Thu
Apr 21 2011 1:55pm
My Sarah Jane: Remembering Elisabeth Sladen

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.

Karin L. Kross

“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.

 

Jason Henninger

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.

 

Ryan Britt

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.

 

Emily Asher-Perrin

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.

 

Nick Abadzis

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.

 

Chris Lough

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.

 

Ian Tregillis

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.

25 comments
Lisbon
1. Lisbon
Thank you for this. It feels silly to be so sad about her death when so many disasters are happening around us. But I am sad, and I am mourning her loss. I, too, introduced my children to the world of Doctor Who through the Sarah Jane Adventures. They, and I will be forever grateful.
Sharat Buddhavarapu
2. Sharat Buddhavarapu
I've just dived into the deep end, and decided that if I was going to be a science fiction and fantasy fan, I'd do it full on. I was debating which classics to go and educate my self on, and these dedications definitely put Dr. Who on the top of my list!
Lisbon
3. Geoff Coupe
Lisbon wrote:

"Thank you for this. It feels silly to be so sad about her death when so many disasters are happening around us. But I am sad, and I am mourning her loss."

Me too. I've just watched snippets of "School Reunion" and watched something magical and the best of what it means to be human.
Lisbon
4. Chris in KCMO
She will indeed be missed...
Liz Argall
5. lizargall
For those of you who haven't stumbled across it, here is a lovely song UK folk singer Talis Kimberley wrote in tribute. Goodnight Sarah-Jane
Lisbon
6. Kit O'Connell
Crush, role model, hero worship, respect... so many emotions over this great woman and her iconic character. The outpouring of grief on twitter was touching to watch, but this article did the best job of summing up my own feelings at this loss. Thank you!
lake sidey
7. lakesidey
Thank you for this post. I never got to watch the original show (I live in India, where it was not telecast!) but I remember snapping up all the Target novelisations I could find (I still have over 60 of those, back home; along with random Verne and Wells and the Daneel Olivaw novels which introduced me to Asimov, they kick-started an addiction to science fiction which has now lasted a couple of decades) and I remember Sarah as one of the greatest companions, smart and funny and independent.

And the Doctor - alien or no, he shows the way to be human sometimes. To me, Doctor Who is still the "classic episodes" and the Third and Fourth Doctors are my favourites (though I loved all the first five). I wish I could have grown up with them on TV!

~lakesidey
David Fowler
8. model217
What I remember most from watching Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen was the sense they were enjoying what they were doing. Being a teen at the time I wasn't impressed by the aliens and monsters on the show,but Mr. Baker and Ms. Sladen's personalities drew me in until I found myself actually staying home at night to watch Dr.Who. Great memories. She will be missed.
Lisbon
9. bocian
I'm so glad to have read this. Sladen's death stopped me in my tracks in a way no other celebrity's demise ever has. I don't know why, but I'm glad to see I'm not alone in mourning her. I'm not ashamed to admit that I've seen every episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, despite being twice the age of its target audience. She made that show worthwhile.
Lisbon
10. I am Pete Nelson
I saw just a piece of Genesis of the Daleks when I was very young, maybe five or six (I think Harry was being "attacked" by a cave clam!), and was absolutely terrified (and intrigued). Several years later, flipping channels, I tuned to PBS, and saw what had to be that same show, and with more intrigue than terror now, began watching the rerun of Ark in Space. By the time that episode was over, I was hooked!

Tom Baker and Liz Sladen are a lot of the reason I so loved the show, and to date, I still think Sarah Jane was the absolute best companion to for the Doctor (although today's Amy Pond comes very close). Sarah did not try to be "liberated", she just was. She would scream, and then she'd stand her ground. She'd go toe-to-toe with giant robots, cybermen, antimatter beasts, Zygons and even the Doctor himself.

She was who she was, and she was never ashamed. She would be scared, but unafraid to defend those in need. And she didn't need the Doctor - she was always more than willing to strike out on her own, and more often than not, she could take care of herself (not just scream until rescued).

How amazing it was to see Liz Sladen so many years later reprising her role as if she never left it. How wonderful that she was able to once again take up that wonderful role model for a brand new generation of children. How lucky we all are to have met Sarah Jane.

It's sad that it had to come to an end all too soon, but I am thankful for all that she left behind, and will remember both Liz and Sarah Jane very fondly.
Lisbon
11. NCBill
As the Doctor said in one episode, "Pieces of my past are being chipped away!" Liz Sladen will always be my favorite companion.
Kathy Routliffe
12. kaffyr1
I, too, was surprised at the strength of my reaction to news that Lis Sladen had died, leaving the world poorer for lack of her, and for lack of her incredible character Sarah Jane Smith. But there it was; she had found her way into my heart in a way that few actors or characters do. Others have talked about the independence, bravery, and intelligence Sarah Jane showed, the joy in living a solo adventure after having to leave the Doctor, the fantastic role model she was both when young and when mature. I second all of it. I will miss Sarah Jane a great deal, and will cherish the memories of her; I will mis Lis Sladen, who gave life to Sarah Jane and who was, by all accounts, gracious, witty, affectionate toward DW and its fandom, and, obviously, brave and dedicated. My thoughts go out to her family and friends.
Lisbon
13. Simon Fraser
I've rarely felt such a sense of loss for the death of someone who I've never met. It's a testament to Elizabeth Sladen, the actor ,that she could express so much emotion on screen, so convincingly, that so many people seem to feel so affected by her death. It's no mean feat to create a convincing , well rounded character that people engage with on TV or in any other medium. To create a character who is beloved is extraordinary.
On Dr Who and in her own show she represented humanity and I can't think of anyone who could do it better.
Lisbon
14. Hennuz
Sounds like enough people feel exactly as I do - absolutely shocked and bereft by her passing. She obviously had something, for us to be talking like this

