...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Day 3761: A Tear, Sarah Jane?


Ms Elisabeth Sladen, better known as Dr Woo's best friend Sarah Jane Smith, was one of the most ALIVE people we've ever known, a living testament to her most famous character's credo that you don't have to be a Time Lord up in Space to have ADVENTURES; that they can happen right here on Earth, if you just live your life looking for them.

In the way she remained open to wonder and new things, Sarah Jane never grew up. She certainly never grew OLD.

So how can she have died? I can only echo Tom Baker: impossible, impossible.

My heart goes out to Mr Dr Tom. Already this year he's lost his long-time drinking buddy, Mr "the Brigadier" Nick Courtney, and now Best Friend Sarah as well. And apparently, Big Finish were hoping to arrange for Tom and Lis to record more adventures together.

And then there are the wonderful cast of "The Sarah Jane Adventures", possibly the truest reincarnation of the Classic Doctor Who in its twenty-five-minutes-with-cliffhangers, we've-got-no-money-but-we're-going-to-do-it-anyway format and stories that were arguably more successful than the flashier Saturday series – certainly, the SJAs made better use of the Slitheen and the Sontarans and recurring nemesis The Trickster (aka The Black Guardian lite) was a darn sight better baddie than any villain they've come up with on Doctor Who since 2005. I can't explain better than Auntie Jennie why this series was so GOOD for young people. Mr Daniel Anthony, Ms Anjii Mohindra and Mr Tommy Knight, not to forget Mr Alexander Armstrong (as Mr Smith) and Mr John Leeson (as K-9), must be devastated.

Six episodes of a fifth season have already been filmed: the opening four and, perhaps more importantly, closing two.

This clearly presents two alternatives: a truncated fifth season of just the existing episodes, perhaps with a framing device of Clyde, Rani and Luke remembering Sarah through the stories; or, recording two new stories without Sarah, possibly persuading the incomparable Katy Manning to return once more as Jo Jo Jones or maybe even – subject to developments in his own series – the Doctor, Matt Smith.

Famous Dr Woo writer, Mr Jon Blum has suggested an "Ashes to Ashes" like continuation, with the younger cast of "The Sarah Jane Adventures" (plus alien computer and/or robot dog) continuing to save the world from Sarah's attic in Ealing.

I find myself in two minds.

On the one fluffy foot, it would be LOVELY to see the series regulars continue and to meet up with other former companions… and thanks to the in-series continuity established at the end of "Death of the Doctor", we know – and our heroes know – that there ARE other former companions out there… you could have one story with Martha Jones and UNIT, then another mad jape with Jo; I'd personally love to see them meet up with Dorothy McShane and her "A Charitable Earth" organisation, and they could even have a faabulous swinging adventure with Polly Wright…

But on the OTHER fluffy foot, there is a REASON why it was Sarah Jane, of ALL Dr Woo's companions, who was the one who came back.

Coming after the HUGELY popular pairing of Katy and Jon Twerpee's third Doctor, Lis had such a hard act to follow. But her smart, sassy, no-nonsense tomboy instantly won over the audience (as well as her leading man). Written as Mr Terrance Dicks' idea of a feminist character, famously given the line "there's nothing 'only' about being a girl", fortunately Lis was smart enough to never ever play her that way, and as such was a much MORE feminist character than any number of "right on" lines might have been. Instead Lis made Sarah Jane a rounded, totally capable character, more often genuinely amused at the ridiculous scrapes she got herself into than unable to cope. Sure, she screamed from time to time. But then she got on with unmasking the villain or defeating the monster.

Almost uniquely for a "Doctor Who girl", Sarah Jane had a life and a career that went on outside of the time she would spend with Dr Woo. For example, we are just watching Mr Dr Jon's swansong "Planet of the Spiders" (freshly minted on DVD), and the first episode sees Sarah's investigation of Mike Yates's lamasery completely independent of the Doctor's ESP experiments; only the conclusion (where the Metebilis crystal in the Doctor's lab and the chanting in the cellar combine to summon the first Spider) bring them together. Throughout her time with the Doctor, Sarah has a life IN the TARDIS, but also a life OUTSIDE of it, doing proper journalism, and – aside from the Brigadier himself – I can't think of another companion who DOES that.

She stuck with Dr Woo for three Earth years, Mr Dr Jon's last and Mr Dr Tom's first two, plus a couple more stories – famously taking in her stride: "mummies, robots, lots of robots, antimatter monsters, Daleks, real living dinosaurs and THE LOCH NESS MONSTER". After her they really COULDN'T follow that, so they did "The Deadly Assassin" with no assistant at all, and after that the Doctor didn't have another friend from contemporary Earth for another five years. THAT'S the sort of impact she had.

And of all Dr Woo's travelling chums, Sarah Jane is the one who just gets left. Sarah's was the story that BEGGED for a "what happened next?" At the end of what with hindsight we laughingly call her last story, "The Hand of Fear", the Doctor just kicks her out of the TARDIS and leaves. It's BRILLIANT, because it DOESN'T finish the story. At any moment, you think, he can just pop back and carry on.

Almost all the other "companions" leave because they've found their way home, or they've found their proper place in the universe, or (occasionally somewhat improbably) they've found that ol' Earth thing called lurve (or very, very occasionally because they've found that smashing into prehistoric Earth with a freighter-load of Cybermen tends to reduce your career options). All of those stories have reached their natural conclusion; with the exception of Adric they've had their happy ending and although we know life DOES go on, anything more can only detract from that. (See how "Death of the Doctor" practically rams home the message that, aside from never seeing her Doctor again, Jo Jo DID have a happy life ever after – none of this "divorce" nonsense that mid-nineties fanfic writers kept tossing in!)

But more than all of that, the thing that distinguished Sarah Jane was her ability to match the Doctor. (Helped not a little by Mr Dr Tom's habit of sharing some of his technobabble with her – note the scenes in, say, "Pyramids of Mars" where he has the Doc basically prompt Sarah into explaining the plot back to him. "Tribiophysics" indeed!) Where other time travellers would be content to ask "what is it Doctor", scream and fall over, Sarah Jane would TAKE CHARGE.

Everyone else loved being WITH the Doctor; Sarah Jane loved the Doctor enough to BE the Doctor.

And THAT'S why Sarah was the one who came back, not just once ("K-9 and Company: Least Said Soonest Mended") but again ("The Five Doctors") and again ("School Reunion") and again ("Invasion of the Bane" et al.)

Everyone who watches Doctor Who wants to BE the Doctor. Sarah Jane Smith did that, lived the life that we all would live if we just could: she WAS the Doctor, as close as an ordinary, wonderful human bean can be.

And that was down to the love and integrity with which Lis Sladen portrayed her.

Lis, you were one of "the Children of Time". And now we are so very, very sad.

While there's life there's…

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