News TV

Elisabeth Sladen: A Tribute

Special Commentary by Dale Who

“Some things are worth having your heart broken.”

On April 19, 2011, Doctor Who fandom across the globe received the shocking news that Elisabeth Sladen, Sarah Jane Smith in the Whoniverse, had passed away. The second major character to pass in as many months with Nick Courtney, UNIT’s stalwart Brigadier, dying only a few weeks earlier. Within moments, Facebook, Twitter and text messages were red hot as the news went global and viral in a matter of minutes.

It’s not surprising, really. Sladen joined Doctor Who in 1973 towards the end of Jon Pertwee‘s time as the Doctor, and her onscreen friendship with the next incarnation of the Time Lord in the shape of Tom Baker was to prove one of the most memorable in the Classic Series’ history. Sladen returned to Doctor Who in 1981 for the spin-off K-9 and Company in which the errant Time Lord sends her the Mark Three model of the robot superdog K-9; and again in 1983, both Sarah and K-9 appeared in the 20th Anniversary Special The Five Doctors, in which she was again teamed with Jon Pertwee. Sarah turned up in a few modestly budgeted fan films during the 1990s, and did a lot of conventions during that time, as well as theatre work and occasional television work, whilst also raising her daughter Sadie with husband Brian Miller.

It was at these conventions I got to meet Lis Sladen. We had a couple of really nice and quite lengthy chats: one about Sarah’s ongoing popularity amongst Who fans; and the other a rather fun exchange after a young lady walked past us both in a replica of Sarah’s last outfit on the show, clutching a plastic box with a stone hand in it, an homage to “The Hand of Fear” in 1976, when Lis spent much of the first two episodes in some decidedly bright “Andy Pandy” style dungarees, carrying around a similar stone hand in a similar box.

She nudged me and said, “Someone sent me one of those once,” nodding toward the severed stone hand in a box. “Opened a package that arrived in the post; saw that, didn’t know what the hell it was, and screamed.”

“Off all the things to send…” I mused. “What did you do with it?” I asked her.

“Well,” she began, “Once I realiszd what it wa,s I thought it was rather funny. I’ve still got it, sitting in the office at home. I use it as a paperweight to keep my tax returns in one place…”

When Russell T Davies brought back Doctor Who in 2005, Lis turned up in the second season—now with David Tennant at the TARDIS’ controls—in “School Reunion.” It wasn’t a gentle piece of cameo fluff, either, but a full-on dramatic return for Sarah Jane Smith.  And yes, the metal dog was there too. It was the start of something huge. Nostalgic Whovians and new fans adored Sarah back on screen, and Sladen’s services were quickly utilized by Childrens’ BBC who wanted their own Doctor Who spin-off.

Thus The Sarah Jane Adventures were born in 2007 and were a runaway success from the get-go. From a pilot that introduced the main characters, four twelve-part series were made, featuring Sarah as the main star, now with her own team of young assistants, a supercomputer in the wall and occasional visits from that bloke with two hearts in a Police Box. K-9 also turned up to lend a hand on many occasions, when he wasn’t guarding black holes or being sent to college with her TV son, Luke Smith.

Lis was simply amazing as Sarah, mature but still sharply intelligent and kind. Armed with her sonic lipstick (her compact version of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver), she lead the show to the highest rated children’s program in many years, winning awards and accolades across the board. Mixing quality drama with science fiction and family life, The Sarah Jane Adventures was reminiscent of old school Doctor Who with it’s shorter episodes and cliffhanger endings.

Lis was filming season five of TSJA when she was taken seriously ill, and filming was held back for a couple of weeks to give her time to recover and get back on her feet. Sadly, this was never to be, and Lis died on Tuesday, around half of the series completed. It wasn’t widely known she had cancer, and she leaves behind an army of mourning fans, both young and old, knowing that without Sarah Jane around to look out for us from that attic in Bannerman Road, Ealing, space and time just became a lot more dangerous.

It is hoped that at some point soon the BBC will air the completed episodes of season five as a tribute. There will be an onscreen caption at one end of Doctor Who this Saturday, and a 15-minute program about Lis airing after Who, at 6:45 PM UK time on the CBBC channel, before Doctor Who Confidential starts at 7 PM on BBC Three. BBC America will also reportedly pay tribute to the star during the Saturday, April 23 US premiere of the series.

“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. “
-Sarah Jane Smith, “School Reunion”