I'm going to have to do the manly thing and admit to crying most of yesterday morning - unable to work or do anything except mope. Ironically, I used to tell myself I never understood how people fell in love with actors, singers or celebrities they never knew. I knew I had a soft spot for her, but this is ridiculous. I can't believe Lis Sladen is gone
Lisbon
15. Carl Quaif
They say that "your" Doctor is, by and large, the first one you watched - what the eponymous "they" rarely mention is that the first Companion is also often the one you harken back to. For me, this was the heady combination of Jon Pertwee and Elizabeth Sladen. I was a devastated child when "my" Doctor "died" in Planet of the Spiders, but the fact that Sarah Jane was still around gave me the comfort and the time to grow to love Tom Baker's Doctor. Sarah Jane's own abandonment, several seasons on, by the Doctor was a far more painful wrench, and although I loved the series until its demise, I never really had that connection with the Companions that followed. Seeing Sarah Jane in K9 & Company, and later in the Five Doctors, only made me long to have my Sarah Jane back. Her return in the new series reminded me just how much I loved her, and my delight in the creation of the Sarah Jane Adventures - and the quality of those programmes, designed to be enjoyed by adult fans as much as by children - has given me endless joy. If there is one comfort to be derived from Lis' sad passing, it is that it happened at a time when her skill and talent were once more appreciated by a whole new generation (rather than simply the 35-year-old memories of long-time fans). Rest in Peace, Ms Sladen. Requesiat in Pace, Sarah Jane. You will not be forgotten.
Lisbon
16. Jonathan Andrew Sheen
Between them, Elisabeth Sladen and Katy Manning gave me a passion for British females I'll never outgrow. I was sort of apprehensive about seeing her in the resurgent Doctor Who: How could the lady who'd stolen my heart in the Seventies possibly live up to those memories?

But she did it with ease and aplomb, and I rediscovered why I fell in love all those years ago, and I discovered I'd never fallen, and could never fall, out of love with Sarah Jane... And with Elisabeth, too.

Flights of Angels, fannish love of my life.
Lisbon
18. a-j
The reactions to Lis Sladen's death are a remarkable tribute to her skill as an actor. She remains one of the most successful companions in the series, but more remarkably, was able to bring the character back gloriously so many years later. The Sarah Jane Adventures series was a triumph which I made no bones about watching, always fun and on more than one occasion actually surpassing its parent series. Elisabeth Sladen was the primary reason for this. RIP.
Lisbon
19. Jen B.
I have been a Dr. Who fan my whole life. Now, Elisabeth Sladen appearing in School Reunion is even better. I am so happy that I got to see her with the Doctor one last time. I need to go queu up the episode and watch it.
Lisbon
20. Cherisaruss
Yesterday my darling daughter and I watched School Reunion together and cried....and we laughed at ourselves at the same time....two grown women crying over the death of a lovely lady we'd never actually met. But Sara Jane was very special and she had a way of making us cheer and pump our fists in the air in support of her. I'm not surpised at all this outpouring of love for Lis; her personality shows through Sara Jane's character.
Linden Wolfe
22. Lilith
When I saw mention of Lis Sladen's death on the news the other night, I was surprised to find myself weeping. Then I realised it was like losing a friend I'd known for most of my life.
I'm old enough to have watched Doctor Who since the first episode was shown and have seen the various Sarah Jane episodes numerous times in re-runs. I remember being upset when she was abandoned on Earth.
I was so happy to see her appear in the Who reboot and to see her get a fun spin-off in The Sarah Jane Adventures - even if it was aimed at an audience decades younger than myself, I still enjoyed it.
She will be missed.
Lisbon
23. paul shaw
Feel really sad and I used to be really puzzeled when people would be emotional over the passing of someone they didn't know. I have never shed a tear for anyone I didn't know but I am 40 yrs old and yesterday that changed.
Lisbon
24. RanchoUnicorno
The last email I saw before I shut down my machine for my vacation on Tuesday was an email from Netflix telling me that S1:D1 of SJA was in the mail. The first thing I saw when I turned it on this morning was an email telling me about this.

Somehow, I find it fitting that Google's first 8+ pages of "Elisabeth Sladen" are tributes to her and her legacy, with the first interrupting links discussing her return to acting and Netflix offering me the chance to watch programs starring her. Clearly the internet and the world loved her as much as my family.
Lisbon
25. Jerry Ferraccio
The most amazingly real and down to earth character, a woman who was a role model, best friend, and sister/mother, depending on what you needed. I had always meant to write her and tell her how special she was, and now I won't get the chance . . . .

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