It’s very rare to get a Third Doctor and Sarah Jane story these days, probably because of how linked she is with the Fourth Doctor and its easy to forget sometimes that she was a companion for Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor in his final series. Not even in the books from the 1990s and early 2000s did we get much from 3 and Sarah and even Big Finish haven’t really gone into that era.
Personally, I really like the pairing, especially how he treats her much differently from the way he did Liz and Jo. Gone are the scientists and parent dynamics he had and I would say he saw much of an equal in Sarah, especially as she took no guff from him.
This is an element that Rob Nisbett makes sure to carry on within The Decline of the Ancient Mariner, based on the real-life events of 1974, when NASA lost contact with a probe for a little while. Of course, this is prime material for a Doctor Who story and we get a tale of robotic duplicates and the Doctor and Sarah stopping them in the 30-minutes that NASA has no contact with their probe.
This story is pretty typical of the Third Doctor era, with something going wrong at a scientific research laboratory, though he never helped NASA on screen, and the Doctor is called in to solve the problem. But it isn’t a formula that is boring, something about the Third Doctor makes it brilliant to see him taking down the overbearing bosses of these types of establishments is really appealing and while that doesn’t happen here, it does make you wish that there was more to this story. But Nisbett makes sure through in a few of the now staple timey-wimey elements to keep things interesting and stops it from becoming another typical-Pertwee adventure.
But despite the story, which is a nice addition to the continuity of the show and doesn’t outstay its welcome, for me, Nisbitt must be praised on his handling of Sarah Jane. When she was introduced in The Time Warrior, she was a passionate feminist and took that to the Medieval period. But that was toned down much more as her time went on, while she never turned into a shrinking violet, she wasn’t as much of a feminist with the Fourth Doctor as she was here and it was nice to hear her telling off a NASA representative because he didn’t think the Doctor could be a woman. It’s nice to know that Sarah would be perfectly fine with having adventures with the Thirteenth Doctor!
The Decline of the Ancient Mariner also plays with the unique dynamic that Sarah and the Third Doctor seemed to have and makes it a part of the plot, with the Third Doctor enjoying himself pushing Sarah’s buttons, while never betraying the respect they had for one another. It was also nice to hear Sarah’s attitude towards the NASA representative change over the course of the story when a robotic duplicate of the man is cruelly aged before her.
With a cracking story that explores the untapped potential dynamic of the Third Doctor and Sarah, The Decline of the Ancient Mariner does feel quite different from any other Sarah Jane stories on audio, while fitting perfectly into the television continuity. Can we please have more from the Third Doctor and Sarah at some point? I really like them together!