Elisabeth Sladen, best-known for playing Sarah-Jane Smith in Doctor Who, died this morning at the age of sixty-three. Behind the scenes, she had been quietly fighting cancer.
Sarah Jane Smith is one of the best-known Doctor Who companions there’s ever been, and certainly the longest-recurring – she first appeared as a companion of the Third and Fourth Doctor in the seventies, recurred in “The Five Doctors” in 1982, recurred again in “School Reunion”, a new series episode with David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, and starred in not one but two spin-offs of her own: the ill-fated K-9 and Company, and The Sarah Jane Adventures.
Why was she so beloved? Because from the very beginning, Sarah Jane makes you notice her. Here she is in her very first appearance, in the Third Doctor story “The Time Warrior”:
Notice she’s not only self-possessed and determined, having just broken into a top-secret military installation and retained the chutzpah to demand she should be allowed to stay, she’s a self-confessed feminist. It’s 1973, but Sarah Jane will not make the tea.
When the Third Doctor regenerates into the Fourth Doctor before her eyes, she deals with that with equanimity.
And it’s the Fourth Doctor she’s really associated with in most people’s minds, appearing in fourteen stories with him. Unlike the companions immediately before her, she travels in the TARDIS, deals with the Sontarans, the Daleks and the Cybermen in quick succession, and when, finally, she leaves the Doctor in “The Hand of Fear”, her parting words to him are: “You know, travel really does broaden the mind.”
Let’s draw a veil over the unsuccessful spin-off, K-9 and Company, and “The Five Doctors”, in which the writers a) have her dressed in the most godawful outfit imaginable (it’s pink, with ribbons), and b) then give her nothing at all to do other than fall over her own feet. Let’s go back for a moment to 1976, her leaving…
…and skip to 2006, to the second season of the series and “School Reunion”. It wasn’t Croydon the Doctor left her. It was Aberdeen. And she’s waited forty years to yell at him about it, but yell at him she shall.
And here’s the thing: forty years on, Sarah Jane meets the Doctor again because she’s snuck into a mysterious facility looking for a story. Sarah Jane is a journalist. She went home from having her mind broadened and went back to doing exactly what she does best, better. You can’t tell me that’s not awesome. And she doesn’t want to travel with the Doctor again, thank you very much; it was fun, but she’s got her own life now.
And that’s the last time Sarah Jane appears in Doctor Who – but then, her own series is much more fun for her. In The Sarah Jane Adventures, Sarah Jane gets companions of her very own: her adopted son, Luke, and Maria, Clyde, and Rani. This time around she’s teaching them to save the world; this time around she’s the Doctor. She still not there to make the tea. She’s Sarah Jane.
Of Elisabeth Sladen, Stephen Moffat writes: “‘Never meet your heroes,’ wise people say. They weren’t thinking of Lis Sladen. Sarah Jane Smith was everybody’s hero when I was younger, and as brave and funny and brilliant as people only ever are in stories.”
Well, of course. Rest in peace, Elisabeth Slade, and maybe not yet, Sarah Jane:. The last aired episode ofThe Sarah Jane Adventures went out in November 2010; half of the fifth season had been filmed before Elisabeth Sladen’s illness. At the moment, we don’t know if they will air and if they do, what happens next.