Monday, 5 May 2014

DW Companions as PCs: Sarah Jane Smith

Jo Grant leaves the show at the end of the tenth season. (Actually, it's worth reflecting on that statement for a moment; not many genre shows even have a tenth season, and even fewer have so many of their most popular episodes still ahead of them at that point...) Her player has come to the end of what passed for a story arc, and comes up with an idea for a new character.

One of the other players had briefly considered the idea of acquiring an NPC Contact - a mysterious journalist named 'Smith' who would have inside info on weird goings on for the players to investigate. With the campaign definitively moving back to outer space adventure, the idea is shelved as not worth the experience points, but it's given Jo's former player an idea. And so she creates investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith.

In the real world, Sarah is consistently voted the most popular classic series companion. Likely for that very reason, she remains the only classic companion to appear in Nu Who so far, and also appeared in not one, but two, spin-off TV series... even if one of them deservedly sank without trace after the pilot episode. That aside, she clearly had a long and illustrious career, and often as the central character in her own right.

Back in our imaginary game, the player is wondering how to make a really good journalist PC. Her character generation points go mainly into perception and influence skills. Sarah Jane certainly has skills like Spot Hidden and Listen, and she has the Stealth skills required to sneak about in places where she can overhear villains discussing their plans. In her first episode, she talks her way into a top secret research establishment using somebody else's pass, suggesting some pretty good skills in Fast Talk or Convince. Later in the same story, she's putting on a creditable performance as a medieval serving wench, so it may be that Acting is a part of her Convince skill.

She seems to know at least a little First Aid, though it really only crops up the once. More frequently, she uses her knowledge of current events to deduce the background to things happening in her Earth bound adventures. These are often connected with science, which suggests that that's largely the sort of story she covered as a journalist, and there's clear indications of that in, for example, The Android Invasion. Of course, there's also the general physical fitness required to crawl through ventilation ducts, because that sort of thing always comes in handy. (I mean, what else would you ever crawl through?)

One odd skill is her familiarity with a rifle in The Pyramids of Mars. It's not so much that she hits the target - she has plenty of time to aim, and she may have put a few Story Points in ahead of time, given the importance of the shot - as how confidently she loads and handles the gun. Perhaps one of her friends at UNIT showed her how.

Aside from her skills, two other traits bear mentioning. There's the obvious point that, like most companions, she has the Attractive advantage. Once again, that's not merely a comment on the actress, but a reflection of the fact that a number of NPCs remark on it. More importantly, they seem to react more positively to her as a result, which is what the advantage usually does in game terms.

Her overwhelming trait, though, is probably Insatiable Curiosity. It makes a lot of sense in a journalist, and it's the source of most of the times that she gets into trouble. Consider how, for example, in Terror of the Zygons, her first reaction on discovering a secret passage in an old castle near where a monster is hiding, is not to, you know, actually tell anybody, but instead to wander off down it to see where it goes. On a similar vein, a Stubborn trait or the like is also justifiable, and she may have a mild phobia of heights, judging from events in both Genesis of the Daleks and The Hand of Fear. (To be fair, the fact that she leads a prison breakout in the first of those stories, and specifically plans to escape by climbing an extremely high tower, shows that she's determined to overcome it).

Having said all of this, there's arguably a sense in which, unlike real PCs, Sarah becomes less competent as the series progresses. Her greatest hour is surely in her first story, The Time Warrior, in which, in addition to what I've mentioned above, she talks the local lord into launching an attack on the bad guy's castle, and then all but leads the assault herself. While she's still gutsy by the time of stories like Revenge of the Cybermen, she is starting to fall into a role of being kidnapped and threatened, if not quite as often as her predecessor. On the other hand, it's hard to question her bravery, even when she's on the verge of hysteria after being blinded in The Brain of Morbius, and she's a pro-active character right to the end.

