Over the past year or so, the presence of Doctor Who in the Tor.com offices has grown massively. New writers have come in with a pre-existing love for the show and others have discovered just what it was they were missing. The end result being an office that will talk at length about anything Who-related.
When the news came on Tuesday of Elisabeth Sladen’s passing, we stopped cold. This was Sarah Jane Smith, vibrant and indomitable, how could she be gone?
To say Sladen was adored is an understatement, and we simply couldn’t stay silent in this regard. Below the cut, you’ll find tributes to Elisabeth Sladen gathered from the staff and contributors here at Tor.com, here to share their own memories and thoughts on the lovely Ms. Sladen.
Forever our Sarah Jane.
“But I’m only a girl.”
“Your Majesty, there’s nothing ‘only’ about being a girl.”
With that scene in “The Monster of Peladon,” I fell in love with Sarah Jane Smith. I was an impressionable, nerdy tween who was just beginning to discover that I actually kind of liked writing, and here was Sarah Jane: smart, sassy, a feminist (or “women’s libber,” as they said back in the seventies), and a journalist! That, I thought, is what I want to be: a woman who knows her own mind and who can be unflappable in the face of Daleks, evil alchemists, and Cybermen; who can run around in a frilly dress and still use a rifle to blow up chunks of gel-ignite, and who can stand up to the Doctor and tell him when he’s being ridiculous. (“You know, the worse the situation, the worse your jokes get.”)
This is Elisabeth Sladen’s legacy: an icon of science fiction and, if my circle of friends is any indication, generations of girls inspired to be the very best that they can—both by Sarah Jane and by Elisabeth Sladen herself, who was by all accounts a model of grace and who never gave less than her all to her performance. I wish I could have told her how Sarah Jane inspired me when I was a young girl trying to find a direction in the world, and how much those simple words to Queen Thalira meant. Thank you, Elisabeth. The universe is a brighter place for your having been in it.
Television so often focuses on the cynical, the vapid and the greedy sides of life that even when many shows have tried to be uplifting or life-affirming they’ve simply come across as trite. I’ve taken some care in introducing my children to shows with a more positive slant—without talking down to kids—but this is hard to do. The Sarah Jane Adventures was a gold mine. How many kid’s shows can you name centered on a warm-hearted, brilliant, brave and adventurous older woman? How often does a child, boy or girl, see a character who became more relevant and independent with age? Usually, older women on TV are portrayed as fragile, dependent and either saccharine or venomous. Sarah Jane was none of that, and while the credit goes to the entire crew, there is no doubt in my mind that Elisabeth Sladen was the reason it was a special show. Many actors can appear sincere for a moment now and then, but it’s a different type of experience when the sincerity pervades the performance. I believe—and tributes from her colleagues confirm this—that a great part of Sarah Jane Smith’s charm, kindness and lovability was native to Sladen herself. I truly appreciate her contributions.
For me, the thing about Elisabeth Sladen was how classy she came across in all the Doctor Who stuff. And although she was a super cute companion with Pertwee and Baker, the character really did get more interesting when she was older. There was something about the way she told off Davros in “Journey’s End” that really gave me chills. It’s like, yeah, Sarah Jane’s a mom, sure, she’s older now and hangs out on Earth with a bunch of crime-solving teenagers, but you know what? Don’t mess with her. I actually really like The Sarah Jane Adventures and totally have retroactively wished I lived on her block as teenager. I like Sarah Jane so much I’ve used the namesake as a character name in a few plays and shorts stories. So sad.
I remember seeing “School Reunion” for the first time. It was my introduction to Sarah Jane Smith, as a new fan of the show who hadn’t gone back through the classic episodes at that point. From the moment the Tenth Doctor’s eyes lit on her across the room (after so many years, though I didn’t yet realize it), I knew she was someone incredibly special. By the end of the episode, I was smitten. It wasn’t just her charm or poise; she was funny, emotionally real, sharp and distinguished. It was impossible not to love her. At the end, when she finally got the farwell from the Doctor that she deserved, when he said those words—“Goodbye. My Sarah Jane”—I burst into tears. It didn’t matter that I had never seen her running alongside Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker; I understood.
From the episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures I’ve seen, I’m absolutely envious of the children who have had this show growing up. Sarah Jane is the role model all kids deserve, and frequently cannot find. I am certain that Elisabeth Sladen, gem that she is, will always be remembered for the legacy she has left behind.
1973: I can still remember the illustration in the Radio Times, Jon Pertwee’s final season as the Doctor. I’d somehow forgotten that my beloved Katy Manning, Jo Grant, had left the show at the end of the last season, and so this picture showed Elisabeth Sladen as the new companion. I was incensed—who was this interloper? A new assistant! The latest companion… Thing is, I knew the Doctor had had more companions than faces, but this was my first experience of such change. I needn’t have worried, as I very quickly fell totally in love with Elisabeth Sladen, who I’m proud to say was my first genuine TV crush.
