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Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith

April 20, 2011

Terribly sad news last night of the death from cancer of Elisabeth Sladen, best known for portraying Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who. Born in 1948 in Liverpool, Sladen was cast as the new companion for the show’s 1974 series by producer Barry Letts, initially as a journalist and card-carrying feminist who would be a direct contrast to the more girly and ditzy character — Jo Grant (Katy Manning) — she’d be replacing. As such, Sarah’s first appearance in the opening episode of ‘The Time Warrior’ sees her written very much as the very male crew imagined a feminist might behave — refusing to make the Doctor’s tea and mentioning Women’s Liberation within about five minutes of arriving on screen. With this faintly painful politicking done, the way was clear for Sarah Jane Smith to become one of the Doctor’s most endearing and memorable companions.

Accompanying Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor for his final series, Sarah witnessed the Doctor’s regeneration in ‘Planet of the Spiders’  (1974) and would continue to travel with the fourth incarnation for three more seasons, forging an unbreakable bond with new Doctor Tom Baker. I think it’s fair to say, Doctor Who‘s place in the general viewing public’s consciousness resides in an image of the scarf-wearing, mercurial Fourth Doctor and this most charming companion (and best friend), always brave, always inquisitive. Whether picking her way over a battlefield on Skaro to catch her first sight of Dalek creator Davros (‘Genesis of the Daleks’), staggering her way blinded around Solon’s laboratory while a headless monster looms up behind her (‘The Brain of Morbius’), or coolly trying to put a bullet through a box of gelignite guarded by robot mummies (‘Pyramids of Mars’), Sladen’s Sarah was always true to her character and therefore utterly believable.

She’s compassionate too, as the viewer always hopes he or she would be: in ‘Robot’ she’s the only one who tries to befriend the eponymous, schizoid creature; ‘The Brain of Morbius’ she even shows compassion to a disembodied brain in a jar, and the viewer never questions her response to this or the (many, many) other outré scenarios the character faces. Paired with the Fourth Doctor she is his equal, trading one-liners with one another as they face off against terrible dangers; with Ian Marter’s bumbling Harry Sullivan in the mix for the 1975 series she becomes an older sister, her exasperation with Harry’s public-school charms covering up her irrepressible fondness for him.

When it comes time for Sarah to leave in ‘The Hand of Fear’ (1976), it’s a shock: while she’s had a good piece of the action of the story, being psychically possessed by the titular detached body-part and getting to play the villain for once, her departure is a rushed and painful one, as the Doctor — recalled to his home planet Gallifrey — more or less throws her out. For such adventures to come to a sudden halt is shocking: as Sarah is caught in a freeze-frame, walking down a suburban street towards an unknown new life, down to Earth with a bump, it’s impossible not to empathise with her: a best friend seemingly spurned.

Sladen’s association with Doctor Who continued in the 1980s, with appearances in anniversary special ‘The Five Doctors’ (1983) and the pilot for a spin-off series in which she was paired with that other most enduring companion of the fourth Doctor’s, the robot dog K-9, and the 1990s, in charity tv skit ‘Dimensions in Time’ (1993), the independent video ‘Downtime’ (1995), and two radio plays, ‘The Paradise of Death’ (1993) and ‘The Ghosts of N-Space’ (1994) written by Barry Letts, who had first cast her, and which reunited her with Third Doctor Jon Pertwee and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, played by Nicholas Courtney. It’s galling to think that this would be the last time these three principal cast would appear together — Pertwee died in 1996, and Nicholas Courtney earlier this year, robbing Doctor Who in a scant few weeks of two of its brightest stars.

In 2006, Sladen was persuaded to return to the role of Sarah Jane — as the character had been slightly rebranded — for what she saw as a one-off appearance in the tremendously popular relaunched Doctor Who. Toby Whithouse’s script ‘School Reunion’ sees Sarah once again go undercover as a journalist, investigating mysterious goings-on in a school, where she is reunited with the Doctor, now in his tenth incarnation (David Tennant). In a bittersweet twist, we’re told that Sarah has been alone all these years (save for the redoubtable K-9), never having met a man who could live up to the Doctor. And then, in a wonderful real-life twist, Sladen was given her own show, the tremendously successful children’s series The Sarah Jane Adventures, in which she gained a family of bright teenagers, a super-computer, and the ever-loyal K-9, and would investigate mysteries and monsters over four colourful and exciting series of stories. In these, too, she would re-encounter the Brigadier, the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, and even the companion she once replaced, Jo Grant, in a series of touching and respectful homages that delighted adult viewers as well as gently introducing younger ones to some of Doctor Who‘s colossal and kaleidoscopic history.

Doctor Who has had companions who have screamed and wilted; been outspoken and brash; made explosives in their bedrooms as teenage pyromaniacs; and who have fallen in love with the Doctor. Nobody’s ever quite replicated Sarah Jane Smith’s fearlessness, her unique yelps and squawks (never screams) when in peril, or that wonderful urgent half-whisper ‘Doctah!’ To now be writing about Elisabeth Sladen — who never seemed to grow any older and who was Sarah Jane Smith up until the very end of her life — in the past tense feels horrible, stupid and senseless. To know that I can stick on a DVD of any of her screen adventures and see her brought back to life, fending off Sontarans or Zygons, giant spiders or mad cultists, is barely a compensation. Nobody who’s ever seen Sarah Jane Smith or Elisabeth Sladen will ever forget her, and every one will miss her terribly.

Elisabeth Sladen, 1 February 1946 — 19 April 2011.

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From → Doctor Who

2 Comments
  1. julie and natasha permalink

    we hae watched all the sarah jane adventures and we are sad to hear of the passing of elizabeth sladen we will think of her when we watch her on tv

    • saintthefireshow permalink

      It’s very sad — but as much as we miss her, it’s important to celebrate her wonderful life and career too.

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