19 April 2011

Goodbye Elisabeth Sladen, We Won't Forget You

English actress Elisabeth Sladen has died today at age 63 after a battle with cancer. She was best known for her portrayal of Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who and later in her very own (and quite excellent) spin-off series, The Sarah Jane Adventures. She was my favorite companion, and I will miss her terribly.

Lis got her start as Sarah Jane with my Doctor, Jon Pertwee. I remember being upset as a kid that Jo Grant had left the Doctor to get married to some hippie guy at the end of The Green Death. The final shot of that story, with the Doctor sadly driving Bessie off into the sunset was pretty depressing for kid Sven, but my mood changed for the better next Saturday night, when Sarah Jane Smith burst onto my TV screen in The Time Warrior. She was spunky and feisty and I would grow to love her so much that I would try to name the new family dog after her.

Right from the beginning, Sarah Jane was different from her predecessors in that she didn’t trust the Doctor immediately. She spends half of that first story thinking that he’s the culprit behind a rash of disappearing scientists. The Doctor earns her trust, and I think the bond between them is stronger because of it.

Lis Sladen’s chemistry with Jon Pertwee makes for a great double act. It’s still a little strange to me that there’s only one season of the two of them together, because in my childhood mind they had so many more adventures together before the 3rd Doctor regenerated. And it seems I wasn’t the only one that felt that way. The combo would appear again in the 20th Anniversary Special, The Five Doctors in 1983 and just a few years after the show was cancelled, out of all of the possible Doctor and companion combinations, the 3rd Doctor and Sarah Jane (along with the Brigadier, played by the recently departed Nicholas Courtney) were reunited for new audio adventures broadcast by the BBC.

When Pertwee’s Doctor dies in Planet of the Spiders, Barry Letts wisely chose to have the Brigadier and Sarah Jane there beside him. It’s the truth of Lis’s performance during the Doctor’s death that sells the scene. The Brig, God bless him, has seen this all before and remains largely unfazed, but for Sarah Jane, it’s a real death and Lis plays it as such. And that’s really the secret of Sarah Jane’s success; that Elisabeth Sladen is an amazing actress.

After Pertwee, she anchors the show during Season 12 until Tom Baker’s Doctor has found his legs. To me, Tom’s debut story Robot, will always be overshadowed by super snoop Sarah Jane Smith doing her very best Lois Lane impression, zipping around in a convertible and sneaking into the mad scientists’ laboratory. While the Doctor’s being silly in a nightshirt, Sarah Jane is doing what she does best, investigating.

When the new series returned, I wasn’t completely sold on it until School Reunion. Embracing the show’s past and allowing one of its finest actors to return was probably the smartest move that Russell T Davies ever made on the new show. It proved to skeptical old Whovians like me that these new guys could get it right, and maybe the new series deserved a second look. All it took was the magic of Lis Sladen and a rusty tin dog.

Sadly, I never got the chance to meet Lis, and I was hoping that I would get a chance to someday. A number of the creative personnel for The Sarah Jane Adventures were at Gallifrey One this year, and in every single panel, every single person attested to how great it was to work with her. It felt as if she was a guest there after all just because everyone was talking about her so much all weekend (in addition to the Sarah Jane cosplayers of all stripes). She was a presence there and I think that she’ll remain a presence in the Doctor Who community long after she’s gone with the magnificent legacy of her work on not just one, but three amazing shows that she’s left behind.

“A tear, Sarah Jane?” For you, yes. Goodnight, Elisabeth Sladen. Goodnight, Sarah Jane Smith. I hope somewhere Jon Pertwee and Nicholas Courtney and Ian Marter and Barry Letts are just as happy to see you as we are sad that you are now gone. Thanks for everything.

Elisabeth Sladen (1 February 1948 – 19 April 2011) – R.I.P.