I was saddened to hear that Elisabeth Sladen passed away today.
Back in the 70s, she played Sarah Jane Smith: one of the most iconic companions from the decades of the original run of Doctor Who. Sarah Jane eventually got her own spinoff show, many years later, but I always thought she belonged in the TARDIS.
Sarah Jane was the human character on Doctor Who whom I most admired when I was 5 years old. She got to ride around in a time machine with her friend the alien, and she had all sorts of gross adventures with people covered in slime and brains in jars and one time she even got replaced with an android that looked just like her. Sure, she almost got killed on a regular basis, but overall it seemed like her life was amazingly cool. I wanted to take her place.
It’s possible the travails of Sarah Jane Smith gave me a slightly unrealistic notion of life as an adult.
I’ve said this elsewhere, but Doctor Who was (clearly) a major influence on my highly suggestible child brain, and Elisabeth Sladen was a huge part of that. After I came home from my first day of kindergarten, I discovered Doctor Who on our local PBS station. It was showing The Ark in Space that week. And as soon as Sarah Jane Smith saw the guy covered in slime (or whatever that was supposed to be, it was a little confusing at first (hey, I was 5 years old, cut me some slack)) I knew this was something wonderful.
For me, the Tom Baker/Elisabeth Sladen years will always be the Golden Age of Doctor Who.
I still remember the episode when she said goodbye to the Doctor and left the TARDIS behind—it made me so sad that the Doctor accidentally dropped her off in the wrong place. (And for years after that, I really worried that he might have dropped her off in the wrong time, too. It was a time machine, after all. I’m not kidding about the worry. It seriously ate at me.) Many years later, Sladen broke my heart when her character returned for a one-off episode of the new series, where she meets the Doctor again (though neither of the Doctors she knew back in the day). “I waited for you,” she says. “But you never came back.”
Often, and unfortunately, the show relegated Sladen’s character to a damsel in distress. Even as a kid that bothered me because Sarah Jane was clearly capable of more. I loved her interactions with Sergeant Benton and the Brigadier at UNIT. I always wanted her to get to do more stuff, because she was the proxy for me the viewer. Charlie Jane Anders over at io9 puts it right in saying that Sladen helped to pave the way for the more modern Doctor Who companions of the new series.
I admit I never got in to the Sarah Jane Adventures, even though I liked knowing she was still out there, and no longer waiting for the Doctor to save her from week to week.