Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Sarah-Jane Smith

This is not a Superman post.

About 22 hours ago, a post appeared on Facebook that I initially thought and wanted to believe was a sick, tasteless joke. It told me that Elisabeth Sladen had died. I hate it when things like this pop up, because I fall for them like crazy. I fell for the Samuel L. Jackson one a few months ago, where CNN accidentally tweeted of his death and it spread like wildfire. I fell for the Michael Jackson thing a few years ago, then refused to believe it when it actually happened. The post linked to a BBC news story. Surely the BBC couldn't be complicit in a hoax about the death of the star of their most popular children's dramas, The Sarah-Jane Adventures?

Sadly, they weren't. The news was true.

Completely out of nowhere, Elisabeth Sladen, the actress behind the most popular and enduring companion of the entire 49-year history of Doctor Who, had sadly succumbed to battle with cancer that very few people knew that she was fighting.

I've spent the past day in a state of partial shock. I can't think of anyone's passing that has affected me more, and I can't quite work out why. Sarah-Jane was never my companion. She debuted a full decade before I was born, and by the time I discovered Doctor Who the series had been consigned to history, bar the publication of a regular novel series. And yet, whenever companions were discussed, the name 'Sarah-Jane Smith' was always mentioned with the highest praise and respect. Coupled with the most popular Doctor (at least, until David Tennant), Sarah-Jane had managed to burn herself into the national consciousness, the Doctor Who-loving bits of it, with such presence that twenty years after her departure from the show she was still remembered with more than casual fondness. (Of course, she never really departed, returning in 1981, 1983, 1993, 2006, and beyond).

Until a few years ago, bar a repeat of Pyramids of Mars shown when I was still a bit too young to truly appreciate her performance, I had never seen Sarah-Jane Smith in action. When I remedied that, with a rented DVD of The Time Warrior, I was very impressed. Most of what I knew of companions came from the Target novelisations, and they tended to embellish and over-sell the character in comparison to the performance on screen. In the case of Sarah-Jane, the opposite was true. The printed word couldn't hold a candle to what I was seeing.


In 2006, Russell T. Davies was looking for a way to strengthen ties between the revival of Doctor Who and its past. Working on the season-long theme of what would happen to Rose when she left the Doctor's side, the decision was taken to bring back a former companion from the show's classic era. There was only one person who could be brought back - Sarah-Jane Smith (oh, and K-9, the robot dog). The third episode of the second series, School Reunion, was as close as Doctor Who has ever got to a masterpiece (some dodgy CGI aside). Sladen's performance was pitched perfectly. The moment where she ran into the TARDIS in the school basement and then into the Doctor was the most electric moment of the entire series. Her return was a success, propelling her into a successful spin-off show, 25 years after her first attempt!

For me, the shining moment of Sladen's performances in new Doctor Who came from the Season 4 finale, Stolen Earth/Journey's End. Her reaction to the revelation of the Daleks as the 'kidnapper's of Earth, crying whilst hugging her adoptive son closely to her, was so human and so painful to watch that it grounded what was otherwise a very overblown, but enjoyable, piece of space opera. Even better was a confrontation with Davros from the second part, referencing scenes from Genesis of the Daleks from 34 years previously. This short interaction crackled, Sladen was feisty and defiant, living proof beyond the Doctor that Davros was doomed to fail in his plans. Even better was the fact that for these two episodes, Sladen, along with several other cast members, wasn't credited as a guest star, but received her name in the opening credits, the coveted 'and' position, for the first time in her career.

The news of her death of shocking, and pretty much took everyone by surprise. Twitter was full, initially, of comments trying to discover if this was a terrible hoax, then with anguished realisation and acceptance, before heading into a day of celebration and remembrance. There have been many responses to her death, and I'd like to link a few of them.

Chip, the Two Minute Time Lord, released episode 201 of his podcast within hours of the news of Elisabeth's death. A tender, heartfelt, and brief look at his reactions to the news.

Tony Lee, writer of the ongoing Doctor Who comic from IDW, wrote a warm recollection of her impact on his life, both personally and professionally, over at his blog.

Richard Herring, comedian, covered his discovery of her passing during the interval of his stand-up tour, before launching into a very touching remembrance of her, probably the most tender writing from someone not directly connected with the show or the franchise.

Tom Baker, former Doctor, writes about the loss of his friend, and publishes some rare behind the scenes pictures from his archive.

Finally, the current generation of fans, those who knew Elisabeth Sladen primarily through the revived series and the Sarah-Jane Adventures, post their thoughts and tributes over at the CBBC Newsround site. There are so many, from young children to teenagers, and the simplicity and honesty of what they have to say is heartbreaking.

I hope Elisabeth knew of some of the extent of the love that people had for her, and I hope that these good wishes, fond memories, and public remembrances act as a small measure of comfort for her family in these difficult times.

Elisabeth Sladen


  1. The shock of it aside I think the simple fact is she was always one of the strongest supporters and ambassadors of the series even when it was deeply unfashionable to be so, as fans we follow these people for years and like you I had no first hand experience watching Sarah-Jane apart from the Five Doctors in 1983, yet it was still something like a family member passing away.... just bewildering shock.
    But as I said like Nick Courtney she stayed friendly with the fans through thick & thin, when the series did return it was only proper they brought her back because of that unwavering support and because she was just THAT good. Contrary to common thinking there have been other companions just as good as Sarah-Jane was (Tegan, Ace, Romana,) and whom they could have brought back in her stead but none of them (apart from sophie obviously) are as widely respected & loved as Liz Sladen was. And deservedly so.
    The thing that brought me back to Doctor Who was the 1993 '30 Years in the Tardis' documentary, with Liz Sladen showing such obvious affection and warmth for the series. I need say no more than that...

    We are now at a sad point where the gap between the old series and new is becoming very distant, there are precious few like Nick Courtney or Liz Sladen who genuinly still have that interest and warmth for the show and an involvenment in fandom that can bridge and fill that gap. It's largely a generational thing, but without a shadow of a doubt Liz Sladens passing affected so many of us as she was the anchor between old and new series, she deserved the success she got in 2006 onwards as apart from her wonderful warmth to people she worked hard to fully deserve that success.

    Like many others I shall miss her terribly.

  2. That’s exactly how I felt. I also had not grown up with her, seeing her early adventures on DVD and later return to the show in “School Reunion”, yet I was still hit quite hard by this sad news. I sincerely hope that they keep her character in the show in some way. I hope the Doctor makes mention of how she is still fighting alien invasions out of her loft back on Earth.

    We’ll miss her very much.