Elisabeth Sladen: “a tear, Sarah Jane?”
When I stumbled across the news online last night that actress Elisabeth Sladen had died last night, it was one of those moments when the effect was literally physical and left me reeling with shock for hours afterwards. How is it possibly that such a vibrant, lively, alive person is suddenly no longer with us?
Her most famous character, Sarah Jane Smith, was not the first Doctor Who companion that I remember – that would have been Jo Grant, and I remember how upset my six-year-old self was when Jo departed the series (to live in Wales! With an environmentalist nut! How can this be allowed to happen?!) Imagine how bad it was the following year when “my” Doctor, Jon Pertwee, also left – dying (to all intents and purposes) on the laboratory floor tended to by Sarah Jane and the Brigadier. When Sarah Jane cried – “A tear, Sarah Jane? No, no, don’t cry…” – I cried with her, and that’s the sort of bonding experience a child has with a character and an actress that is never broken.
After Pertwee left, I rejected the “new” Doctor on principle and stopped watching soon after (lured away to the dark side of ITV by Space: 1999). But that had never happened the previous year with the changeover of companions, and that’s because as sad as I was to see Jo depart, it was impossible not to be instantly won over by Sarah Jane. That was the sort of effect that Elisabeth Sladen seemed to have on absolutely everyone.
I wasn’t watching the show when eventually it was Sarah Jane’s time to leave (in many ways, I think my sub-conscious refuses to believe she actually ever did leave), but I watched and really liked the attempted spin-off K9 and Company in which Elisabeth Sladen was quite the best thing and totally the star – I thought at the time that it was such a shame her one shot at solo success seemed to have come to nothing … It was lovely to see her reunited with Pertwee one more time in the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors, where she gamely threw herself down a slight incline on a Welsh hillside for old times sake in order to contribute one last “cliffhanger” to the show. Of all the companions that the Doctor ever had on those classic years, she was the one everyone remembered, and everyone liked.
If there had been no more to Sarah Jane’s story, and Elisabeth Sladen had stepped away from the limelight from then on, then Tuesday’s news would have been a surprise, and rather sad for nostalgic reasons to those of us with 35-year-old memories of her – but it wouldn’t have been as deeply shattering as it actually was. And that’s because Sarah Jane’s – and Lis Sladen’s – finest hours were yet to come.
When Doctor Who was revived in 2005 after 16 years of cancellation, showrunner Russell T Davies was careful to keep away all those accumulated years of show mythology away from the screen, lest the show choke to death on its own history and alienate the new generation of fans it needed win over to succeed. Other than the Daleks, the Tardis and the Doctor himself, this was to be a completely new show. But even Davies couldn’t resist the allure of Sarah Jane, and in the new show’s second season he brought back the character (along with K9) for an episode called School Reunion which is still one of the best stories they’ve done.
The best special effect in that episode was Lis Sladen herself, who had somehow defied time and looked not exactly the same as she had in 1974 … but instead, somehow better and more beautiful than ever. How could you not look at her, talk with her and spend time with her and not decide that what the world really needed more than anything else right now was a full-on series of Sarah Jane Adventures? And so Sarah Jane became the Doctor figure to her own group of young companions, and Elisabeth Sladen was shown to be what we the fans had known all along: a true star in her own right, the greatest of all the companions, and the rarest of them – the companion who could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Time Lord himself as an equal. She had a cool car, sonic lipstick, a great leather jacket, could outpace her young co-stars in a full-on run down the street – the woman was a marvel. Not just for her age, but for someone half her age and then some.
In many ways, The Sarah Jane Adventures (SJA) has been closer to the spirit of the original classic Who than the newly regenerated Doctor Who series that needed to be bigger, bolder, deeper, more action, more FX than ever before. I never hesitated to recommend SJA to anyone and everyone, and never saw it as “just a kids show” any more than I had the original classic Who show: with its focus on Earth-bound adventures, SJA was very like Pertwee’s UNIT era, and there was a genuine sense of fun, enjoyment and lightness to the show which, one suspects, started at the centre with the star herself. Not that it was afraid to go to deeper and darker places itself when it needed to – one of the final season stories, about Sarah Jane’s adopted son Luke leaving home, touched some very complex and disturbing emotions for children and adults alike of abandonment and the fear of moving on, growing old, no longer being needed.
The show also allowed the show to reconnect with its past in some lovely moments: Nicholas Courtney’s last screen appearance as the Brigadier before his own death earlier this year (and as one piece of small, cold comfort, at least he’s not here for this week’s news – it would have broken his heart if he had been); David Tennant’s last screen performance as the Doctor (it was filmed after he had officially regenerated in the main series); and in the final season, not only Matt Smith popping up to continue the tradition, but the return of Katy Manning as Jo Grant after nearly forty years. To see Sarah Jane and Jo finally get to meet, talk, share notes on their lives and on the Doctor was an extraordinary moment of closure for any long time fan.
And it’s also the clue that shows how and why Sarah Jane – and Lis Sladen – is so very special to the history of the show and to the hearts of all long-time fans. The Doctor Who companion is always meant to be be the point of audience identification, the one through whose eyes we see the extraordinary character of the Doctor and his adventures. Thanks to her unique association with the series and her unswerving love and cheerleading for the show throughout, Lis Sladen was the ultimate success in achieving that.
My favourite moment of SJA is a quiet side moment, when Sarah Jane is in the middle of a typical hyperactive adventure which has taken her on board an orbiting alien spaceship. She suddenly looks out of a window – we see her face from the other side, with the glass overlaying a lovely reflection of the planet Earth over her face. Lis Sladen’s look at this moment is wonderful – literally, full of wonder – and quite beautifully perfect. “I never thought I would see that again,” she says to herself, the character having felt that her space travelling days ended with the Doctor – just as fans had thought that it had all come to and end in 1989. But they hadn’t, and it was a shared moment between character, actress and fans that showed that sometimes dreams can come true and good things do happen.
Sarah Jane Smith cried with us when Pertwee left; she let rip at the Doctor years later for dropping her like a stone at the end of The Hand of Fear. She showed how being touched by travelling with the Doctor changes you, how life is never the same afterwards, and how going back to “ordinary” just isn’t an option. Not everyone gets to go on to save the world (a lot) as Sarah Jane did, but a touching coda to the Matt Smith/Katy Manning story in SJA gave name checks to the Doctor’s other Earth-bound companions going on to do extraordinary things, such as Tegan fighting for aboriginal rights, showing the profound effect of the Doctor’s influence on others in the show’s universe.
But it’s not just in fiction that Doctor Who has this power. It’s also touched and transformed the lives of many people in real life too: Russell T Davis and Steven Moffat might very well not have been inspired to be writers without the show seizing their imagination as children and showing them what was possible; David Tennant might never have been seized by the desire to act if not for having a childhood dream of being the Doctor himself one day. Countless other fans have grown up to be writers, novelists, magazine editors and even scientists because of the show. This is true for all of those of us who have been genuinely touched by the show and its characters and all the actors and production staff who have made it over the years. Once you’ve immersed yourself in the world of the Doctor, somehow reality isn’t quite the same again: ordinary just isn’t good enough, and has to be made better. It’s the sort of real life inspiration that moves mountains and changes worlds.
All this was just as true for Elisabeth Sladen: her life was forever changed by her years travelling in the Tardis, even if it had started off as just another acting job. She didn’t mind one bit how the show shaped and changed her, but instead embraced it and ran with it and was forever the show’s biggest fan, loving Doctor Who old and new – and the show loved her in return.
And so did we.