I’m sitting here, shaking my head in disbelief. It can’t be true. I don’t want it to be true. It isn’t true. Elisabeth Sladen has died, and a little piece of the world – a little piece of the world that was somehow better for having her in it – has died with her.
If you’re a Doctor Who fan, you’ll know that we argue about *everything*. It’s part of the fun of being a fan of such a wide-ranging, all embracing format. I like this bit. You don’t. You love this. I can’t stand it. We all loved Lis. Every last one of us, I think. The outpouring of grief on the internet tonight is overwhelming. I’m shedding a quiet tear tonight, something I almost never do. I may feel saddened by the passing of an actor, a musician, a writer. Very, very rarely does it get to me to the extent that this has. Lis meant the world to us.
Sarah Jane (or Sarah-Jane? I’m never too sure) first entered our lives just as the Third Doctor was leaving. Lis debuted in “The Time Warrior”, the first story of the final Jon Pertwee season. She hit the ground running. She never stopped. Through the golden years Sarah was there. She saw out the Third Doctor, and saw in the Fourth. The rapport she shared with Jon was special. The rapport she shared with Tom Baker was spectacular. If ever you want a template for how to do Doctor Who and make it work, there it is. A crazy, charismatic madman and his best mate, rampaging across the universe and having adventures. Taking us along with them and letting us share the fun.
When we were young, it was ok to be scared. It was fine, because Tom and Lis were there to reassure us that everything would work out. When Ian Marter joined they were unstoppable. Just pause for a moment and think back on just how many Doctor Who moments you remember from your childhood. I can guarantee you that Lis was involved in a huge proportion of them. Wirrn, Sontarans, the Birth of the Daleks. Zygons. Anti-Matter Monsters. Sutekh. Chop-Suey, the Galactic Emperor. Malignant plant life. A stone hand, coming to life. All Lis. All wonderful.
She somehow transcended the idea of the Doctor Who companion, becoming The Doctor Who companion. A lot of great actors have done a lot of great work in Doctor Who. No-one ever came close to matching Lis. She was the greatest of the great, the yardstick against which everyone else was measured.
Even after she left, Lis seemed to work her way into the national psyche. She could go years between appearances and every time she came back, she needed no introduction. We knew who Sarah was. Even people who weren’t dedicated viewers, who just dipped in and out – somehow, they knew.
Even in K9 and Company, she somehow sailed through with dignity. “A Girl’s Best Friend” is quite possibly one of the stupidest, frothiest concoctions ever served up on a national TV channel. Does Lis give the impression that she’s anything less than dedicated? She does not. She gets the lion’s share of the companion role in “The Five Doctors”, teamed up again with Jon as if it were mere days since they’d last worked together. Once again, the old magic radiates from the screen.
The magic’s there as well in the audio plays she did with the old team in the nineties. The scripts are dodgy as hell, it’s fair to say that they’re not the greatest examples of Doctor Who you’ll ever hear. Now though, I’ll treasure them. They allow me to spend a little more precious time with old friends. Old friends who I didn’t realise I missed as much as I do, now they’re gone. Jon, Lis, Nick, Barry. All gone now.
We grew up with Sarah. It’s fair to say that she grew up with us. When she reappeared in “School Reunion” she was subtly different. Older, wearier, but still our Sarah. Big Finish had done some sterling work with the character in two audio series not long before. Although the events in those series don’t directly tie in with “School Reunion”, some of the character’s new-found attitude carries through. She’s steelier. Less willing to suffer fools. When she’s confronted with the Doctor again, she makes you damn well believe that this is the same man that she romped through the mid-seventies with. Somehow, Sarah becomes the touchstone for the entire series. If Sarah believes it’s true, you’d damn well better believe it as well.
And then – I still can’t believe this happened – Lis did it again. To be the heroine for an entire generation wasn’t enough. She came back stronger than ever, with the magnificent Sarah Jane Adventures. A protective, maternal figure. Picking up where the Doctor left off, looking after the world and having amazing adventures with her willing team of young sidekicks. For four seasons she held us enthralled all over again, even those of us who were well outside the target age. D’you think I was going to miss the chance of new Sarah Jane? On the BBC? Knocking over the opposition, all over again?Try and stop me.
Last year Russell T Davies gave us a beautiful eulogy for companions past and present as he sampled Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor into the SJAs along with Katy Manning as Jo Grant. Lis barely participated in the main thrust of the action. She didn’t have to. She was there, and she was secure in the knowledge that we knew she was the greatest of them all. Perfectly ok to step aside and let someone else hog the limelight. We knew who was boss.
The best possible tribute to her will appear on Saturday night. The show she enriched so much for so long is back for another run, as Doctor Who stampedes back onto Saturday nights. Matt, Karen and Arthur are the nearest we’ll ever get to Tom, Lis and Ian, and it makes me smile to think that in some small way all that great work all those years ago echoes down to today.
Now, she’s gone. Doctor Who is rightly cherished for the way the format can stretch and shift. Things change, and things can be replaced. There was only ever one Lis, though, and one Sarah-Jane. She was unique. I loved her. If you watched Doctor Who at all, You loved her. The performances all remain of course, but it’ll be bittersweet for a while to revisit them. Not for long though. It’ll melt away eventually and be replaced with a deep-seated love, affection and gratitude to a woman who gave us everything. So long ago. So many adventures, never ending. She’s out there somewhere now. Saving the world from a base in Bannerman Road. She always will be. Just close your eyes and imagine.