2011 In Review: Sarah Jane

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With the new year rapidly approaching, Clint Hassell take’s a look back at how 2011 changed the Whoniverse by examining in-depth each of the three Who-related series, concluding with a personal letter to Elisabeth Sladen, star of The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Dear Ms. Sladen,

I came late to Doctor Who. I live in the U.S. where the show is not the cultural phenomenon it is in the U.K. I’ve only been a fan since 2009. As such, I have no cherished childhood memories of your initial tenure on the series – which, in fairness, occurred before I was born. All of my exposure to Sarah Jane has occurred as an adult.

Yet, for some reason, hearing the news of your death affected me on a deep, personal level – more so than any other celebrity passing in my lifetime. Though I’d never met you, though you’d only been a part of my life for a year-and-a-half, I truly felt like I’d lost a friend. Months later, I’m still trying to process my feelings.

It’s strange to watch early episodes of classic Who. With most actors (you included) trained to perform on stage, characters seem to shout their lines and over-emote, as if to ensure that the audience members on the back row could hear each word – not that the words the writers scripted for Sarah Jane were the best material. You once stated to The Daily Mirror that “Sarah Jane used to be a bit of a cardboard cut-out. Each week it used to be, ‘Yes, Doctor, no, Doctor,’ and you had to flesh your character out in your mind – because if you didn’t, no one else would.” Somehow – despite being on a sound stage, with fake bushes and foam rocks, facing stuntmen dressed like potato-headed Sontarans – you found in Sarah Jane the warmth and the faith in humanity that paired so well with the irascible Third Doctor and the dour Fourth Doctor. You saw the potential in Sarah Jane, imbuing her with strength and kindness, making her real. As a result, a generation of Whovians believed in Sarah Jane too.

How different was your portrayal of Sarah Jane in the revived Whoniverse! Suddenly, there was a subtleness to your craft as television production values had caught up to your talent. Yet, the warmth and generosity was still there – obviously influenced by the years you spent raising a family – causing another generation of Whovians to embrace Sarah Jane as real.

I’m one of those Whovians. Though my mind knows better, my heart believes that Sarah Jane, Luke, Clyde, Rani, Maria, and Sky are somewhere, having wonderful adventures with the Doctor. By making Sarah Jane such a real person, Ms. Sladen, you not only participated in, you also validated the imaginations of your fans – and that’s a precious gift!

The producers offered you the chance to return to Doctor Who, to smooth the transition between the Fourth and Fifth Doctors. You declined, having no interest in reprising a role identical to the one you left years before. You choose to return to the series only when Sarah Jane could have adventures and companions of her own (K-9 and Company, The Sarah Jane Adventures) or when you could further explore Sarah Jane’s growth (“School Reunion”). I respect you for that. I know that caused everyone around you to work ever harder to meet the standards you set for the character – Russell T Davies admits as much in his book, The Writer’s Tale. Let’s be honest: the writing on The Sarah Jane Adventures was the most consistent of the three Who-related series. And, despite having four concurrent companions by the series’ end, none of the characters were reduced to “yes, Doctor, no, Doctor” caricatures or always-needing-to-be-rescued plot devices. In fact, even more than Doctor Who, the companions on The Sarah Jane Adventures are some of the most complex, layered characters in the Whoniverse. It is obvious that you pushed for that. Further, by treating the companion roles with respect equal to the lead, The Sarah Jane Adventures gave its cast of young actors the chance to grow into amazing performers. Daniel Anthony, in particular, really stepped into the role of male lead, and Anjli Mohindra developed into a beautiful, emotive young woman.

That cast loved you, Ms. Sladen. It is obvious when you see the stunned look on Daniel’s face or Tommy Knight’s tear-stained eyes in My Sarah Jane: A Tribute to Elisabeth Sladen. Russell T Davies loved you. He says so in The Writer’s Tale, as he recounts an afternoon he spent 20 minutes sitting on the floor next to you. David Tennant certainly loved you too – it’s written all over his face in “School Reunion.”

So, maybe I feel connected to you because I am proud of you, or because I feel inspired by you.

And maybe it’s because you remind me of my mom. Her name’s Patricia; next year, she’ll be 65. She looks a lot like you – beautiful, always put together and polished, the epitome of grace and tact and sophistication (though I wish I could get her to rock Sarah Jane’s jeans-and-boots look from The Sarah Jane Adventures). Just as you did, in the 70s, with your role as Sarah Jane, I’ve seen my mom grow to overcome the stereotype she was expected to fulfill – dutiful housewife to some unappreciative bore, happily playing the “yes, Doctor, no, Doctor” companion role. In the past few years, my mom has looked within herself to find her own potential and strength and kindness, and, like Sarah Jane, she has discovered a world of adventure, using her passion to make the world a better place. My mom started a successful interior design business and now has her dream job teaching fashion design to a legion of kids who universally adore her. Oh, and she’s a model too (swear to God!).

Like you, my mom’s also had to fight cancer. She’s doing fine now, but I can’t express how scary cancer can be. How did you go to work each day and not tell anyone? I guess once you’ve faced the Daleks, cancer isn’t so scary? Or maybe it’s the other way around?

Anyway, I tell my mom about you all the time. Maybe someday, she’ll get the chance to know you like I do. I know that you guys would be friends.

It’s silly, huh, – these personal connections we make, these things we take into out hearts, and love? But, I guess that means your work had value, that is was important. I know it was important, to me.

So, I guess that’s the best thing I can say, Ms. Sladen: thank you. Thank you for playing Sarah Jane, thank you for your example and your inspiration, and thank you for showing the world that it doesn’t take a mad man in a blue box to have a life of adventure – it takes a warm, loving heart. Luckily for us, yours was apparently bigger on the inside.

Clint Hassell