The Legacy of Sarah Jane Smith

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On Elisabeth Sladen’s date of birth, guest contributor K-CI Williams celebrates Sarah Jane’s legacy.

With the deeply tragic passing of Elisabeth Sladen on the 19th of April 2011, the world was in mourning. Even now, almost two years later, Elisabeth’s passing still leaves a hole in the world. But her legacy lives eternally in the Whoniverse. In tribute to this great woman who brought Sarah Jane to life, I have decided to review the everlasting legacy of Sarah Jane Smith – which began in The Time Warrior (1973) and will never, ever end…

When companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning) left in 1973, the Doctor Who production team realised that the series needed a companion who would reflect significant changes in society. When Elisabeth Sladen was approved by Jon Pertwee, it was clear that she embodied the independent and self-sufficient personality that the new companion should be. And thus, she became Sarah Jane Smith.

The character of Sarah Jane Smith was born in May 1951, in the village of Foxgrove to Barbara and Eddie Smith. She was raised by her Aunt Lavinia, with her parents having driven into a tractor some two months after her birth. Baby Sarah Jane was left in her pram on the side of the road, which was over-seen by her older self. Throughout her childhood, an old clown puppet taunted her, and this fear of clowns never left her until she encountered the Pied Piper in her adult life. When she was nineteen-years-old, she began door-stepping, and while working for Metropolitan magazine, she investigated the disappearances of several scientists at a UNIT-controlled facility. This was where she met Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and a certain unpaid scientific advisor of great renown (who she also suspected of kidnapping the scientists).

After stowing away in the TARDIS, Sarah Jane was taken to medieval England, where a stranded Sontaran was revealed to be behind the disappearances. Convinced that the Doctor was an ally, she joined him on his travels. Using the independence and self-sufficiency expressed by Ms. Sladen, Sarah Jane accompanied the Doctor around the universe, saving planets and solving problems. Then came the time when the Third Doctor regenerated, which Sarah Jane saw happen. As the Doctor recovered from his regeneration, Sarah Jane returned to her work as a freelance journalist, and eventually resumed her travels with him.

Sarah Jane had a knack for always needing to know information about particular cases. She hates not knowing. The Third Doctor had a more protective relationship with her, whereas the Fourth Doctor was more comfortable with her investigating on her own. This was a development for their relationship, as she became more of an equal than just a companion. Yet again, Sarah Jane was immersed in the universe, defeating sinister monsters and neutralising deadly plots. But suddenly, the Doctor was summoned by the Time Lords, so Sarah Jane had to return to Croydon. Unfortunately, the Doctor dropped her off in Aberdeen, and she thought that she would never meet her best friend again. Sarah Jane returned in the spin off K-9 and Company, and again in The Five Doctors (1983).

School Reunion

Along with the rest of the world, Elisabeth Sladen thought that she would never return to the Whoniverse. Naturally, she was wrong. In 2005, the newly revived series of Doctor Who aired, and Ms. Sladen sat with the show’s head Russell T Davies to discuss the return of Sarah Jane Smith. I think that the fact that Russell wanted Sarah Jane back and only Sarah Jane says something about her legacy, and that was before she returned in School Reunion (2006). Ms. Sladen thought that that would be the last she heard from Russell. But then, she found herself with Russell yet again, and her best guess was that she’d get a cameo in the spin-off show Torchwood. Then she found out that Russell wanted a spin-off show to revolve around Sarah Jane herself. “The Sarah Jane Adventures!” This is where her legacy really starts to kick in. Not only was she the most loved companion of the classic series, but she had made her mark in the revived series, before starting her own show. Since having her own show, she could get in touch with a new generation of children, just like she had with the likes of David Tennant. And for Sarah Jane to appear repeatedly in Doctor Who is an honour, but the ultimate realisation for me that Sarah Jane’s legacy is the most important in the history of the Whoniverse is that in her own show, the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors both appeared as guests.

Personally, I think that Sarah Jane Smith is an amazing woman and character, but it is the personality from Elisabeth Sladen that I adore. For a character to be so loved in the 1970’s, and now still loved by generations of children and adults is very special. Despite being a huge fan of the Ponds, Donna, Martha and Rose, I have to say that Sarah Jane is the top of my list for Who-related characters. For me, I see so much of the Doctor in Sarah Jane. Her use of sonic lipstick, her super-computer Mr Smith, and her gang of companions. From the Doctor she has learnt so much, and as I look back on her legacy, I can see that her character has many lessons to teach us. The virtue of humility, the beauty of sacrifice, the essence of everlasting love and the mindset of a Time Lord are all characteristics that I see in Sarah Jane.

It has been almost two years since the loss of Elisabeth Sladen, yet the Whoniverse still feels like a place with a hole punched right in the heart. As I watch Sarah Jane on screen, whether it be with the Doctor, K-9 or her Bannerman Road companions, I always remember her legacy. It is this legacy that cannot be written or described eloquently, but must be watched and remembered. It is this legacy that I believe acts as one of the many foundations that keep the Whoniverse strong. And it is this legacy that I know will be remembered forever.

“And the story goes on… forever”

Elisabeth Sladen
1 February 1946 – 19 April 2011