Wednesday, April 20, 2011

R.I.P. Elisabeth Sladen

Elisabeth Sladen, the actress who played Sarah Jane Smith in numerous Doctor Who episodes, and later in her own spinoff, has died. She was only 63 years old and some news outlets report that she had been struggling with cancer.

Sladen was a joyful actor and a legendary part of the Doctor Who universe. She was the main companion of the Third and Fourth Doctor in the 70s, John Pertwee and Tom Baker, respectively. She returned to the show several times, reprising her role as Sarah Jane Smith, including a fantastic episode "School Reunion" in the 2nd series of the reboot with David Tennant.

"School Reunion" is a personal favorite of mine. I have never seen the old Doctor Who episodes, never grew up with them, but I have been a huge fan of the reboot, and this episode ties together the past, in the form of Sarah Jane Smith, and the present, mostly in Rose Tyler, the current companion.

Tennant is silly and serious as always, investigating a remarkable upswing in test scores in a children's school by posing as a teacher, while Rose pretends to be a cafeteria lady. Sarah Jane Smith, who hasn't seen the Doctor in many years and has built herself a life as an investigative journalist, using her specialized expertise to track down strange phenomena, also noticed the story and came to find out the truth. There is a wonderfully creepy scene when she discovers the TARDIS while sneaking around the school at night, and her meeting with the Doctor is appropriately fraught with love and nostalgia and anger.

Her rapport with Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) was wonderful as well, after beginning as mere jealousy and then bonding over shared experience and Doctor-teasing. Even Mickey, Rose's friend, finally becomes likable, K-9 shows up, and the villain turns out to be the alien-bat-shapeshifting-principal Anthony Stewart Head. That's right, Giles in Doctor Who! This one had it all.

Sladen was so good in fact, that she got her own spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures. It was a children's show, mostly, but a lot of the same writers worked on it, and it was well-paced with interesting aliens and solid stories. It followed Sarah Jane's investigations, starting off with one where she rescues a young teenage boy that a group of aliens had created to be a perfect human being. After foiling their nefarious plans she adopts him, and with his new friends (couple local kids) they team up to save the universe on a regular occasion.

The show had been on for 3 series, and I had no doubt it would continue. Sladen guest starred on Doctor Who during this time as well, returning for some very climactic season finales and getting good screen time.

She made an indelible impression on this universe, one where every episode sees new, famous faces, and every incarnation of the Doctor has its own companions. But she knew the Doctor in at least 4 different bodies, was loved and respected by him, was fearless and forged her own way when that life ended. Sladen brought compassion, humor, and a steel-iron will to the modern resuscitation of the character, and bridged the history gap for many of us newer fans.

She will be missed.


  1. Beautiful obit, Capt. I am finding and watching the Dr. Who with her and Tennant asap.

  2. Thanks a lot Max. It's a great ep to track down, should be online somewhere.

    One can only wonder what poor K-9 is up to. Howling in his robotic voice? Asking "Where. Is. My. Mistress?" Looking for the Doctor? Grieving with the intelligent super computer Mr. Smith?

    I wonder if they'll have her son, who is superhumanly brilliant, pop up next season in Doctor Who. I imagine Sarah Jane listed the Doctor as his guardian.