Companion Tropes 41
Often when the Doctor regenerates there is an attempt to provide a contrast with the previous incarnation. The same thing applies, perhaps to an even greater extent, with the companions. In particular, we seem to veer back and forth between a traditional damsel in distress (i.e. what is perceived as the traditional companion) and somebody a bit different. There are plenty of patterns to be found that look like this:
- Polly (plucky 60s girl), Victoria (Victorian damsel), Zoe (future super-brain)
- Liz (super-brain scientist), Jo (girly klutz), Sarah Jane (feminist journalist)
- Leela (alien warrior), Romana (super-brain Time Lady), Tegan (Australian loud-mouth)
- Peri (American “for the dads”), Mel (computer programmer from Pease Pottage), Ace (street kid)
Actually, looking at this list you can see how unfair it is for Doctor Who to get a bad rep for clichéd screamer damsels. They are in fact remarkably rare in Doctor Who. It wouldn’t be too difficult to argue that there was only ever one of those, and her origins justify the approach anyway.
That aside, the point I am making is that Sarah Jane Smith was introduced, as per usual, to be a contrast to her predecessor. She was a career woman with feminist viewers, a power-dresser whose style and behaviour made her appear much more grown-up than Jo (although she was hardly an old lady at 23). But Jo was deliberately portrayed in a childish fashion, and she was married off almost like a child bride, “flying the nest”. That wasn’t the reality, but the way it was sold to us; a bird flying the nest is just entering adulthood. Sarah starts off as a non-Jo.
And then all that changes. It’s a gradual process, and there is much veering back and forth between two kinds of Sarah Jane before we get there, but Sarah’s character development is what tropers called “Chickification”, gradually abandoning all her “powerful” characteristics and becoming much more of a traditional damsel companion. She seems to age backwards over the course of three and a half years, from power-dressing journalist to a girl in an Andy Pandy outfit who speaks like a child:
“I’m going to pack my goodies and I’m going home.”
Although she’s much more the journalist in the Pertwee stories and the damsel in the Baker stories, it isn’t a smooth transition. Even in her first few stories she veers back and forth, so we have Death to the Daleks where she exists mainly to be rescued from being sacrificed, followed by The Monster of Peladon, where she gives Thalira a lecture in feminism:
“Now just a minute. There’s nothing only about being a girl, your Majesty. Never mind why they made you a Queen, the fact is you are the Queen, so just you jolly well let them know it.”
As a general rule she tends to be much more of the independent journalist/feminist when she is part of a bigger ensemble, e.g. the UNIT stories, and more of a damsel when travelling alone with the Doctor, particularly to dangerous alien planets, so it’s really just a case of writers using her as the kind of character their story needs. It is to Elisabeth Sladen’s credit that she manages to take all the disparate approaches to her character and make something coherent and likeable from all that.
Also as a general rule she is more of a feminist when she is travelling with the Third Doctor than the Fourth. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, the contrast with Jo is being made at this point. Secondly, the relationship with the Third Doctor is much more paternal (whereas with the Fourth it’s a best friend vibe), so there’s something to rebel against. Thirdly, as uncomfortable as it is for us to recognise this, the Third Doctor is much more of a chauvinist, and has been from the start. He represents something for a feminist to fight against:
“Well, you can make yourself useful. We need somebody around here to make the coffee.”
Robot is a holdover from the Pertwee era, and offers the conditions for pretty much the last gasp of the professional/feminist Sarah Jane Smith for her original run. Again she is part of the UNIT ensemble so there is room for the character to breathe, and her investigative skills can be made use of. It is also one of the few occasions when her feminism is shown in a positive light, by showing the idiocy of the opposite extreme:
SHORT: As things are at the moment, it is. But in a more rationally ordered society…
SARAH: I would wear what you thought was good for me. I see. And think what you thought was good for me, too?
SHORT: It’d be for your own good…
SHORT: I do hope you’ll include us in your article. We’ve been sadly misrepresented.
SARAH: Really? Well, we’re covering a number of fringe organisations, and I’m sure we’ll find a place for you. Somewhere between the flying saucer people and the Flat-Earthers.
But very soon the relationship between Sarah and the Fourth Doctor just doesn’t allow for this sort of thing. The Doctor is no longer an Establishment figure, or a classist chauvinist, so there is nothing for her to rail against. Instead they have a jokey friendship.
DOCTOR: Yes. Yes, I always did. Victoria wore it. She travelled with me for a time.
SARAH: Well, as long as Albert didn’t wear it.
The kinds of adventures they have together also makes it difficult for Sarah to get her feminist views across. Either they are redundant (e.g. The Ark in Space, which shows us a space station run by a woman, hailing from a whole society run by a woman), or there are simply no female characters at all, so therefore no Thalira for her to offer advice to. The UNIT ensemble is largely left behind, and instead Sarah and the Doctor are off travelling the stars, and the traditional companion role needs to be fulfilled. Sarah eventually becomes the most brainwashed/hypnotised companion of all time, and must surely be a strong contender for the most captured/tied-up/menaced.
This all gets reversed when she returns in her two spinoffs, when her original characteristics become much more useful for a lead role, and also much more useful for Earthbound stories. But crucially her backwards ageing during her original run never diminishes her as a character. Mostly that’s down to the skill and likeability of Elisabeth Sladen, but she proves that it is perfectly fine for Doctor Who stories to do their thing, without demeaning the companion. We have to fear the monsters, and that means placing the companion in danger. Sarah makes that silly general public perception of the Doctor Who screamer girl crumble to dust, because she both fits within it and defies it. She is both a reaction to the cliché and a perfect fit for the cliché, and she takes both approaches to a companion and makes them magnificent and real. In the end, she’s just our Sarah Jane. RP