Only it wasn’t a crush, you see, as Sarah Jane Smith became so fully alive in mine and a million other imaginations, thanks to the humane and imaginative portrayal of Lis Sladen. She is in many ways the iconic Doctor Who companion, one of the most perfect realisations of the archetype, one of the bravest, most resourceful, most loyal of his many fellow travelers. Sladen gave her small mannerisms and quirks that made the character endearing and wholly believable and she remained my favourite long after she left the show in 1976.
And that’s the thing about Sarah (as she was mostly known back then); she stayed with you. Everyone remembers her. It’s a testament to the popularity of the character and Sladen’s performance (and the wisdom of RTD for bringing her back) that her appeal is cross-generational. I loved seeing the later iteration of the character, seeing this warm and wonderful actress inspire kids the same way she inspired me and my sister. And she’ll continue to, of course….
Dear Lis, thank you for being so funny, so cool, so brave. You were one of the main architects of my childhood imagination and words can’t express how thankful I am for that. We were lucky to have you and we’ll miss you—I’ll miss you—more than I can express through these quickly found words.
I knew of Sarah Jane Smith and the Fourth Doctor, but never watched their adventures. As I was growing up, if you knew of Doctor Who at all casually, that was how you knew it. A vague recollection of a man, a woman, and an overlong scarf.
Sarah Jane and Elisabeth Sladen didn’t become real for me until the new series episode “School Reunion,” but the impact she made was tremendous. What happens to companions after the Doctor leaves their lives is not an easy question to answer, nor a particularly flattering one, but Elisabeth Sladen does it in one raw, emotional moment. As the TARDIS towers over her in a random closet, Sladen explains everything about what it is to have a madman with a box interfere with your life.
I followed the character to her spin-off show, where she continued to delight. Here was a woman who was always in control, who carved her own path in life free from the expectations of motherhood or marriage, and who did it all with utter compassion. Women and men alike have lost a stunning role model in the character of Sarah Jane, and the world has lost the only person who could embody that unique character. We need more Lis Sladens, and it is unutterably sad that now we have none.
Thanks to Sarah Jane Smith, I fell in love with science fiction when I was five years old.
I had just come home after my very first day of kindergarten, and my mother—having had her first taste of peace and quiet in, well, five years, and, doubtless, wanting more of the same—decided the TV would make a good babysitter for me. I still remember how she flipped through TV Guide, and gave a little sigh of relief as though she’d just found the solution to all her problems.
“Here, watch Doctor Who,” she said. “It’s about outer space. You’ll love it.”
So she clicked on the TV before returning to whatever mysterious things adults did when their kids weren’t around.
And then I met Sarah Jane Smith. That week our local PBS station was showing “The Ark in Space.” I didn’t understand most of it at first (hey, I was five years old, give me a break). All I knew was that it took place IN SPACE, and that there were MONSTERS. That Doctor guy was clearly meant to be the hero, but it was Sarah Jane who got to do the exciting stuff. Like getting chased by a man covered in slime. What 5-year-old boy wouldn’t love that? This was special. I was hooked.
From then on, I never missed an episode of Doctor Who. And before long I realized that Sarah Jane was me. I mean, she was the stand-in for us viewers. She was the human character whom I most admired. (Sure, Harry Sullivan was there, too. But he didn’t stick around as long as Sarah Jane.)
She got to see and do so many amazing things! She rode around in a time machine/spaceship with her friend the alien, and she had all manner of gross adventures with slime people and brains in jars and other monsters, and once she even got replaced by an android that looked exactly like her. (I really, really wanted my own duplicate Robot Ian.) Sure, she almost died on a regular basis, but overall her life seemed incredibly cool and exciting. I didn’t want to be her. I wanted to join her, or replace her.
It’s possible Sarah Jane Smith gave me a slightly unrealistic vision of life as an adult.
For me, the Golden Age of Doctor Who will always be the Tom Baker/Elisabeth Sladen years. And Sarah Jane Smith is, for me, the iconic Doctor Who companion. Which is why I was so devastated when Sarah Jane Smith said goodbye to the doctor and stepped from the TARDIS for the last time. I couldn’t believe it. Sarah Jane was supposed to be me! And I would never turn my back on those adventures! It saddened me beyond words that the Doctor dropped her off in the wrong place. (Even worse, I worried he might have dropped her off in the wrong time, too, and that she would never get home. I mean seriously worried about it. As in my parents had to calm me down.)
But somehow I got over it. Decades passed. I grew up (more or less).
And then Elisabeth Sladen broke my heart all over again. After so many years away from the TARDIS, Sarah Jane Smith crossed paths with a new incarnation of the Doctor. And when she admitted how she had waited for so long, I realized the little kid inside me had been waiting for this moment, too, needing the closure just as Sarah Jane needed it. Sladen’s performance there was tender and sad and touching. It had nuances the 5-year-old me couldn’t have appreciated, but which went straight to my adult heart. The iconic companion spoke to me when I was a child, and spoke to me just as powerfully after I became an adult.
I never did have the exciting life of Sarah Jane Smith. But, then again, she was much braver than I.