Archive for April 19, 2011

Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith — RIP Elisabeth Sladen

I’m shocked and saddened by the news that Elisabeth Sladen, Sarah Jane Smith from Doctor Who and its spinoffs K9 and Company and The Sarah Jane Adventures, has suddenly died of cancer at the age of 63.  It’s hard to believe she could be gone.  She was such a vital, strong, engaging screen presence, seemingly as youthful in her 60s as she was in her 30s, but with more poise and wisdom.  I found her fascinating to watch, a warm, captivating lead, and the news of her passing feels like losing a friend.

It’s hard for me to imagine the Doctor Who universe without her, and I think I’ve realized why.  It’s more than just the pivotal role she’s come to play in the franchise these past few years.  Sarah Jane was my first Doctor Who companion.  In fact, she was the first Doctor Who character whose face I saw onscreen, and the second whose voice I heard.  When my PBS station began running the show back in the ’80s, they began with the most popular Doctor, Tom Baker, and his debut story, “Robot.”  And the first face we see in that episode (after a still of Baker’s face in the opening titles) is that of Lis Sladen as Sarah Jane watches the Doctor begin to regenerate.  Sarah went on to share the companion role with Harry Sullivan (the late Ian Marter) that first season, but continued on her own for several more years.  At the time, I didn’t really appreciate her as much as some companions I discovered later (my favorite to this day is Katy Manning as Jo Grant), but still, she was the person who taught me what a “companion” to the Doctor was, a key component of my earliest experiences with Doctor Who.  And since seeing Sladen’s triumphant return in the modern Doctor Who, I’ve gained a new appreciation for how strong and exceptional a companion she was, the first female companion to be treated as an equal partner to the Doctor (though it took a couple of years for her to really come into her own, to go from having strident speeches about women’s equality stuck  in her mouth by the writers to actually showing her equality through her character and actions).  And that was reportedly due to Sladen herself campaigning for the role to be written better.  As io9 put it in their lovely tribute article, “In many ways, she paved the way for all of the show’s more intelligent, resourceful companions in the 21st Century.”

But it was in The Sarah Jane Adventures that Sladen truly shone.  Her greater maturity and experience made her a stronger actress, a more compelling presence, and in many ways a more striking and beautiful woman.  She’d begun a whole new career as something more than a former companion of the Doctor, as a heroine and world-savior in her own right, and it feels like she was just getting started.

Although I guess there are worse things than going out at the top of your game.  But you will be missed, Lis Sladen.  Goodbye.

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