“Everything ends”: RIP Elisabeth Sladen
Elisabeth Sladen passed away yesterday at the age of 63. It was a shock to the entire fandom world, most of whom had no idea she was even ill.
Sladen is best known, of course, as Sarah Jane Smith from Doctor Who. To say she was a legend was an understatement. She was one of the finest and most important actors in one of the greatest sci-fi series in history. Sladen was second only to her friend Nicholas Courtney – who died recently as well – in the sheer amount of history she had with the Doctor. She interacted with five different Doctors in her time – seven if you count the crowd scenes in “The Five Doctors.” I don’t know the count for sure, but she has probably appeared in more Doctor Who screen stories than anyone else – a lengthy run in the Pertwee and Baker years, two standalone specials, numerous appearances in the modern series and four years of her own show.
Then and now:
To American audiences in the 1970s and 1980s, Sladen defined Doctor Who as much as Tom Baker did. I still remember watching grainy, fuzzy PBS feeds of “The Time Warrior” in black-and-white in 1987 with a TV that had a coat hanger for an antenna. To me, she was every bit as essential to Who as the TARDIS and the sonic screwdriver. You never forget your first Doctor; you also never forget your first companion.
In a profession where everyone gossips and someone’s always got a grudge against someone else, Sladen was grace personified. In three decades of reading every article about Doctor Who I could find, I never once saw a negative word spoken about her, and she never had an unkind word for her colleagues. (Except the K9 prop. Damn tin dog was a total diva.)
She wasn’t the first sidekick, she was far from the last, but in many ways, she served as the template for all of them. There’s a deleted scene from the most recent series, in which Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor tells his companion that he needs a young human around to help him catch what he can no longer see. Sarah Jane ESTABLISHED that archetype; she helped raise up the companion role from an exposition receptacle to a full-on partner.
In a way, she didn’t so much change the concept of the sidekick as she did refine it to its original point. Aside from being exposition-bait, sidekick characters in genre fiction were generally meant as “audience identification” characters – the ordinary person alongside the Doctor, the partner helping out the superhero. I suppose the whole point of Robin was so kids could imagine they were right there alongside Batman saving the day.
But really, these tended to crash and burn. Who thought Robin was cool back in the day? Kids didn’t want to imagine tagging along after Batman; they wanted to BE Batman. And few Doctor Who fans were enthralled by the idea of the wide-eyed naïf whose whole job was to say “But I don’t understand, Doctor, what’s going on?”
And most of the time the text has Sladen doing exactly that. It looks to be deeply frustrating, and to be sure. But she always found ways to make it something better. The Doctor liked to call her “My Sarah Jane,” but she really became “our Sarah Jane.” Because she was one of us, an ordinary person caught up in the madness of the Doctor’s wake who saw amazing things and ultimately put it all to use to become a better person and go on to become amazing herself. We could see ourselves alongside SJS, very easily; she’s the person you’d most want at your back at the apocalypse. Which was of course a weekly event in Doctor Who.
There’s a bit between her and Tom Baker in “The Pyramids of Mars” which is like a one-minute master class in mining the material for gold character flakes. It’s from 2:50 to 4:00 in the video below. Go ahead, I’ll wait:
If you were to read the words on the page, the intent is perfectly clear: The Doctor is mysterious and important and Sarah Jane is flighty and distracted. But the way she and Baker PLAY it, it’s completely inverted: The Doctor is pompous and full of himself, and Sarah Jane is totally not buying it for a single second. She’s the only person in the universe who knows who he really is. It’s a fairly standard opening for the series at that time, a bit of quick establishment to have them talking about something when the story gets rolling, but they play it brilliantly. Now this seemingly throwaway scene is considered one of the best moments for both Baker and Sladen.
Most of the development of the companion didn’t really take place until decades later, but it all still started with Sldaen. Nowadays, the companion character is equally as important as the Doctor. Hell, when Billie Piper left Who, BBC brass were worried that nobody would watch it just for David Tennant. The sidekicks have taken over the show, and in a lot of ways it’s because of Lis Sladen.
It’s ironic sometimes how art works out. Nobody wrote Sarah Jane expecting her to be great, certainly not a four-decade favorite; she was just the latest disposable partner. But sometimes coincidence piles on coincidence. She was closer to the Doctor than most of his friends, first like a daughter in the Jon Pertwee era and later like a sister to Tom Baker. She even shared his name – he often went by Doctor John Smith when he needed an alias. By the time of her own series, S. Jane Smith had a sonic screwdriver, two android sidekicks and a passel of young wards to teach the ways of the universe.
I doubt anyone remotely had that in mind when they created the role. But in the end she was the closest thing the Doctor ever had to an equal; she’s the closest thing fandom has ever had to a female Doctor.
Sladen once said that she treated every modern Who appearance as if it were her last, but was always pleasantly surprised to get another go-round. But it was appropriate; her latter-day character was steeped in regret and loss, and her greatest lesson was to learn from loss and grow to greater things. In her first modern appearance, after spending most of the episode pining away for the Doctor and mourning ages long past, feeling as if her life has been wasted, she gets it together and delivers one of my favorite televison speeches about moving on from loss:
“The universe has to move forward. Pain and loss, they define us as much as happiness or love. Whether it’s a world, or a relationship … Everything has its time. And everything ends.”
Everything ends. And sometimes we value things the most precisely because we know they’ll end. Goodbye, Elisabeth Sladen; goodbye, our Sarah Jane Smith. We’ll never forget you.