Classic Doctor Who on BritBox: The best of Sarah Jane Smith
Mark Harrison | On 18, Jul 2021
Offering 626 Doctor Who episodes broadcast between 1963 and 1996, BritBox is bigger on the inside. If you’ve watched all of the new series already, then why not join us as we turn on the TARDIS randomiser for a monthly primer on the adventures of the first eight Doctors…
In the history of Doctor Who, no companion has been more influential than Sarah Jane Smith, as played by the late, great Elisabeth Sladen. Originally starring in the show from 1973 to 1976 alongside Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s Doctors, Sladen is so successful in the role that she single-handedly makes the case for the companion character getting equal billing a good 30 years before it finally happened in the 2005 series. (Sladen herself was eventually billed in the opening titles of 2008’s The Stolen Earth.)
Looking back, she makes such a huge impression on the show that for about five years after her departure, there’s almost a rejection of the traditional contemporary character type in favour of more fantastical sci-fi companions, like an unspoken admission that she leaves big shoes to fill. It wasn’t until Sophie Aldred’s Ace at the tail-end of the classic run that the show even came close, but with the new series’ writers’ baptism in fandom, every companion character since 2005 has been created by someone who grew up at least a little bit in love with Sarah Jane.
Newer fans will know the character from Doctor Who and from the spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures, which ran from 2006 until Sladen passed away in 2011 – and joins Classic Doctor Who on BritBox next month – so we’re long overdue a starter’s guide to Sladen’s best stories from the classic era. If for some reason you’ve never gone back to check if she was always that brilliant, here’s where you start…
The Time Warrior (Season 11, 1973)
“Well, I thought all this might give me a good story.”
Sarah Jane comes crashing into the Third Doctor’s life while impersonating her aunt Lavinia, hunting a story at a scientific research complex where several scientists have disappeared, and then stowing away in the TARDIS as it travels back to the Middle Ages. Sladen is excellent from the off and Sarah Jane is (at least in these earliest serials) written as a feminist and a journalist, who has sources and smarts and is more resourceful than most of her predecessors. Incidentally, the serial also marks the first appearance of a Sontaran, who supplies futuristic weapons to a medieval bandit while repairing his crashed spaceship.
Invasion Of The Dinosaurs (Season 11, 1974)
“Alien monsters, robber barons, then dinosaurs! It’ll be a long time before I get in that TARDIS again.”
Right after that one, her second story is a belter too. Returning to the present day after their historical adventure, the Doctor and Sarah Jane find London has been evacuated and placed under martial law due to sudden and unpredictable dinosaur incursions – ITV would later nick this premise for its New Who-a-like teatime drama Primeval. Malcolm Hulke’s six-parter is unusually packed with incident and is boosted considerably by Sarah taking the initiative and investigating Operation Golden Age while the Doctor mucks about with some typical Pertwee-era gadgets and vehicles, including the futuristic “Whomobile”. All that and some dinosaurs, in the glorious men-in-suits tradition!
Robot (Season 12, 1974)
“Oh, the idiot! He thinks he can cope with anything.”
Sladen’s first season was Jon Pertwee’s last, and the Doctor regenerated into Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor at the end of Planet Of The Spiders (Season 11, 1974). Starting with Robot, her second season sees her effectively being the longest-serving regular as we’re introduced to two new Doctors – Baker, and incoming companion Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter). While she also becomes the female lead in a King Kong pastiche with an experimental robot, she once again proves capable of leading the show – there’s a lovely moment early on in this where the Brigadier sheepishly briefs her on top-secret intelligence while the Doctor is recuperating “because there’s no one else I can tell.”
Genesis Of The Daleks (Season 12, 1974)
“We’re talking about the Daleks, the most evil creatures ever invented. You must destroy them. You must complete your mission for the Time Lords.”
What’s more, Sarah Jane meets the Daleks in Season 11’s Death To The Daleks, so Harry can ask questions while she’s off leading a B-plot. By this point, it’s clear there’s no greater asset to a six-part story than Sarah Jane Smith, who’s able to lead this show as much as the Doctor can, before coming back into the main story to play her part in the debate over whether to kill the Daleks at their inception. It’s only fitting she’s there at a juncture that the series has revisited over and over again both in the classic series and the revival.
Pyramids of Mars (Season 13, 1975)
“We’ve got to go back.”
Although Pyramids of Mars is most lauded for its Gabriel Woolf-voiced villain Sutekh, this tale boasts one of Sladen’s best performances. Credited to Stephen Harris, (a pseudonym for writer Lewis Griefer and script editor Robert Holmes) the story starts with Sarah Jane lampooning the Doctor’s proto-Tennant moping about the responsibilities of a Time Lord, but then pivots on a moment at the peak of the crisis, in which she muses that the world can’t end in 1912 if she was born later. The sequence in which we glimpse a future without the Doctor intervening is rightly iconic, but within this story, it’s one of Sarah’s defining moments.
The Hand of Fear (Season 14, 1976)
“You know, travel does broaden the mind.”
Sladen’s original exit story is rightly criticised for the manner of her actual departure, which feels like something of a technicality. After everyone concerned rejected the idea of killing off Sarah Jane, this tale of a fossilised hand regrowing its body and seeking revenge on its race ends with a perfunctory epilogue where a good-natured row turns into a bittersweet parting of the ways. It doesn’t manage to persuade us that the Doctor wouldn’t go back for her immediately after his stupid mission to stupid Gallifrey, but at least we get a good joke about Aberdeen when Sarah Jane comes back in the new series, with 2006’s School Reunion.
K9 & Company – A Girl’s Best Friend (1981)
“She’s like a butterfly, never in one place long enough to lick a stamp.”
In the early 1980s, Who producer John Nathan-Turner invited Sladen back to serve the same companion role for Peter Davison’s incoming Doctor as she had for the Pertwee-to-Baker transition. Understandably, she declined, but she was persuaded back for a new spin-off featuring Sarah Jane and another Fourth Doctor companion, K9. The only produced episode was a double-length Christmas special that saw Sarah and K9 battle witches in the tiny village of Moreton Harwood. (Not to be confused with the lead singer from a-ha.)
Despite having a sub-Scooby Doo plot and the most irritating theme tune ever composed, the pilot was well received on broadcast and only missed out on a full series order due to a changing of the guard at BBC One. It’s objectively insane that the tin dog was viewed as the above-the-title main attraction, but thankfully, Russell T Davies would eventually set that right with The Sarah Jane Adventures…
More Sarah Jane adventures…
* Season 13 is really the peak of Sarah Jane and the Fourth Doctor as best mates bouncing around time and space, with other highlights ranging from The Android Invasion to The Seeds Of Doom. The chemistry between Baker and Sladen makes them arguably the strongest pairing of the entire classic series.
* Finally, Sarah Jane reunites with the Third Doctor in Season 20’s The Five Doctors, in which she briefly shares the screen with the Second and Fifth Doctors for the first time as well. As the 20th-anniversary special, it focuses more on her ability to fall down a quarry like a champ than any of the aforementioned finer points of her time as the Best Companion Ever.
* After returning to Doctor Who in 2006, Sladen led her own spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures on CBBC and BBC One, working on the series up until her untimely death in April 2011. Her final appearance came at the end of the abbreviated fifth series, with 2011’s The Man Who Never Was. The show has never given Sarah Jane an official ending, but during last year’s lockdown watchalongs, Russell T Davies wrote a full-cast audio story about the day of her funeral, called Farewell, Sarah Jane – tissues at the ready…