Perhaps it will turn into one of those “where were you when you heard…” moments, but I know exactly where I was: in a car park in Bristol, waiting for my wife, I pulled out my phone and fired up Twitter. One of the messages caught my eye; I looked closer, and I could swear my heart skipped at least two beats:
(I read this as a “retweet” by Transdiffusion, though it actually came from Doctor Who Magazine’s Twitter feed. Think I’ll follow them now.)
For a few minutes, I felt pretty stunned: no, not Lis Sladen—most fans would agree, perhaps the most popular TARDIS-fellow-traveller in the series’ history? A trip to the BBC News site confirmed it: yes, Lis Sladen had died at the age of only 63, of the cancer she had been battling for months, without even most of her fellow actors being aware of it.
I could write so much about Elisabeth Sladen and her “Who” alter ego Sarah Jane Smith, but I will try and leave that to others. I don’t have to think long to realise why her death has made more of an impression on me than most actors’ passing would—for one thing, Lis is the only “Who” companion actor to date, whom I have actually met in person. It was at a fan convention (in my defence, the only one I have ever visited, and only for a part-day 😉 ) in London in 1993; I went along to a signing session she was doing there, and I recall she was an absolute delight, very friendly and engaging with myself and the other fans. (I admit she reminded me of my mum (in a good way), which in retrospect is interesting, given that they are of similar ages.)
Why did Sarah Jane—and Sladen herself—achieve the level of popularity that she did? If you ask a hundred Whovians, you’d probably receive just as many answers—the fact that she travelled in the TARDIS over four seasons of the show (during arguably its greatest-ever period) would probably figure highly. Others would cite Sarah Jane’s breaking the mould of the ditsy screamers of earlier “Who” seasons—an intelligent, confident female journalist who showed great bravery and loyalty to her friends, and who could show vulnerability without it coming over as weakness.
For me, Sarah Jane Smith is perhaps the perfect TARDIS traveller, certainly from the “classic series”—ready, as Sladen herself often pointed out, to ask the “where are we, Doctor?” questions on behalf of the viewers, without it making her appear stupid. She wasn’t super-powered—she could be hurt, and sometimes was—but she believed in the Doctor all along, and would put herself at risk without hesitation on behalf of him or her friends if necessary. Her loyalty was beyond question, even if sorely tested by events; her eventual re-encounter with the Doctor in 2006’s School Reunion (in a touching and endearing performance by Sladen) showed that even though she had been hurt by the manner of her departure from the TARDIS, she still felt a bond with the Doctor, which would grow to include fellow-travellers in later episodes, as well as in her very own spinoff, The Sarah Jane Adventures (now sadly, surely brought to an abrupt close).
I also think that Sarah Jane’s abiding popularity had a great deal to do with Sladen herself. Many actors would resent being identified so closely with a single character, but if this bothered Lis, she rarely if ever let it show—in the same vein as her co-star Nicholas Courtney (another much-missed “Who” stalwart whom we lost this year), she embraced her alter ego and the fans who appreciated her, and was much loved in return for it.
There will be many “Who” fans tonight who will mourn the passing of Elisabeth Sladen, and my condolences are with her husband and daughter at this time. It would be a fitting tribute to her if the first episode of the new series of “Doctor Who” this Saturday, could carry some kind of dedication to Sladen (and perhaps Courtney too). However, I can think of no better words to finish with, than those of former “Who” producer Russell T Davies:
The universe was lucky to have Sarah Jane Smith, the world was lucky to have Lis.