My earliest memory from Doctor Who is of the giant black and gold Dalek Supreme chasing the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith through the jungles of Spiridon. Shortly after that, I remember an episode ending with Sarah Jane sitting alone in her living room, a giant maggot creeping up from the hall doorway behind her. Chilling stuff!
I grew up with Lis Sladen, you see. I was too young to appreciate who the characters in Doctor Who were, and it was the monsters that I was concentrating on. By the time I was old enough to actually recognise the regulars, Sarah Jane Smith had replaced Jo Grant, and all the memories I had of that earlier character became associated with the one I knew now, the one who had replaced her. It was the Target novels that put me right, a few years later.
In the meantime, Sarah Jane Smith had given me a few proper memories of her own: I’ve never been more scared in front of a television than I was when Sarah Jane was alone on the planet Exxilon, never more excited than when she and I together watched Davros unveil his Mark III Travel Machine, and never more shocked than when her face fell off revealing the circuitry of an android beneath. Even as an eight-year-old, I felt terribly sad when the Doctor dropped a reluctant Sarah Jane home at the end of The Hand of Fear, recognising that the end of an era had arrived.
I was still (just about!) young enough, a year or so later, to assume that the Doctor would go back and look for Sarah Jane after Leela’s departure in The Invasion of Time. Of course, by the time Romana left, I was far too old for such fanciful notions – and that’s when Sarah Jane did come back, albeit without the Doctor’s help (except for the box he sent her in the post). This was in K9 and Company, of course. Yes, Sarah Jane Smith is the only companion to have been given her own spin-off series twice.
For Doctor Who fans specifically, and fans of television and sci-fi in general, the terrible sad news of Sladen’s death has come as an incredible shock – and the reaction has been as great as it would be for the passing of a Doctor. The fact that it’s only a few weeks since Nicholas Courtney also passed away is also heartbreaking; it’s like the break-up of the most popular and pleasurable regular cast the programme ever had, in the most shattering way. For these two actors and characters were as much a part of the legend of the series as any of the Doctors were, having between them appeared opposite all but three of those Doctors on the screen, and spanning every decade that the series has been regularly on air. Lis Sladen’s first appearance was in 1973, and there are still a half a dozen episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures yet to be broadcast. That’s a serious legacy.
Like many of the fans of the show who had never even met her, I still felt like I knew Elisabeth Sladen. As with many companions and Doctors, there’s an awful lot of Lis in Sarah Jane, and probably an awful lot of Sarah Jane in Lis too. Spunky but caring, daft but devoted, forthright but thoughtful; that was Sarah Jane. And that was Elisabeth Sladen too.
When she reappeared in School Reunion in 2006, it was almost like she’d never been away; it was just that right. From that point onwards, The Sarah Jane Adventures seemed almost like a no-brainer; it might have seemed like madness to have a sixty-year-old woman as the eponymous lead of a CBBC series, and yet watching the programme, you can’t imagine a time when it wasn’t so. In my head, The Sarah Jane Adventures have been happening since October 1976, since Doctor Tom dropped her back off in South Croydon (or Aberdeen, or wherever it was). And now another generation of children have been blessed with having Sarah Jane as their heroine.
Jon Pertwee was the first Doctor Who I ever encountered, and Tom Baker was the Doctor I grew up with. But Tom went on a little too long in the part, became a little too frivolous, and a little too serious. Thanks to Elisabeth Sladen and the magic she brought to the part, Sarah Jane Smith was my “Doctor”.
“Some things are worth getting your heart broken for,” Sarah Jane says in School Reunion. “Everything has its time, and everything ends.” Sadly, for an untold number of fans, that time has now come for Elisabeth Sladen. She will be as missed as anyone who has ever worked on the show.