Sarah Jane Smith returns to Doctor Who
One of my favorite TV shows growing up was Doctor Who – the long-running British science-fiction program about a mysterious time traveler known only as “the Doctor,” who, with various companions, travels through time and space in his TARDIS. As could be expected, many adventures are experienced and a range of aliens encountered.
The Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. Like all Time Lords, he has the ability to “regenerate” his body when near death. This concept allows for the convenient re-casting of the show’s lead actor. In fact, to date, ten actors have played the part of the Doctor for television.
Despite the shifts in personality that such “regeneration” inevitably brings, the Doctor, notes Wikipedia, “has always remained an intensely curious and highly moral adventurer; one who would rather solve problems with his wits than through violence.”
Doctor Who first aired in 1963 but, being born in 1965, I have no recollection of the first Doctor (played by William Hartnell). I do, however, have vague (black and white!) memories of the second Doctor (Patrick Thornton), some of his companions, and their adventures.
Yet it was the third and fourth incarnations of the Doctor (Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker) that I grew up watching. And playing opposite both of these actors was Elisabeth Sladen in the role of the independently-minded “assistant,” Sarah Jane Smith.
Sarah went through a lot; encountering, among other nasties, Sontarans, Daleks, Cybermen, Zygons, Ice Warriors, carnivorous plants, giant spiders (“All praise to the eight-legs!”), android mummies, and an ancient alien evil known as Eldrad.
Throughout, Sarah Jane Smith maintained a confident and inquisitive outlook. She’s also often credited with being the first companion of the Doctor to exhibit a distinctly feminist sensibility.
That, of course, was 30 years ago. Yet earlier this year, Elisabeth Sladen reprised her role as investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith, opposite the tenth Doctor (David Tennant), in a one-off appearance in School Reunion, the third episode of the second series of the “new” Doctor Who.
This particular episode was screened last Saturday night on Australian television and, of course, I found myself glued to the telly. It was 1976 all over again!
The episode itself contained a creepy though, at times ridiculous, plot about bat-like aliens called Krillitanes, masquerading as teachers at a modern-day London high school, hell-bent on using the students’ brain power for their own diabolical ends.
Yet while this aspect of the storyline was somewhat disappointing, I found the bringing together of the Doctor and his former companion a moving and worthwhile experience.
Maybe it’s because I’ve hit 40 that I found myself resonating with Sarah Jane’s character and her struggle to deal with the passing of time. At one point she eyes the young Rose Tyler and says to the Doctor, with just a tinge of bitterness, “You can tell you’re getter older: your assistants are getting younger.”
Yet ultimately, Sarah imparts a hopeful and, as it turns out, life-saving message – one that acknowledges the inevitability of change, the pain and suffering it can bring, and the need to let go of past glories and unrealistic fantasies so as to move on with life: “Pain and loss define us, as much as happiness or love,” she reminds the Doctor, when he is tempted to join the Krillitanes and be equipped with the ability of “a god” so as to reorder the universe and eradicate all suffering.
“Whether it’s a world or a relationship,” Sarah Jane insists, “everything has a time and everything ends.”
Needless to say, the Doctor rejects the Krillitanes’ offer and, with the help of Sarah Jane, thwarts their plans for domination of the universe.
Despite this cosmic dimension to the story, Elisabeth Sladen has noted that this particular episode is really about something much more immediate and human. “It’s about having to accept growing older and letting go,” she recently told a reporter. “What was good was good, and you can treasure that goodness, but you can’t hang on to it.”
At the end of School Reunion, the Doctor and Rose invite Sarah Jane to join them as they continue their adventures in time and space. She gracefully declines. School’s out, so to speak, and Sarah Jane Smith has realized that for some things there’s just no going back.
I must admit feeling a little disappointed – for her and for me.
See also the related Wild Reed posts:
What Sarah Jane Did Next
She’s So Lovely
Impossible! . . . It Can’t Be!
Recommended Off-site Link:
An October 2006 interview with Elisabeth Sladen