Yesterday, actress Elisabeth Sladen died. She played Doctor Who regular Sarah Jane Smith, one of sci-fi's first feminists, and a character dear to my heart.
For those not in the know, Doctor Who is a British TV series chronicling the adventures of the Doctor, a time-traveling "Time Lord" from the planet Gallifrey, who has a special affinity for Earth and its people. Specifically, he likes to take humans — often young women — with him on his adventures. As the show went on, these women would become more scantily clad and sexualized, and they were always conventionally attractive. But especially in the earlier years, the Doctor's "companions," as they're typically called ("sidekicks" would be too demeaning), also served as a way for girls to get in on the action. I spoke with Prof. Seth Lerer, author of Children's Literature: A Reader's History from Aesop to Harry Potter, Dean of Arts and Humanities at UCSD, and longtime Doctor Who fan, who explained that the companions were "young women who were models for the audience," allowing kids in front of the TV to imagine themselves as "the girl who travels with the Doctor." Thus, he explained, Sarah Jane became "a model for the female viewer who inscribed herself in the narrative."
She was also a particular kind of model. According to the Telegraph,
As Sarah-Jane, Sladen brought a new, feisty element to the series. Before she joined in 1973, the Doctor's attractive female assistants had largely been expected to scream in helpless horror at some unimaginable extraterrestrial outrage before being plucked from the tentacles of doom by the time-travelling hero. But Sarah-Jane, an independent-minded journalist, gave the two-dimensional role a hint of depth.
To my mind, she gave it more than a hint. Sarah Jane related to the Doctor as an equal, and he — especially in the incarnation played by Tom Baker — treated her as an equal too. According to the Telegraph, she described his approach to her character as "go out on your own and find and come back and tell," and Sarah Jane frequently went off by herself, not just to fall prey to monsters and be rescued, but to find out about them and report back. Her final scene from 1976 (she'd return for appearances in 1983 and 2008), is a good example of her importance — before her return to Earth, she asks the Doctor not to forget her. "Don't you forget me," he says. Though the Doctor may seem more powerful than his companions, he almost always needs them as much as or more than they need him, and this need is abundantly clear in the departure of Sarah Jane. The Telegraph notes that when she left the series, the news made the front page in Britain, an honor previously bestowed only on departing Doctors.
I grew up on Doctor Who, largely in reruns on PBS, and Sarah Jane was the companion of my formative years. Looking back, I could have wished for a show on which a woman played the lead, rather than second-in-command, but that wasn't really on offer in the sci-fi programs that dominated my early youth. Later I'd watch The X-Files and Battlestar Galactica, and I think Sarah Jane paved the way for women to take a more active role in beating monsters (and Cylons). I also think she had value in her own right, at least for me — I learned that girls could go to fascinating places and do fascinating things, and that they should expect to be treated with respect by the men around them, even if these men seemed to be in positions of greater power. And I learned that if someone shows up and wants to take you traveling around the universe, you should say yes — but first make sure he knows the way home.
Elisabeth Sladen [Telegraph]