ELIZABETH SLADEN: ONE YEAR ON
It’s hard to believe but on the 19th Apri,l 2012 it will be a year since the passing of actress Elizabeth Sladen who, of course, played the fabulous Sarah Jane Smith in firstly Doctor Who then her own spin-off television show that took children’s TV by storm.
Ever hear the saying ‘you don’t know what you got until it’s gone?’ Well that’s exactly how I felt when I first heard of her passing, something very personal for me as there was a family death at the same time also from cancer.
But this was Sarah Jane, a character that was a huge part of my childhood as I followed her and the Doctor week after week, whether it be the dinosaur filled streets of London, the Pyramids of Mars, the war torn surface of Skaro or the shores of Loch Ness and then, suddenly, she was gone. Dumped from the Tardis in one of the most emotionally underplayed departures ever but then for Sarah, could there have been any other way? Just the sight of her sent me back to Space Station Nerva and the gold mines of Voga because those were happy times.
It’s no accident that she and Tom Baker were the golden era of Doctor Who as they worked brilliantly together, bouncing off each other as only solid close friends do as seen in The Seeds of Doom and Hand of Fear, yet knowing the Time Lord so well she tip toes away from him in Masque of Mandragora as not to disturb him at his work to save the world.
Such was her impact, looking back now; it seemed her return in a permanent fashion was inevitable. She had been approached by producer John Nathan Turner to oversee the fourth Doctor’s regeneration into the fifth which she declined. However, she and the robot dog K9 were united in the very first Doctor Who spin-off K9 and Company – which she disliked due to the story and the fact the title made it seem like Sarah Jane was the metal dog’s companion. However, as we see years later, JNT was onto something by teaming these two up together.
Sarah Jane would continue to pop up in novels and comic strips, twice with the Seventh Doctor in the strips and once in the novel Bullet Time where the change in the Doctor shocks her. She fought alongside the fourth Doctor in the Missing Adventures range and she took centre stage with the third Doctor in the Five Doctors to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the show as well as Dimensions in Time.
Off screen, Elizabeth agreed to do some audio stories for Big Finish where Sarah Jane was the central character having her own adventures independent of the Doctor but equally filled with the strange and unusual. She also appeared in the video spin-off Downtime which also became an edition to the Missing Adventures book range wherein Sarah Jane, the Brigadier and second Doctor companion Victoria Waterfield became embroiled in an attempt by the second Doctor’s old enemy the Great Intelligence to invade the Earth once again using the robotic Yeti. These monsters, by the way, were hugely successful in the show and are campaigned for every year to get a twenty first century update for the new era.
With more and more events bringing Elizabeth back to the Who brand it made absolutely perfect sense to make her the bridge between old and new Who in the tenth Doctor episode School Reunion which rewrote history a little bit (Sarah apparently doesn’t remember the Five Doctors) and instead her return becomes a direct parallel for Rose Tyler. Both are in love with the Doctor and Sarah suddenly becomes Rose’s possible future; left behind and lost in life because she fell for an alien who would live to see them wither and die; something he admits he can’t take.
Of course, when Russell T Davies was approached to create a new children’s show he knew exactly what and who should take centre stage. Thus the Sarah Jane Adventures was born and in the space of two stories Elizabeth had won over a whole new generation of fans. And surprisingly for this writer it became a reunion with an old friend I always knew I’d meet again someday but it was only when I saw her that I realized how much I had missed her and I was instantly transported back to the seventies to the Zygons, Madragora, Kraals, Eldrad, Sutekh and giant robots and spiders alike. And I thought why did it take so long?
At the end of School Reunion she had lost one K9, gained another, refused another term in the Tardis and had finally broken the emotional shackles that had held her back in life for so long. She realized that her time with the Doctor was a huge life-changing adventure, but life on Earth could be equally exciting and diverse which is exactly what the show declared at the end of her first story.
She was the boss now, her years of Tardis travel making her the perfect lead to teach a new generation the rights and wrongs of the universe. And she gained a son in the form of Luke, played by Tommy Knight, a boy created by the squid-like Bane to help take over the Earth. And together they helped save the Earth in Journey’s End along with the tenth Doctor and all his companions in the battle with Davros and the Daleks. There is no doubt that Elizabeth was proud of her association with the show, but also remained very humble about her position as the best companion ever. She stood against Slitheen and Judoon as well as welcoming not only the tenth and eleventh Doctors to the show but third Doctor companion Jo Grant. Such had the character of Sarah Jane grown that she could stand alongside her favourite Time Lord again and make it seem he was the companion. And the writing for the show was surprisingly adult in nature as the final season showed in the Curse of Clyde Langer which explored the issue of homelessness in a way where even Sarah was defeated by it. This piece stands head and shoulders above any drama of the day as there are no easy answers because life isn’t fair.
And when Elizabeth was diagnosed with cancer, only three adventures were made for what became the final season which now included a daughter for her, Skye.
Hindsight is such a wonderful thing because Sarah Jane was always in the background of Doctor Who somewhere and her return should really have surprised no-one, but to Elizabeth, to get this second boost in her career only complimented and saluted the fantastic ground work she had lain from the day she followed the third Doctor back to medieval England to face the Sontarans. And in the depths of sorrow that came with the announcement of her death, one thing really struck me and it only occurred a few weeks ago. It is on the DVD release of the last three adventures and a documentary called Goodbye to Bannermen Road.
In it Matt Smith takes time out to record an interview and for me it strikes me as the most heartfelt of all. Here was a man whose life had never been about Doctor Who until he won the role and suddenly he was thrown in the deep end. He had worked with both Elizabeth and Katy Manning who played Jo Grant in the fourth season story the Death of the Doctor. This was new to him as was Elizabeth but when he talks about her and his brief story with her, he is genuinely saddened that he only got a taste of Sarah Jane but deeply grateful that he got to work with her. See what I mean? I spoke of the new generation of fans for Elizabeth Sladen and how cool that one of them was the eleventh Doctor himself. That speaks volumes about not only what kind of actress she was but what kind of person she was who could make you fall in love with her without even trying and with absolutely no ego to get in the way.
And that was the magic I didn’t know was there until she came back alongside the tenth Doctor. I had had an eternal love affair with this woman that travelled with a man in an impossible scarf in an old police box and didn’t know it. But you know what? I am so glad she came back into all our lives in the twenty first century because it reminded me of why I love all this sci-fi stuff when there are people like Sarah Jane Smith and Elizabeth Sladen about.
Yes, you really don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone and in the last episode we were given a series of clips from her time as a mini celebration and the most perfect ‘bring a tear to your eye’ ending line of any series: “And the story goes on – forever.”
Owen is One on NI’s foremost sci-fi writers, find him on Facebook here