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“Death of the Doctor” — RTD’s Last Gift to the Whoniverse

The Sarah Jane Adventures, Series 4

In the extended Whoniverse, I feel like The Sarah Jane Adventures is the spinoff that often gets overlooked, and that’s a crying shame. It’s a kids’ show, sure. But technically, so is Doctor Who (well, that depends on whom you ask, and I’m not looking to start that debate). The Sarah Jane Adventures was deliberately aimed at a younger audience, true. And sure, a lot of that is apparent. The monsters are a bit more goofy, the half-hour format (reminiscent of the original Doctor Who, perhaps?) is for a shorter attention span, and apart from our eponymous heroine, the main characters are younger. But I think The Sarah Jane Adventures captures the heart of Doctor Who in many ways, and does it better than the show proper does a lot of the time (certainly recently—but I’m not here to talk about that either).

I came late to the Doctor Who party, and especially The Sarah Jane Adventures. I discovered these when I was a-knocking on the door to my forties, and feeling a little insecure about it (I’m over it now—age is just a number). So right off the bat, here was something to appeal to me. Not only was the headliner of this show a woman Of A Certain Age (if I’ve done the math correctly, Elisabeth Sladen was 61 at the time), but her cohorts with whom she had her weekly adventures were teenagers. She could have been not only their mother, but their grandmother, if you wanted to get really technical about it.

Sarah Jane and Jo in the TARDIS with the Doctor

The generations were working and playing and learning and laughing side by side, and no one cared about anyone’s age. It just wasn’t a thing. The teenagers in question were Sarah Jane’s adopted son Luke (he’s an alien with his own story arc), and a couple of kids from the neighbourhood. They are never patronising to Sarah Jane, or treat her like an old lady. Rather, once they discover who she is and where she’s been (and she’s got an alien supercomputer in her attic, and occasional visits from the Doctor), they’ve got nothing but the highest respect for her.

The Sarah Jane Adventures is, obviously, Sarah Jane’s story, and not the Doctor’s, and Russell T Davies (he created both this and the reboot of Doctor Who) wanted to make sure it stayed that way. For example, she mostly stayed away from time travel, since that was the Doctor’s thing. The one time they did do a story arc about time travel, it was a big deal (she got accidentally zapped back in time and saw what she thought was the TARDIS, but it turned out to be just an ordinary police box—my heart). Even so, on two occasions, they found excuses to have the Doctor come guest star on her show (she’d guest starred on his, so turnabout was only fair). In all honesty, David Tennant’s double episode didn’t knock my socks off. Matt Smith’s, however, wound up being Russell T Davies’s swan song to Doctor Who, and I loved him for it.

The last thing he had written as showrunner for Who proper was “The End of Time”, where we saw the 10th Doctor’s regeneration. He said he was done after that, and lord knows that would have been a fitting place for him to step down. However, when opportunity came, I guess he couldn’t resist the chance to write for the 11th Doctor—and clearly he had a few more things he wanted to say for the show he loved so much (like he had 10 say, “I don’t want to go.”)

Profile shot of the 11th Doctor in the TARDIS

The title of the episode itself—“Death of the Doctor”—lets you know right away that not only will there be high stakes, we can probably expect a guest appearance from our favourite Time Lord. It’s in Season 4, and at this point, Luke has gone away to school, and Sarah Jane has been having her adventures with neighbor kids Clyde (Daniel Anthony) and Rani (Anjli Mohindra). Luke is still around via Skype, enough for Sarah Jane to show that yes, she is the cutest mom ever, and for Clyde to show that he is kind of jealous that Luke has other friends at school (which is also pretty cute). When soldiers arrive from UNIT (Unified Intelligence Task Force, they’ve been part of the Whoniverse forever) bearing the tragic news that the Doctor has been killed and they are invited to his funeral, Sarah Jane doesn’t believe it.

This is perhaps the one time the kids are a little “okay, if you say so” toward Sarah Jane, in response to her attitude toward the revelation of his death. She’s not buying it for a second, and she’s quite vocal about it, to the point of being defensive and hostile. The kids, of course, take this as denial on her part and are prepared to humour her. They hug their own parents (extra tightly), and go off to the funeral. It is being held at UNIT headquarters in Mt Snowden, run by these really fun puppet monsters called the Shansheeth. They are supposedly the undertakers of the galaxy, and they look like a cross between vultures and Skeksis.

