Sarah Jane Smith is dead, alas
Let's all queue up to kick God's ass
Elisabeth Sladen died yesterday, aged 63. But you knew that. She was a wonderful actress, a sci-fi icon, and a much-loved star. But you knew that, of course you knew that. What more is there to say?
Well, since I heard the awful news, I've been thinking about why she was so good, and why her death comes as such a blow. Some things I've thought, but never written, for years, and some things I've only realised in the past day.
In terms of sheer acting prowess, Sladen was the best of all the Doctor Who companions. OK, Louise Jameson and Jacqueline Hill are up there too, but no one was able to inject so much life, variety and personality into the often flat and utilitarian dialogue as Lis Sladen. My canonical example of this is the first Tardis scene in The Pyramids of Mars:
Just look at her lines:
Hey Doctor, Doctor, look what I've found.
I've just told you, I found it back there in the wardrobe. Why, don't you like it?
I know you're a Time Lord
What's that's supposed to mean?
There's not a lot to go on there. Now listen again to what Sladen makes of them. It's that invention, creativity and commitment that marks her out as genuinely great.
(To be fair to the writer, Bob Holmes, he does give her some good lines here as well. I'm just cherry-picking the bland ones. In lesser scripts, they might all be this bland.)
This commitment extended beyond her own responsibilities as an actor. It is clear from her many DVD commentaries that she took a keen and intelligent interest in all aspects of the production, from camerawork to design to lighting. It was also this same commitment that made her so protective of the Sarah Jane Smith character - an attitude that might seem a bit over the top for an apparently defunct character from a Saturday teatime children's show, but which was more than vindicated when Sarah Jane returned to our screens in 2006.
And what a return. Sladen's ability to portray this wonderful, brave, funny, warm and so very human character had only deepened in her long absence. The joy and fun and bravery were all still there, but now mingled with pain and loss and regret. For me, her finest moments on the current Who series are in The Stolen Earth / Journey's End: facing nightmares from her past, an old woman with a young son and everything to lose, shaken to the core with fear for her family and friends, yet still fighting bravely against impossible odds.
All this, of course, is the perspective of a thirtysomething Doctor Who fan, who has known Sarah Jane Smith from childhood through Target novelisations, TV shows, videos and DVDs. For many children now, Elisabeth Sladen is not a one-time co-star on Doctor Who, but the undoubted star and driving force of The Sarah Jane Adventures. A children's show in the very best tradition, it features brilliant storytelling, serious themes, an engaging cast and ambitious special effects on a tight budget. And, bringing it all together, a brave, resourceful, intelligent woman, part mother figure, part best friend, a tremendous role model for kids who need to be reassured that being clever, independent, even a little bit odd is the best way to be. For many kids today, Sarah Jane Smith is their Doctor.
There are so many tributes from young fans on the BBC Newsround website. This one from Anna, aged 11, from Coventry, sums it up:
"Sarah Jane was a great actor. She made scary things look easy to do in the episodes, and that's why I'm so proud of her. Thank you."
That's why Lis Sladen was great. ("Was"? It's so odd, so hard to write of her in the past tense.) But great, well-loved figures die every year. Why does this hit so hard?
Partly it's because she was so young. 63 may be pension age, but these days it's nowhere near the end of life - or so we expect. My Dad's 63, and he's just started selling his paintings in art galleries. My Mum's only two years younger, and every bit as well-preserved as Elisabeth Sladen. It's a hell of a young age to die.
Also it's because she seemed so full of vitality, energy and joy. Whatever their age, to see someone so alive cut down so quickly is a terrible blow.
But most of all it's because she had so much more to give - to the kids, to her fans, to the world. We were all sad when Nicholas Courtney died, but it was nothing like the same shock. He was an old man, not in the best of health, with his greatest and best-loved body of work behind him. Sladen was different. We all felt that she had finally come into her prime, that at last the world was seeing what us fans had long known: that this was a fine actor playing an iconic character, an inspiration to a whole new generation.
And now she's gone.
I gather about half the next series of The Sarah Jane Adventures is already in the can. What should the BBC do with it? Depending on what's been filmed, they may be able to show a truncated series, or even portray Sarah Jane's death in the show. I honestly don't know if that's a good idea or not. It could work, but only if it were done very, very well indeed. Whatever happens, I am sure that Russell T Davies, Gareth Roberts and everyone else involved in the show will do nothing that tarnishes the memory of Elisabeth Sladen or of her iconic character, Sarah Jane Smith. Because they loved her just the same as we did.