Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Elisabeth Sladen Dies at 63

I was crushed to read the news this morning that Elisabeth Sladen, best known as Sarah Jane Smith from Doctor Who, has died at age 63. Doctor Who became a favorite of mine even before the show was aired in the United States. In 1977, I found a copy of  The Making of Doctor Who in my local comic book store and read about this remarkable show which was a pop culture fixture in the UK but barely known about in the states. Since Elisabeth Sladen was the Doctor's companion at the time the book was written, it was full of photographs and references to Sarah Jane Smith. My little 13-year-old heart was instantly captivated by the brunette with the the big smile.

Intrigued by this initial taste of Dr. Who, I told the comic store owner to be on the look out for any more Dr. Who material he might come across. I also scoured comic shows for the numerous novel adaptations of the show. Soon, I had a pile of Dr. Who novels, magazines, and annuals before I ever watched a single episode of the show, and I was particularly interested in anything related to Sarah Jane.

In the fall of 1979, the first four seasons of the Tom Baker era were broadcast in the United States and most of those episodes featured Elisabeth Sladen as his companion. Now I was really smitten. She had a certain playfulness which worked well with Tom Baker's naughty boy approach to the Doctor. It was as if she was the understanding elementary school teacher to her precocious student. Most of the other Dr. Who companions were simply there to follow orders and ask the questions that the audience might be thinking as the story unfolded. Sarah Jane seemed to have a more equal partnership with Tom Baker's Doctor, at least on an emotional level. She was the first companion, in my opinion, whom you actually thought could have a serious relationship with him.

I was sad to see her run on the show end. None of the companions after her measured up. I also found it interesting to see her first season on the show with Jon Pertwee when those older episodes were made available in the late 80s. The previous companion, Jo Grant (played by Katy Manning), was perfectly suited to Jon Pertwee's style while Sladen's Sarah Jane was far too independent and cheeky to mesh with the fatherly Pertwee. They didn't have any chemistry at all. It's a good thing Pertwee left after her first season or I suspect Sarah Jane would not have hung around the Tardis for quite as long.

My crush on Elisabeth Sladen was long forgotten when I saw her appear once again as Sarah Jane in the new Dr. Who. It didn't take long, however, for those fond feelings to return. I thought the new team did a wonderful job of fleshing out Sarah Jane's character and exploring all those emotional bonds she had with the Doctor which the original series never dared touch on. It was a great episode and I thought how fun it would be to see her come back in a new series. Apparently, the BBC felt the same way and introduced The Sarah Jane Adventures the following year. Aimed primarily at children, I was less than thrilled with the results, but it was nice to see her back on TV.

Just a few days ago, I watched Genesis of the Daleks on DVD and listened to the audio commentary featuring Tom Baker, director David Maloney, and Elisabeth Sladen. I couldn't help but laugh at her child-like enthusiasm for everything that was happening in the story. While Tom Baker said very little, only chiming in occasion to make a well-timed witticism, Sladen rattled off constant details about the production and seemed to be able to name everyone, including the extras. It was so much fun to have her in my home, so to speak. And now she's gone. I lament that I will never hear her cry out "Doctor! Doctor!" ever again.

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