One of the Shansheeth, a puppet-type alien that resembles a vulture

The big thing the Shansheeth want the visitors to do is to sit in the Reflection Room with the coffin—it’s this enormous lead-lined job (remember that for later), and they can’t see the body, but they are encouraged to sit there and remember the deceased. And this is where Russell T’s inner fanboy (bless him) really gets to go to proper work. They get to use clips from 10’s episodes on TSJA as the kids’ memories, but for Sarah Jane’s memories, we get to see old footage of 3 and 4. And if that weren’t enough to start getting you misty-eyed, bang! Something gets knocked over, and in comes Jo Grant.

Jo has evolved a bit into Katy Manning herself over the years. Jo was never quite so clumsy back in the day, but I have personally spent time with Katy, and I can promise you that if there is something to knock over, spill, or break, she will find a way to knock over, spill, or break it—and she will manage to be gorgeous and charming while doing it (I have visions of them having to wrap the entire set in bubble wrap on the days both she and Matt Smith were there, since he is notoriously a bit of a klutz too). Jo is now Jo Jones (Smith and Jones, that recurring Doctor Who name combo), and she’s that glorious post-hippie grandmother everyone wishes they had. Speaking of, with her is her grandson Santiago, played by the adorable Finn Jones, in all his baby-faced pre-Game of Thrones glory.

Jo Grant, smiling excitedly at Sarah Jane

I almost feel like Jo is representative of the entire fandom in these episodes. Her post-Doctor life has been amazing, and we get to hear all about it. Twelve grandchildren, adventures in the rainforest, protesting, activism like you wouldn’t believe, and she looks Absolutely Fabulous (sweetiedarling) while she’s doing it. She and Sarah Jane never met, but Sarah Jane heard enough about her predecessor with the Doctor that she recognizes Jo immediately, and the two of them together are absolute magic. Right away, Jo agrees with Sarah Jane that the Doctor can’t really be dead, because if he were, they would feel it, somehow. There’s a mystery to be solved here, and these are the women to solve it! Groovy! (Yes, they say groovy. I died.)

In the process of catching up, Sarah Jane naturally mentions the other times she’s seen the Doctor. And poor Jo…she never got to see him again, never got her own spinoff, never got to guest star on his show (outside of Big Finish). She realizes that Sarah Jane got closure that she herself never got. “He must have really liked you.” And you can tell she’s hurt, because who wouldn’t be, but she never holds it against Sarah Jane for a second. Almost immediately she recovers and the two of them are back to bonding over their respective adventures on the planet Peladon.

Sarah Jane and Jo leaning up against a door, looking distressed

It turns out that the Shansheeth are actually quite sinister in their motives for encouraging memories of the Doctor. But that’s okay, because the ladies were right, and he’s not really dead! He’s able to do a fancy body swap thing so that he can switch places with Clyde, and swoops in long enough to grab Sarah Jane and Jo and whisk them away to some far-off planet to do a Thing—the nature of the Thing isn’t really important, honestly. What is important—and is the whole point of the episode—is the reunion of the Doctor and the women.

Sarah Jane, of course, has seen the Doctor a bunch of times, though not with this face. But Jo hasn’t seen him since she was younger than he looks now. Her first words to him are snark about his appearance—Sarah Jane reminds her that he can change his face, and Jo says “I know, but into a baby’s?” and the Doctor shoots back “Oi, imagine it from my point of view. Last time I saw you, Jo Grant, you were what, 21, 22? It’s like someone baked you.” I have to think it’s part of what Russell T Davies couldn’t resist about coming back to write these episodes—baby Doctor and the two old broads. We knew that Matt Smith is magical with kids, so him on this show was always going to be lovely—but the youngest actor ever to play the Doctor being the one to wrap things up with two (incredibly gorgeous) women over 60? I don’t know if that came as naturally to Smith as the kids thing did, but even if it was a challenge for him, he was clearly up for it. And it’s just glorious.

While the Doctor and the ladies are off on Planet Whatchamacallit doing the Thing, Clyde, Rani and Santiago are having their own chase all over UNIT headquarters, figuring out what the Shansheeth are really up to, and doing their own bonding. The most relevant thing we find out is that the reason Santiago is there with his gran is because his parents are so busy with activism, saving the world, that they don’t have much time for him. He’s been all over the world, to incredible places, but he’s never been to school.

