The Woman Who Defined Doctor Who
On the eve of the 50th David Selby pays tribute to the late Elisabeth Sladen.
At 7:50pm tomorrow night, most of us will be sitting down to watch The Day of the Doctor – be it in a cinema, at home or at a friend’s house – and, I daresay the grand majority will take this for granted. Doctor Who has been around for all of (most of our) lives, and has lived on inside us – inside our habits, our idiosyncrasies, even in many cases our morality. But very few people ever take the time to ponder what individual people are responsible for the show being here today.
In many ways, it’s a joint effort. Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert, William Hartnell and all those around at the moment of the show’s creation deserve to be credited, alongside producers such as Barry Letts and Russell T. Davies who have brought the show into a new, exciting era. But there’s one particular character – and one person who has defined at least my own (and undoubtedly many others’) experience of the show.
The character is Sarah Jane Smith.
And that person is Elisabeth Sladen.
The character of Sarah Jane Smith was introduced in The Time Warrior, in which she posed as Lavinia Smith (her aunt), in order to infiltrate a high-security research base. The two lead actors (Sladen and Pertwee) had an inimitable dynamic. Whereas most companions from that era acted with obedience towards the Time Lord, Sarah Jane – an ardent feminist with a journalistic outlook on life – was always inquisitive, autonomous and authoritative. Such a drastic redefinition of the companion figure didn’t just impact the stories, but gave female viewers a new kind of a role model to look up to – the kind who doesn’t bow down to masculine authority or give in to what she knew was wrong. Sarah Jane Smith was the start of a whole new era of radical change to the series’ (and television as a whole’s) lead female.
It could be said that Sarah Jane had the most comprehensive share of classic Doctor Who – she faced the Sontarans in her introductory episode, worked alongside UNIT and the illustrious Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, battling iconic foes such as the Daleks, Cybermen and even Lord Davros himself. And, within the context of the series prior to The Hand of Fear, Sarah Jane’s initial exit was fitting for her character. At first she was indignant and probing, but eventually she accepted the inevitable and left the Doctor pondering on her final few words to him. Travel does indeed broaden the mind, and the Doctor never would forget Sarah Jane.
In 2006’s School Reunion, Sarah Jane was depicted as a lonely, somewhat bitter woman longing for the years with the Doctor that she never had. Arguably, the scenes leading up to (and including) the Doctor’s reveal to her are some of the most rewarding, heart-warming moments that any ‘Classic’ Whovian ever got the chance to watch. Indeed, there was also a layer of sorrow in the reunion. Sarah Jane was painfully aware of the fact that the Doctor had moved on, the Doctor himself conscious that his companions don’t age at the same rate as he does.
With the character turning down the option to return to the TARDIS, a spin-off was obligatory. And it was from Invasion of the Bane – the first episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures – when I realised that Sarah Jane was easily as strong a character as the Doctor and thus equally worthy of her own spin-off.
Alan Jackson describes Sarah Jane as ‘frosty’ on her first appearance, and I wouldn’t argue otherwise. But Invasion takes the ideas raised in School Reunion a step further. Here we see the extent of Sarah Jane’s loneliness, and the isolation she must feel having to hide her tremendous secrets from the world (giving K9 his own sub-plot away from the series was clever as it made Sarah Jane’s loneliness more believable).
A lot changes for Sarah Jane over the course of the first series, and I’d argue that it’s Lis at her absolute finest. Sarah Jane is characterised, as she always was, as ‘bossy’ and intrusive, but – with the benefit of a now-aged actress for the role, had a new level of both warmth and pathos. Sarah Jane, thanks to the wonderful Luke Smith, became a mother-figure, and the crossovers with the ‘mother’ show such as Journey’s End ingrained her as just that within the whole series’ mythos.
