Wednesday, April 20, 2011
When I first encountered Elisabeth Sladen, it was love at first sight. As crushes go, it was all very innocent: I was six going on seven years old at the time. And it’s fair to say I knew her as someone else then. A plucky reporter named Sarah Jane Smith.
The role of a companion in Doctor Who is vital. We’re enjoying the adventures in the TARDIS vicariously through them. Lis Sladen embodied that role perfectly, engaging with great warmth and charm, and a wonderfully balanced blend of intrepid spirit and vulnerability. The ability to scream with conviction when it counted without undermining the courage, strength and independence of the character. To feel the fear and face the monsters anyway.
I was there facing those monsters with her all the way through from 1973-1976.
I cried when she left. I was nine. And there have been companions in the series since – and previous companions I discovered later on in life when watching episodes that hailed from before my time - that I’ve liked and even loved, but I can’t think of any with whom I empathised to the same extent. Obviously it’d be tough for anyone to compete with someone who made such an impression on me during such formative years. But that takes nothing away from what she meant to me and so many others on our Saturday tea-time travels through time and space.
Did we see her a lot after that in any other role on TV? Even if we had, could we have seen her as anyone other than Sarah Jane Smith? I don’t know. She convinced us as Sarah so heartily, she’d created an unshakeable memory. And when she returned to the role – in K9 & Company and The Five Doctors (1983), for instance – it was always a welcome pleasure to see her. In the episode School Reunion (2006), I shed tears over her departure all over again. And then she was capturing the imagination - and I’ll bet the hearts too – of a whole new generation of young fans in her own series, The Sarah Jane Adventures.
In 2005, when I attended the Gallifrey convention in LA, I met actually met Lis Sladen for the first and only time. (I’d seen her at Longleat’s Doctor Who 20th Anniversary Celebrations in 1983, but only for a passing photo op.) You can’t know anyone from a brief encounter, least of all when your heart is aflutter with fannish infatuation, but she was warm and charming and gracious and friendly and spoke with infectious enthusiasm for Doctor Who and the role of Sarah Jane, as you might expect. And she showed an interest in what I did as a writer. That’s a memory I treasure, as is the farewell hug. I also met my wife to be but she understands the competition for my fond memories of that convention.
People often remarked on how great she looked for her age, which is true. But then, she’ll always look fantastic to me.
Today my thoughts are with her family and friends, those that knew her personally. This is just my own small farewell to a lady who brought magic to a lot of young lives and who’ll be greatly missed. Part of me is that nine-year-old boy again, shedding tears at having to say goodbye.