Clyde, Santiago, and Rani sit in a cubbyhole, talking

It’s a nice detail to include, how the ripple effect the Doctor has on people’s lives carries on through generations, to people who haven’t even met him. They swap “I can’t believe this is your life” stories…Santiago can’t believe Clyde and Rani save the world from monsters and the like, and then go home for dinner. They can’t imagine all the adventures he’s had in the far-off places of their own planet, and realise that perspective can really make a difference. One thing I only noticed on this rewatch—Santiago says he hasn’t seen his dad in a bit because his father is “with the Gay Dads Organisation, hiking across Antarctica.”

Off on the planet, the Doctor and Jo finally get to talk, and this right here is, I think, the point of the whole episode, and what I mean when I say that Jo is the stand-in for the entire fandom here. Sarah Jane tactfully drifts away, letting Jo have her time with him, because she is classy like that. Jo finds out that he’s travelling with a married couple now, and she feels stupid because she only left him because she wanted to get married, and hadn’t thought she could have both. And it’s probably fair to say that she couldn’t have done, that 3 did have different rules than 11, that maybe he evolved a bit and changed his mind about some things. But she never got to see him again, even though he had promised her she would. “He wouldn’t just leave. Not forever. Not me.”

The 11th Doctor and Jo Grant sit in a quarry, on a red-tinted planet, talking

It’s that same old song from all the companions—the need for closure. It’s my favourite moment in “School Reunion”—Sarah Jane’s first visit to New Who, her first reunion with the Doctor after so many years—she takes him to task about how humans need closure, even if he doesn’t. When Sarah Jane Smith takes you to school on something, you remember it, and the Doctor does (it pops up again in “The Doctor’s Wife”, when he assumes that what the TARDIS has always wanted to say to him is goodbye). When 10 is making what I think of as his pre-regeneration Farewell Tour at the end of “End of Time”, he checks out everyone he used to know, and now we learn he did even more than that.

He looked back on Jo, and now he is able to tell her details of her life to prove it, and he is able to tell her how proud he is of her, of all of them. It’s a huge gift to Jo, and a huge gift to the fandom. And we owe it to Sarah Jane, for being the one to teach him about communication and closure, and we owe it to Russell T Davies (and I say this as primarily a Moffat fan) as the guy who brought Who back, and who stuck around even after he said he was done, to give us one last thing.

The Doctor and the ladies zap back so that Matt can scamper around with the kids for a bit, while Sarah Jane and Jo get locked in a room with the bad guys and the coffin and the TARDIS, and everyone gets to find out what the Shansheeth have really been up to all along. They want to use the women’s memories of the Doctor and the TARDIS to create a TARDIS key, thus giving them access to the TARDIS, which they plan to use to eradicate death completely. Getting rid of death…that’s never a good idea, no matter who has tried to use it as a plot device.

Sarah Jane and Jo try to not think about the Doctor when the bad guys tell them to, but of course that’s impossible, and the Doctor, on the other side of the door, realizes that this is actually the way to thwart the bad guys completely. He tells them, “I want you to remember everything. Every single day with me. Every single second…because your memories are more powerful than anything else on this planet. Just think of it. Remember it. But properly. Properly. Give the Memory Weave everything. Every planet, every face, every madman, every loss, every sunset, every scent, every terror, every joy, every Doctor. Every me.”

The Doctor smiling at Jo

And to go with those words (and Lis and Katy’s beautiful ecstatic faces as they relive it all), a clip montage to end all clip montages of footage dating back to the very first Doctor. Clyde and Rani help out, calling out their own memories to fuel the fire (with clips from their own show), and even Santiago gets to chime in to remind his gran of all the amazing places she’s been to in her life (stock footage!). The Memory Weave is overloaded, and the bad guys are literally vanquished by a memory montage. If that’s not a fanboy tribute, I don’t know what is.

Once that’s sorted, everything would be fine—except the Weave is going to make the room the women are in go boom, and they can’t get out, and the Doctor doesn’t have his sonic screwdriver (it’s in the TARDIS), so he can’t get them out. They are all set to accept their fate, happy that they got to see him one last time, even though it was at his funeral, and then it hits them all at once—his funeral! With a lead-lined coffin (remember how I said that would be important later?)

