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The role of the Doctor’s companion has always been a tough balancing act. For the producers of the show, they need a human who can be confused by the alien concepts, so that the Doctor can explain what’s going on. They’ll also need to be someone with the nerve to tackle grotesque creatures as if they were no more troubling than a spider in a bathtub, but also scream and look scared so that the special effects don’t look silly.
Ideally there’ll be some chemistry which is like flirting, but not actually flirting. A kind of bickering overfamiliarity where no one ever has to fully admit to their feelings for anyone, but each is utterly loyal to the other. The lonely Doctor is fascinated by his new chum, and his new chum is bowled over by the things her Time Lord pal can show her.
Sarah Jane Smith – played by Elisabeth Sladen – managed all of these things, while looking hot in Andy Pandy dungarees. She is, therefore, the standard against which all other companions are measured.
A journalist by trade, Sarah was always good at sticking her nose in where it wasn’t wanted. Having conned her way into UNIT, she meets the Third Doctor, a man with secrets and a kindred spirit. Small wonder the two got on like fire and marshmallows.
Here’s an early, combative exchange. Two people with a very clear confidence that they can get by on charm and wit alone, jousting:
And look, both blessed with a haughty sense of pride. Very evenly-matched, even at the very beginning.
And when the Third Doctor regenerates, Sarah’s reaction is very close to that of Rose Tyler to the Ninth Doctor’s. It’s somewhere between a horrendous miscarriage of justice and the extinguishing of the most wonderful light in the world. Which doesn’t make the curious Perez Hilton-faced monk person any the less annoying:
By the time the Fourth Doctor is settled in, it’s all business as usual. Sarah’s his conscience, the person who provides the human boundaries within which he operates best, and with her on side, he can go back to being as cocky and roguish as ever.
Here’s her first goodbye, coming in the middle of an almighty huff, in which she’s about to walk out on the Doctor. And then events take a strange turn. But she doesn’t seem unduly bothered, does she? It’s almost as if she knows she’ll see the Doctor again (and again and again).
Turns out she was bothered though, as this Tenth Doctor reunion proves. And look, he was bothered too.
And she even gets to meet the Eleventh Doctor too. Here’s a brief reunion with Sarah and Jo Grant from The Sarah Jane Adventures:
In fact, it’s safe to say that had Elisabeth Sladen lived, she’d still be appearing in Doctor Who episodes from now until one of their many Ends Of Time finally finishes things off for good. And that’s because Sarah Jane kept going too. Of all the Doctor’s companions, she’s the one who, rather than sitting back to reminisce over her time as a space traveller, would clearly continue in the same adventurous vein for as long as the Earth was imperilled. That’s why she got a spin-off show, called K-9 and Company (which ran for two episodes), and eventually The Sarah Jane Adventures. That’s why, whenever there was a story in which multiple Doctors would meet, Sarah was usually involved somewhere.
It is almost as if the Doctor needs to keep checking in with his Sarah Jane, rather than the other way around. She’s one of the constants in his ever-changing universe, just as Elisabeth Sladen became one of the constants of a TV show in which everything bar the shape of the TARDIS could be changed entirely. Which just makes her death, earlier this year all the more upsetting.
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic