Someone in the bizarre alternate reality known as “fandom” recently described the lovely, very English, Sarah Jane Smith as an Über-companion:
Term with literal meaning of “above” in German. Brought to the mainstream in the early 80’s by hardcore American punk band, the Dead Kennedys when using the term in the anti-Californian government song “California Über Alles”, which is a take off the German motto of “Deustchland Über Alles”, which translates to “Germany above all.” The term was picked up in their native California stomping grounds by the typical surfers and “punks” and extended from there to many teenagers, the majority of which use the term online.
Now while I can appreciate what was inferred, I cannot accept that Sarah Jane was any better or any worse a companion than, say, Harry Sullivan. She was simply more fragrant. A damn sight prettier too. I mean why else would the fourth Doctor, who as we all know on his nights off enjoyed a few pints of ginger beer and the odd stick of leaves wrapped in paper, allow a young feminist to hang around with him? How many times did Sarah Jane actually make a cup of tea? It’s almost as if once his third (at that pointâ€¦) body dies the old boy thinks to himself “Phwoar, she’s pretty lovely isn’t she, maybe I’ll get a body she’ll like more. Now let’s see, she’s a journalist, bit of a writer, probably likes arty types. I’ll model myself on that Latrec poster…”
Now I’m not sure, personally, what to make of Elisabeth Sladen’s career. Fourteen or so television appearances in the 9 years she was acting before Doctor Who (including Coronation Street and Z Cars) and 9 since 1977. Many Doctor Who companions, before and since have found themselves typecast and rarely seen on television again (the two that stand out as escapees, Frazer Hines and Louise Jameson, hid in soap operas and long-running dramas). Thankfully Elisabeth has been on television since Doctor Who, although a lot of her work since has been returning to the role of Sarah.
Never was an Earth girl more suited to travelling through space and time. Need to kidnap a companion of the Doctors? Sarah Jane Smith will do! Hypnosis? She’s forthright but oddly weak-minded! Oh what does this button do? OOH! Where am I? And could she scream? Wow, what a scream!
But, and this is the big “but” (which she didn’t have – oh no, lovely petite figure, perfect!) Sarah Jane Smith was, and I quote “Have you met Miss Smith? She’s my best friend!”. Sarah Jane Smith was more than a companion to the Doctor, she truly was his bestest friend in the world – ever! She was as fiercely protective of him as he was of her, even though she knew he was of a superior race and was rarely afraid anyway. How many times did Sarah see the Doctor “die”? He would always come back to life, surprise her and pull a win out of the bag. Their relationship was not only one of the best in Doctor Who, but one of the best in television. It seems only natural that the current production team would want to replicate that vibe.
The Doctor : Listen, there are no measurements in infinity. You humans have got such limited little minds. I don’t know why I like you so much.
Sarah : Because you have such good taste.
The Doctor : That’s true. That’s very true.
There is everything in that exchange – warmth, humour and an innocent girl from Earth travelling thourgh time with her best friend, an alien. What’s more, even though Sarah is in her early 20s, her relationship with the Doctor is the same one the viewer has, with just a bit of converstaion thrown in. We’re with her all the way as she gets lost and replaced by androids hiding in village pubs.
If anyone who had travelled with the Doctor was going to succeed in their own series of adventures it was always going to be Sarah Jane Smith. K-9 and Company proved, however, that it didn’t matter how popular you were; if someone gives you a naff script, bad direction and in particular a robot dog who thinks it’s the “star”, you’re going to wish you’d suggested they gave the job to Katy Manning.
Her apparent retro-evolution from womens-lib journalist into forthright but screamy companion appears to have taken part during the Doctor’s third (we thought at the time…) regeneration. But then seeing someone get a new body is no doubt quite traumatic, so that’s understandable. One week she’s refusing to make cups of tea for RSM Benton, the next she’s teleporting and screaming her way through a space station.
In the books, to, the Sarah Jane & Doctor pairing has been very natural for the authors to invoke. I pay particular respect here to Justin Richards (current editor of BBC Books’ Doctor Who range) for the wonderful interpretation of Sarah Jane in his novel System Shock, and Jacueline Rayner’s Wolfsbane. All you can add to their novels is the following compliment: I felt like I was watching Doctor Who circa Pyramids of Mars.
Actually, scratch my first paragraph. If being the loveliest, prettiest, friendliest and loyalest makes Sarah Jane Smith the bestest, then lets make her the Über-companion.
Artwork by Anthony Dry