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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

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Sarah Jane (1948-2011)

There’s always a bit of emotion involved in writing about someone who has recently passed away when they have brought you a bit of joy or entertainment during your life. But this one is kind of tough because Elisabeth Sladen is and has been a not insignificant part of my life and my daughter’s life for a few years now. And we were looking forward to seeing here later this year in another series of The Sarah Jane Adventures on BBC.

But she wasn’t just a “children’s star” who will be missed by TV-watching kids. There is a whole extended community—with a core of geeks but including many others—that has come over decades to feel that she is one of theirs. She represents, quite simply, a major piece of the Doctor Who mythos. She was companion to two different Doctors (played by Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker) over the course of scores of episodes in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as re-appearing in the 1981 TV movie K-9 and Company and alongside the first five Doctors (portrayed by six actors, including archive footage) in the 1983 one-off The Five Doctors. She appeared opposite two more Doctors after the series was rebooted in 2005: David Tenant and Matt Smith. And she starred in the on-going spinoff series The Sarah Jane Adventures. We have not lost someone who merely represents a distant fond memory. She was an active integral part of the current TV life of Doctor Who. Her death, at only 63, comes as a complete shock to those of us who were unaware that she had battling cancer. Reportedly she had already filmed about half of a new series of Sarah Jane. Even before her re-introduction in 2006 in the Doctor Who episode “School Reunion,” Sarah Jane Smith was commonly cited as the most popular (with fans) of the time-hopping, space-traveling, body-regenerating Doctor’s many companions.

Of course, as an actor, the Liverpool-born Elisabeth Sladen had a lot more going on than her Doctor Who gigs. Like so many of her hard-working British thespian brethren, she appeared frequently on the UK’s TV screens. In the 1970s, she played Anita Reynolds on the soap Coronation Street, a couple of characters on Z Cars and Josie Hall on Take My Wife. In the 1990s she was Dr. Pat Hewland on Peak Practice.

But it is her constant, recurring, long-running role in the Doctor Who canon that guarantees her immortality. The timing is all the more poignant because her passing follows by a bit less than two months that of Nicholas Courtney, whom she appeared with in his role as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and because it comes a mere four days before the airing of the first episode of the new Doctor Who series, which has been eagerly anticipated for months now.

In a strange way (either by design or coincidence), the treatment of the Sarah Jane character, since her 2006 re-introduction, has felt like one long elegy. In “School Reunion,” she and the Doctor had an emotional re-acquaintance in which she told of her hurt when he left her behind, decades earlier, without saying goodbye. This time, however, she made sure he said a proper goodbye. But it was really hello again. In less than a year, she would be back in the pilot TV movie The Invasion of the Bane, followed by The Sarah Jane Adventures series. But Sarah Jane’s abandonment issues would never be very far below the surface, making her hesitant to bond too closely with the teens who would share her adventures. Her place in the universe always seemed a bit precarious. Not only did she nearly lose her adopted son Luke to evil aliens masquerading as his birth parents in the first series, she was nearly wiped out of history altogether by a deceased childhood friend (played by Jane Asher) who managed to swap places with her. In the second series, she had an emotional reunion with the elderly Brigadier. She was also one of several characters who said a poignant farewell to David Tenant’s about-to-regenerate tenth Doctor in his swan song “The End of Time, Part Two.”

In the fourth and most recent series, she had to say farewell to her son who, being a prodigy and a product of alien technology, left her to go off to university. She later had to attend the Doctor’s funeral (no, he wasn’t really dead), which prompted much reflecting on mortality and brought her face to face with Jo Grant (played by Katy Manning), her predecessor as the Doctor’s companion back in the 1970s, occasioning much more reflection and reminiscing. As if that were not enough foreshadowing of the loss of Elisabeth Sladen, the final two-part episode of the series was called “Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith.” In that one, an evil alien nearly manages to manipulate Sarah Jane into handing over her complete life and identity under the illusion that she is no longer up to all the adventures. Until the alien’s ruse was revealed, it nearly felt as though the writers were really writing Sladen out of the series and that this was truly a farewell for the character. Indeed, with the absence of her son’s character, the action had largely switched to the other young stars, with Sladen taking less of a role. I assumed that this was a calculation to appeal to the show’s younger audience (it airs on the BBC children’s channel, CBBC, as well as during the youth slot on one of the main broadcast channels), but it now looks as though they may have been merely accommodating Sladen’s health-imposed time constraints.

The question arises as to whether the writers will proceed with the fifth series and write around Sladen, finding a way to explain her absence. Will Sarah Jane die as well or, this being a far-ranging fantasy series, will they send off to travel time and space in the galaxies forever?

I trust them to do something appropriate. And there will be time to focus on that later. But for right now, I am going to join many strangers in feeling rather sad and mourning this woman I never met but feel like, on some level, I sort of knew. My thoughts go out to her husband and daughter.

If you want to read a much better tribute than this one, by someone who actually knew her, I recommend visiting Tom Baker’s web site.

-S.L., 21 April 2011

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