Last night I heard that Elisabeth Sladen had died and it felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I have never been so upset about a public figure dying – not John Peel, who’s probably had influence on me than anyone outside my immediate family and friends, not Kurt Vonnegut, who changed the way I thought about the world when I was 15. Certainly not Princess Diana, although I now feel the way I guess all those people who spent a week mourning and buying handfuls of Elton John singles must have felt.
In case you didn’t know, Lis Sladen played Sarah Jane Smith, the Doctor’s companion, in Doctor Who, between 1973 and 1976, first with Jon Pertwee and then with Tom Baker. She’s therefore the first new regular character I can remember being introduced into the programme, which I’d been watching all my life (my second earliest memory is alerting my mother that “Doctor Who’s talking to a Sea Devil!” which would have been when I was three years old). Sarah Jane Smith was brilliant. She was strong-willed, brave, independent and cheeky, but also recognisably human and occasionally vulnerable, and was the first fully-rounded, believable assistant the Doctor ever had. Some of this came from the writing (Sladen had the good fortune to join the show at about the same time as the legendary Robert Holmes became script editor), but the reason Sarah topped polls for best ever Who companion time and again is all down to Lis Sladen and her ability to sell even the most far-fetched and outlandish situations. You have to be more than a bit forgiving of a lot of what’s now known as “classic” Doctor Who (stories from both the 60s and the 80s are often toe-curlingly bad, for various reasons), but I can unreservedly recommend pretty much anything that features Sladen and Tom Baker’s Doctor – this is the Golden Age.
Sladen left Doctor Who in 1976, and had a bit of success in other stage and television roles, but she had an indelible connection with Sarah Jane Smith and she was canny enough to know how and under what conditions to exploit it. She appeared in a number of Who spin-offs and anniversary specials during the 80s and 90s, eventually recording some audio Doctor Who adventures for the company Big Finish. It was, however, the extraordinarily successful revival of Who in 2005 under writer Russell T Davies that provided her with an incredible Second Coming. Davies wanted to revive the character for a story illustrating the Doctor’s effect on the companions he leaves behind, and knew that Sarah Jane would be the perfect fit. Sladen was initially reluctant, suspecting that her part would be a glorified cameo, but eventually accepted, and the resulting story – School Reunion – provoked an unanimously positive response from the famously pernicketty Doctor Who fanbase. Sladen was back, looking unfeasibly good for her age, and working as well with David Tennant as she had with Pertwee and Baker. Full disclosure: I cried.
Reaction was so positive that Davies took the amazing step of creating a spin-off series centred around the character and her investigations into extra-terrestrial activity on Earth. The Sarah Jane Adventures, aimed at children but perfectly accessible to adults, debuted in 2007, has run for four series and has achieved great popular and critical success. Sarah Jane has also returned to the parent show twice – once in the finale to the fourth season, when I again got something in my eye on seeing Lis Sladen’s name appear in the opening credits, and once in David Tennant’s last episode. Half of a fifth series of The Sarah Jane Adventures has been shot – it remains to be seen whether this will be aired.
By a meaningless coincidence I had just finished watching the final episode of the Doctor Who story Planet Of The Spiders last night, at the end of which Jon Pertwee regenerates into Tom Baker after collapsing on the floor in front of Sarah Jane and the Doctor’s longtime friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. It’s a highly affecting scene to me, made even more so this time by the fact that Nicholas Courtney, who played the Brigadier, recently passed away. I got through it though by thinking “well, at least Lis Sladen’s still going strong”, turned the DVD player off, and had what was supposed to be a quick look at the BBC News website. I just couldn’t believe it, and I still can’t. Some deaths you can rationalise, but Sarah Jane always seemed so real and so human, and Sladen always looked so good and seemed so full of life and compassion and intelligence that this just seems wrong, wrong, wrong. RIP.