
I was telling a story, that's all. No weapons, just words. I did just what The Doctor said. I went across the continents, all on my own, and everywhere I went I found the people and I told them my story... I told them about the Doctor... And I told them to pass it on. To spread the word so that every one would know about the Doctor.
When the dust settles, The Doctor is the one who hastens her graduation, and who arranges for her job -- not in a hospital, but for UNIT, a place he himself once worked, and which more or less does the same work he does. Out of all of the companions he's had, Martha is the one that he chooses to do his work in his absence. Of course, he doesn't entirely agree with the course that work always takes, but he does see its necessity -- despite all his criticism of UNIT and its dependence on guns, it's his
organization. It's a major piece of his history, and he entrusts his disciple to it.
And ultimately, that pays off, as Martha is the one who, in "Journey's End," stares down Davros with the threat of destroying the Earth to save many more planets. Not a far cry from the Doctor's own actions during the Time War, at that.
So no, Martha's not his lover or his friend. She's his student, and in many ways, she's the one that -- by intention or accident -- is the one that he's most shaped into his own image. And that's got to be a little painful for him to look at, sometimes.
But Martha really only encompasses about half of what the Doctor is. She, as she herself foreshadows, becomes a soldier. Sarah Jane is the flipside to that. Like Martha, she's continued on the Doctor's work, but the other
side of it: exploration, investigation, a sense of wonder, pacifism. Between the two of them, you have a pretty good yin and yang of the Doctor's personality.
But they also have more in common than that. If Sarah Jane was the first attempt at having a feminist female protagonist on the show, Martha was its first attempt at a non-white companion, assuming you don't count Mickey. (Who would eventually go on to be Martha's husband.) Both attempts had their share of awkwardness, but were on the whole good things. And if it's Sarah Jane that's there to remind the Doctor of what he has
, it's Martha's job to remind him of his responsibilities. After all, she's
the only one who he gives a means of contacting him, for when things get bad -- which she uses in "The Sontaran Stratagem."
These two women become his touchstones to Earth in very real ways, both emotionally and physically. But whereas Martha's young, and at the beginning of her life -- new job, new husband -- Sarah Jane is older, and in a lot of ways, the one of the pair able to look at the Doctor as an equal. Perhaps its not surprising then that, after her return in "School Reunion," Sarah Jane becomes the only companion whose life the Doctor seems to regularly
re-enter (a byproduct of her having her own spin-off, and unlike Jack Harkness, one kids can watch.) It shapes the narrative, yes, but over time, the Doctor's aversion to revisiting past companions seems to stop applying to her, and indeed, so far she's the only one of the past companions, excepting classic companion Jo Grant, to encounter Matt Smith's 11th Doctor, and indeed, it's Grant that points out how unusual it is that the Doctor has done anything that resembles "keeping in touch."
With most companions, the journey with the Doctor needs to be a temporary thing, or else it in some way destroys them (poor Donna) or else the Doctor subsumes their lives. At some point, the Doctor's companions need to move on, just as children need to leave the home. He's shown them the stars, and now they have to do something with it. With Sarah Jane, when we meet her again, she's older, and in a place where she can re-encounter the Doctor in such a way as to not
have him take over her life. They can have an adult familial relationship in ways that's difficult with the younger companions.
What's interesting is that, if the Doctor's companions --as they've ever been -- are the audience's window into the show, then Sarah Jane is the window for the older audience, the fans of the original show. But she's also
the window for the younger audience, through The Sarah Jane Adventures
, and that's an odd dichotomy. On a meta level, Sarah Jane is a connection between the youngest and oldest fans of the show, even as on a story level she's a connection between classic characters such as Grant and the Brig, and the newest characters, including her young cohorts, Luke, Clyde and Rani. "Someday, that'll be us," Rani says after meeting Grant. And indeed, it probably will. Things change, and there will always be new faces, new heroes, to enact the roles in stories that the culture needs them to play, and that, perhaps more than anything else, was what was important about Sarah Jane Smith: When we met her, she was a well-intentioned cardboard cutout, and when we meet her again, she's older and wiser, a smart, competent hero. Sarah Jane Smith linked the past with the future and told us all that we don't have
to be what we used to be. We can change, become better than we were, and when we do, then we can look our past directly in the eye --as she does the Doctor -- and speak to it truthfully, without malice or judgment, with love for what good its given us, without having to go back and be what we were
. She told us it's OK to age, to be what we are now