Although Sarah Jane is still the same character with the same backstory, it becomes apparent from the start that her life is catastrophically tragic. In the first series, we discover that she lost her best friend, Andrea Yates, when they were both teenagers. Due to the Trickster’s interference, Sarah Jane has to convince Andrea to end her own life – worse still, on Andrea’s birthday. The consequences of this, and presumably other calamities, become clear when Luke is taken away from her by the police at the beginning of The Lost Boy. The scenes following the revelation that Luke Smith is (supposedly) the kidnapped Ashely Stafford are perhaps the actress’ finest moments as she turns her back on those she loves to save herself any more heartbreak.
The second series of the terrific spin-off reveals that Sarah Jane also lost her parents at a young age – individual scenes of nostalgia culminating in the character being able to return to the exact date that her parents died and prevent it. This could be said to be her defining moment as a character, as she finally gives in and goes against her own morality. Though controversial among viewers, I’d evaluate it as reasonable; a decision I can feel myself relating to very easily. It’s impossible to tell if you or I would have acted in the same way, but Series Two manages to develop Sarah Jane’s character by placing her in a plethora of these ‘dilemmas’, with the second episode of the run, Day of the Clown, focusing on Sarah Jane’s fear (which, again, I can completely empathise with).
In the third series, Sarah Jane finally finds love in the charming but too-good-to-be-true Peter Dalton, an essentially innocent man manipulated by the Pantheon of Discord. This is easily the most painful moment for the character and the audience as; again, she is forced to persuade him to give his own life to save those of others. We begin to understand Sarah Jane’s fear of living alone again; it’s reminded to us in the superlative Series Four opener, The Nightmare Man, where her son makes his way into the world.
Sarah Jane is shown throughout the course of the spin-off to have a complicated set of beliefs and moralities. Generally, she shows mercy, often to her disadvantage. The character could be seen as naïve (or perhaps optimistic): she believes the opportunity to intervene in history to save her parents as a good thing, and allows the Slitheen and Sontaran Commander Kaagh to leave the planet freely, among other things. In the Series Four finale, however, she ignores Ruby White’s pleas to no longer be subjected to eternal darkness, bringing out a harder-hearted side to the character. She has a complex relationship with Androvax the Annihilator, having been inside his mind (and him inside hers). The character is also inferred to be an atheist, but with a potent belief in ‘the universe’; both the literal cosmos and the strings of nature that tie events and people together.
One of my favourite episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures – if not my favourite of all-time – is Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith. It is a moving, often realistic depiction of the character’s ‘downfall’ when she is diagnosed with damage to her brain tissue and begins to struggle with the life she’s led for such a long time. It’s often painful, especially when considering the posthumous tragedy of the narrative: it was Elisabeth Sladen’s last televised story before her tragic passing, and it was called Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith, following the character’s coping with an (alleged) illness and showing how the rest of the team would cope without her, and one of her final lines in the episode was “With a team like this, I think I could go on forever”.
It’s entirely down to Elisabeth Sladen that I love the character so much. I have no qualms in saying, having recently watch The Sarah Jane Adventures through again, that Lis is undoubtedly my favourite actress of all time. Her ability to elicit an emotive response (often of different types) from the viewer (in episodes such as The Lost Boy, Day of the Clown, The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith or Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith), combined with her aptitude for taking on multiple roles – such as the devious Androvax in Prisoner of the Judoon – is a testament to her brilliance.
Despite the entire pantheon of Doctor Who actors and actresses, I firmly believe that she is the one who has defined the show the most. Her presence could be described as ‘magical’, especially in her later years – and if ever I was told that I’d seen a woman of divine origins in my lifetime, I would undoubtedly presume it to be Elisabeth Sladen.
So I say, fifty years on from the show’s genesis, that we take a moment to remember the woman who, in my opinion, defined it.
When I was your age, I used to think “Oh, when I’m grown up, I’ll know what I want, I’ll be sorted.” But you never really know what you want. You never feel grown up, not really. You never sort it all out… so I thought; I could handle life on my own. But after today… I don’t want to!
RIP Elisabeth Sladen (1948-2011)