Elisabeth Sladen 1948 - 2011
My first memories of Dr Who are of Sarah Jane Smith. Technically, I shouldn't be able to remember that much about her pairing with Tom Baker as I was only four at the time, but it left a lasting impression; she was beautiful, adventurous and out there doing really cool things. Even going back now (allowing for the somewhat erratic writing the character suffered from) she was, on the whole, very much the liberated young woman making her own way in the worlds. Her rapport with Baker was obvious and her performance always committed, no matter what ludicrous fashion or story she had to suffer (oh, the Andy Pandy suit and that yellow so'wester). My young, inquisitive mind couldn't have asked for a better role model.
I was very sad when she left to be replaced by Leela; Leela was even more liberated in many ways, but she wasn't Sarah Jane and I stopped watching not long after that. When Sarah Jane's return was announced for New Who, I was thrilled if apprehensive; would the character be handled in the way I remembered her? As anyone who listens to the podcast knows, "School Reunion" is my favourite New Who and with very good reason. Not only was Lis Sladen still gorgeous, but Sarah Jane was still doing what she always did. The story also addressed some very adult issues in a show that was teetering on the brink of descending into nothing more than teenaged angst and farting aliens. The look on Sarah Jane's face when she sees the TARDIS again after all those years had my heart in my mouth, it was so beautifully done. I'd also argue that its Tennant's finest performance as the Doctor, with genuine joy at seeing his old companion again, utter bewilderment at her anger and cold, calm control when dealing with Mr Finch. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time Tennant growls "I used to have so much mercy".
Even better, we got a spin-off series, the Sarah Jane Adventures; Touchwood may have claimed to be the adult show, but SJA was really dealing with mature themes, such as loss and separation, in a well balanced and rarely mawkish manner. The reappearance of the Doctors 10 & 11 and the Brigadier made it even more special; this was a series carefully pitched to fans both new and old. Okay, the Slitheen appeared a few times too many, but that was the only serious problem with it. Having been unable to stomach more than three Touchwoods, I avidly watched all of the SJAs. After Matt Smith's appearance on the show, I was so looking forward to more team-ups between the Doctor and his best companion. Sarah Jane just seemed to bring out the real Doctor in the Doctor; my Doctor, in fact, the one who had kept me coming back after all these years to share his adventures.
So it was with huge sadness that I read Nicola Bryant's post on Twitter this evening announcing Lis Sladen's death. I'd always hoped at some point that I might get the chance to interview her, although I suspect I would have been star-struck and bibbling (much in the same way that Oolon was when he met Katie Manning). Nicholas Courtney's death was very sad, but he was so frail when we met him last year that it wasn't too much of a surprise. But this was a complete shock, made worse by the fact that she really wasn't very old at all. At the time of writing, the details are very sketchy; I'm sure more will come out over the next few days, but it won't alter the fact that we as Dr Who fans have lost two very special actors this year who formed a very large chunk of our childhoods, who inspired our dreams and our imaginations. Thank you, Sarah Jane, for letting this little four year old know that girls could do what ever they wanted, and thank you Lis Sladen for giving the character so much heart and grace.
Goodbye, my Sarah Jane Smith.
(Art by Steve Caldwell, possibly one of his finest Dr Who prints)