A couple of years ago, at LI Who, I was moderating Katy’s panel. We always have a good time when we do these together; there is a lot of laughter and silliness in and around the questions. And someone asked her about this moment in the episode, where she and Lis had to climb into the big lead coffin together, which saves them from the explosion. Katy is not remotely shy about the fact that while Elisabeth Sladen was always graceful and elegant, she herself is um…not. And she stands up, and is trying to figure out a way to demonstrate this. I said, “Katy, do you need me to hold your microphone?” She said, “I need you to lie on the floor.” Like any good improv performer, I “yes-and”-ed without a second thought, and this ensued—

A convention stage where a woman lies flopped on top of another, in an entirely ridiculous and un-erotic way
Photo by Mathaeyos

Katy Manning is famed for her hugs. That day, when it came to Katy hugs, I kind of hit the next level. And when you watch the episode, it doesn’t look as clumsy (or as funny) as she made it sound—but of course now, whenever I watch that episode with my daughter (who was in the audience for the panel), and they open up the coffin to find Sarah Jane and Jo hugging each other in it, and she points to Sarah Jane and says “that was you, Mom!” Anyone who wants to equate me to Sarah Jane Smith in any context whatsoever, I will absolutely take it.

Sarah Jane and Jo happily hugging each other in a big coffin

The Doctor pops them all back to Bannerman Road in the TARDIS, of course, and that’s another nice thing for Jo, that she gets to be in the TARDIS one last time (it smells the same, she says). And they want to run their theory by the Doctor, that if he were to actually die, they would somehow feel it. In typical Doctor smartass fashion (smartass, with a bit of truth thrown in, I think), he neither confirms nor denies when he says “Between you and me, if that day ever comes, I think the whole universe might just shiver.” Then he pauses for dramatic effect, and gives a “gotcha” type start, and they all have a laugh over it. The Doctor doesn’t have a drawn out goodbye—he still doesn’t like it, and anyway, it’s not his show. I think it’s appropriate, to make it as little about him as it could be.

Jo and Santiago bid farewell to Sarah Jane, Clyde and Rani. At Clyde and Rani’s urging, Santiago plans to poke at his parents to spend less time saving the rain forests and more time with their son. Jo manages to misplace her glasses one last time before leaving (they are on her head), and off they go. But Russell T Davies has one more gift in his back pocket that he wants to leave the fandom with before he leaves for good (and this is why it is such a crying shame that this show gets overlooked within the Who canon, because then you miss this bit). Sarah Jane tells Clyde and Rani and sometimes she hits the internet and goes looking for past associates of the Doctor, and Google has come up with some names over the years.

Jo, Sarah Jane, Clyde, Santiago and Rani watch the TARDIS disappear from the attic at Bannerman Road

She names Tegan, Ben, Polly, Harry, Dorothy—all amazing people, doing amazing things like discovering vaccines, raising billions for charity, human rights activism, you name it. Even Ian and Barbara Chesterton (the very first companions), whom she says haven’t aged since the sixties. All these people whose lives the Doctor has touched, but instead of wondering whatever happened to them (or being sad and angry over their fate, like we are over say, Donna Noble), we get to learn that not only are they still around, they are thriving, and carrying on in ways that would make him, and us, proud. I came late to the Doctor Who party and even I see this as something huge, that I can’t write about without getting choked up. I can’t imagine how I would feel if I had been on this bus since 1963…I think the whole universe might just shiver.

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Written by Cat Smith

Cat Smith is the reigning Miss Nerdstiles, having inherited the crown from absolutely no one, because she made it up. She is an actor, a musician, a cosplayer since before they had a word for it, and a general nuisance (General Nuisance *salute*). She and her ukulele have charmed the collective socks off of LI Who and LI Geek, ReGeneration Who, WHOlanta, Potterverse, Coal Hill Con, Time Eddy, MISTI-Con, Hudson Valley Comic Con, Wicked Faire, SqueeCon, The Way Station, and The Pandorica Restaurant . She has written for "Outside In" and "Why I Geek" (among others), and you can find her music on bandcamp at https://missnerdstiles.bandcamp.com/album/who-riginals. Consider supporting her continuing adventures by becoming a patron at patreon.com/missnerdstiles

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