Her taste in clothing also seems to decline a bit, although that may be as much due to the changing fashions of the decade as anything else. In her initial appearances, her clothing is pretty sober by 1970s standards, but it does start to get a bit naff (to modern eyes) by her later seasons. And, frankly, I'm not sure that even it being 1976 can justify what she's wearing in The Hand of Fear. Having said which, it's interesting to note that she seems quite keen on dressing up. Witness not just the start of The Pyramids of Mars, in which she's just been rooting around in the TARDIS wardrobe for the sheer fun of it, but also her changing into Thal combat fatigues part way through Genesis of the Daleks, or putting on a classy frock for the ball in The Masque of Mandragora.

I should also probably comment on her feminism. She goes on about it quite a lot in her first season (Monster of Peladon is especially cringe-making), in a way that quite obviously says that then-showrunner Barry Letts had decided "let's have a feminist in the show; they're popular these days." She makes less of a deal of it later on, but one can't help but compare her to, for example, Liz Shaw, who was surely also a feminist, but proved her point by simply doing her job better than the men did, rather than having to keep telling everyone about it.

But perhaps we should get on to Sarah's background. She was born in rural Hertfordshire in 1951, making her a few years younger than her actress. Her parents died when she was young, and Sarah was raised instead by her Aunt Lavinia, a virologist who presumably nurtured an interest in science that Sarah later carried into her journalistic work. In Planet of the Spiders, she is working for (the fictional) Metropolitan magazine, and she's presumably a staff writer rather than a free-lance journalist.

Unusually, after meeting the Doctor, she doesn't really live in the TARDIS, as most classic companions seem to, but instead spends at least some time at home between her adventures, in the style that would later become standard in Nu Who. (Or at least, she tries to; the Doctor is always promising her a quick trip down to London or wherever, and then getting dragged off course to an alien planet). There's also, again like modern companions, something of a hint that she rather fancies the Doctor, with affectionate teasing behind his back and so on. It doesn't go anywhere, of course, not least because the show didn't do that sort of thing back then.

By the time of Hand of Fear, however, she has a moderate amount of luggage on the TARDIS, suggesting that she may have finally moved in on a more permanent basis... just before she's dumped in a street in Aberdeen and the Doctor whisks off, apparently never to return.

While we're on the subject of that, though, it also gives us a chance to look at her equipment list - an essential part of many a character sheet. It turns out she has access to a suitcase full of clothes, a bright yellow raincoat, a tennis racket, a potted plant, and a cuddly toy owl. Enough to make many any adventurer jealous, I'm sure.

In the late '70s, she receives a model of the eponymous robot dog in the abortive spin-off series K9 and Company. She eventually meets the Doctor again in the '80s in The Five Doctors, although it's possible that she doesn't remember this encounter afterwards. In the '90s, still an investigative reporter, she appears in the straight-to-video production Downtime, in which she battles The Great Intelligence. Apart from Downtime, most other spin-off stories from the period have since been retconned away, but probably not the Sarah Jane Smith audio plays, set in the early 2000s, in which her journalistic investigations lead her into all sorts of weirdness.

The reason that almost everything else has been retconned is that those stories feature the Doctor, and its clear, when she finally re-appears on television in School Reunion, that she hasn't seen in him in a very long time - possibly not since Hand of Fear, set over 30 years previously. Of course, following on from that, she acquires an alien supercomputer and an adopted son, and goes on to have four and a half seasons worth of The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Obviously, there's an extensive period of her life to be mined here, especially in the '80s and '90s. She's an older, more capable, character by this time, and quite clearly able to be the centre of her own adventures, rather than a companion to another PC. She's single throughout this entire period, and such a lack of attachments is probably a bonus for a PC, or even a recurring NPC. (In a similar vein, when a bunch of mad cultists try to offer her up as a virgin sacrifice in The Masque of Mandragora, she doesn't argue the "maiden" part. Although, then again, she may just think it's none of their business...)

There is some evidence that she tracks down some of the Doctor's former companions during this time, since she knows Jo Grant (who she didn't meet on-screen), and, more significantly, knows about Ian, Barbara, Ben, and Polly, among others.

Sarah's last on-screen appearance is in the final episode of the SJA, in 2011. She would be sixty by this point, and there's no reason to suppose that she doesn't continue on doing much the same sort of thing for years to come...

No comments: