Sara the Atoner

saraCompanion Tropes 32

No, not Sarah.  Sara Kingdom, from First Doctor story The Daleks’ Master Plan, and the most debatable companion from the lists of those who are generally considered “official” ones.  She is unique among the Doctor’s companions, a killer who is working for the Doctor’s enemies before she meets him.  During the Classic Series only Turlough comes close, although he is not a killer and doesn’t have a crime to atone for.  More recently there was an attempt to follow a similar character arc with Missy, and it’s a fascinating path for a companion to follow: from darkness to the light.

SARA: Look, what do you want me to say? That I believe your fantastic story?
STEVEN: It’s true.
SARA: It mustn’t be.
DOCTOR: I’m afraid it is, my dear.
STEVEN: But Bret had to be killed.
SARA: Shut up! Bret Vyon was my brother.

Looking at the wider world of fiction and drama, characters who want to atone for past sins are to be found all over the place.  Certain characteristics generally link them together:

  • They committed a major crime or crimes.  For Sara this entails working as a Space Security Agent for Mavic Chen and killing her brother Bret Vyon.
  • Something happens to trigger a change in them, and make them see the error of their ways.  For Sara that trigger is the realisation that she has been working for the wrong side, and has killed her brother unnecessarily.
  • They try to make amends.  For Sara this involves helping the Doctor and Steven to defeat Mavic Chen and the Daleks.

The third one of those often takes the form of an assassin or killer of some kind, who has special skills that can be turned on the former employer.  Sara is hand-picked by Chen for the job of recovering the taranium core, knowing how capable and ruthless she is.  She is a useful person to have on his side, and subsequently becomes a useful ally to the Doctor and Steven.

But Atonement is a tricky business.  What makes this kind of character so useful is the open-ended nature of their motivation.  Atonement is a journey, not a destination.  It represents an unreachable goal.  Few atoners can ever find peace, except in one particular way that we will come to.  Ultimately, no amount of fighting against former employers, working for the good guys, or killing off other baddies will reverse the atoner’s former crimes.  For Sara that means Bret Vyon.  However hard she tries to do the right thing, she can’t bring her brother back to life.

A character arc needs a destination point though.  A resolution is called for.  That brings us to the exception to the finding peace rule I mentioned above.  There is only one way out for the atoner, and that’s death.  It’s as close as the atoner can get to balancing the books.  Sara took the life of her brother, and gives her own life, fighting the cause he believed in.

This is of course the John Wiles era of Doctor Who, so it’s all fudged a little.  The one consistent theme throughout the Wiles-produced stories is that the Doctor is a loser.  The death of his companion is therefore sold to us with a skewed emphasis.  Instead of the bittersweet moment of atonement this kind of character arc would usually build up to, the focus is instead on the Doctor’s failure (again).  He’ll keep failing until Wiles departs and the series resets, pretending none of this unpleasantness ever happened.

So Sara almost gets her big moment of self-sacrifice, but in the end it’s little more than another thrown away life, caught in the wake of the Time Destructor when she should have been safe in the TARDIS, her presence achieving very little.  The mistake would later be repeated with Adric, whose death is similarly hollow and pointless.  If you want to see how this should be done, watch the final episode of Buffy.  But it is churlish to expect 1960s Doctor Who to meet those standards.  Whatever you think about the status of Sara as a companion, at least she was a strong attempt to do something different, and that is a testament to the Hartnell era.  Think about the female companions that had featured in Doctor Who so far by this point:

  1. The Doctor’s granddaughter.
  2. A contemporary human.
  3. A girl from the far future.
  4. A girl from the distant past.
  5. A villain who murdered her own brother.

…and contrast this to the 21st Century approach to female companions:

  1. A contemporary human.
  2. A contemporary human.
  3. A contemporary human.
  4. A contemporary human.
  5. A contemporary human.
  6. A contemporary human.
  7. A contemporary human.

…and that brings us bang up to date.  1960s Doctor Who was blazing a trail for inventiveness with its choice of companions, and Sara Kingdom on her path to atonement is surely the most inventive of them all.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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3 Responses to Sara the Atoner

  1. DrAcrossthePond says:

    It is rather depressing that after all this time, we’ve not done better with the companions! Classic Who was way ahead of the game on many levels!! ML

    Liked by 1 person

    • Roger Pocock says:

      The problem is that the approach to never do anything other than contemporary human comes from assuming the worst of the viewer, that we somehow couldn’t cope with anything else, and couldn’t relate. It’s the same kind of wonky thinking that led just about everyone in the television industry to assume that family viewing at Saturday teatime was dead and gone, until RTD came along and proved that assumption wrong. If you lead with quality the audience will follow and Doctor Who, despite the gender change, is at risk of becoming stale. They need to recapture some of the inventive spirit of the 60s.

      Liked by 1 person

      • scifimike70 says:

        The inventive SF/fantasy spirit of the 60s, as pioneering as it was thanks to Dr. Who, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The Prisoner, Planet Of The Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey, is undeniably a daunting task for this decade. As for a particularly newer kind of female TARDIS companion for her time, Sara as a villainess-turned-companion for the 1st Doctor’s era was indeed a spirited notion and Jean Marsh, just after her first great breakthrough for Dr. Who in The Crusade as Joanna, coupled with SF-acting talents that TZ fans remember from The Lonely’s Alicia, was the kind of casting choice that reaffirms how the right talents can amazingly come together for such a special project.

        The Daleks’ Masterplan for Hartnell’s last Dalek story was quite a game-changer for how the Daleks could progressively earn newer story material over time. So a companion for her own specific significance may have been limited to that one story (12 epic episodes). But the fact that she is considered a companion in her own right establishes the realisms for a classic SF/fantasy series that in Sara’s case remain hard to match.

        Thank you, RP, and thank you, Jean, for your signature among the many pivotal women of Dr. Who. You were also beautifully unforgettable as Morgaine in Battlefield.

        Liked by 1 person

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