Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Elisabeth Sladen

I'm grotesquely behind in my reviews and really should write another today, but sadly all thought of that went out of my head last night when I got home to find Lis Sladen had died. Lis was, as part of Doctor Who, a large part of my defining childhood years. As such, I wanted to write a bit about her.

Sarah Jane wasn't my absolute first Who companion: that was either Jo Grant or Romana, depending on which set of memories I believe. But as time went on and companions and Doctors came and went, she tended to become the 'default' companion in my mind. When a new companion arrived on the show, or in the books and audio CDs, inevitably I held them up to Sarah to see how they measured up. It probably started with The Five Doctors, but certainly by the time of the New Adventures in the 1990s she had transcended most companions to become iconic, something I'd argue has only been done with two other companions: Susan and Jamie. (Rose isn't old enough to be iconic yet.)

There was a joke in fandom about how Sarah was actually two companions: the staunch feminist we saw in Jon Pertwee's last season, and the softer and more vulnerable one we saw with Tom Baker. I think someone actually joked that she regenerated when Jon did. Certainly I do think Sarah got softer, but I don't think she got less tough - I can think of at least half a dozen Tom Baker stories that feature her taking on things that would have sent me curling into a little ball.

One of my favorite scenes of all of Doctor Who is in Tom Baker's 2nd story, The Ark In Space, where Sarah is the only one small enough to fit into an air duct and drag a wire that will help stop the villain. Except she gets stuck, and starts to freak out (as would we all). The Doctor, knowing Sarah well even now, goads her into getting unstuck and moving forward again by calling her useless. She gets to mad she manages the rest of the crawl in record time, and once she emerges he grins and says "I knew you could do it."

Everyone joked about Sarah getting abducted or hypnotized, so much so that the show eventually had her grousing about it herself, in what proved to be her last episode, The Hand of Fear. But we kid because we love, and while fans may argue about how feminist she really was, no one I've met in Who fandom has ever disliked Sarah Jane Smith. As the show moved on and I watched more, I had other companions that I focused on - Nyssa, Ace, Benny, Donna - but if I ever had to make a Top 5 Companions list, she was always on it. And, of course, she was able to inspire The Sarah Jane Adventures, and have it be a triumphant success, taking Sarah Jane into the 21st century and showing us that she was just as awesome in her 60s as she was in her 20s.

And now she's gone, so soon after the death of Nicholas Courtney. Death is a part of life, and she had been fighting cancer, but it still seems like this was far too soon. Lis Sladen had so much to tell us, both as herself and as Sarah, and now the worst won't get to see it. Luckily, we have her past work to cherish. I think I'll pop in Pyramids of Mars tonight. Or maybe The Brain of Morbius. Or hrm, there's always The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith... or I could listen to The Ghosts of N-Space! OK, perhaps not the Ghosts of N-Space...

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