Elisabeth Sladen, who played Sarah Jane Smith on the BBC TV series Doctor Who and on The Sarah Jane Adventures, died of cancer yesterday.
The fictional character of Sarah Jane Smith had a huge influence on my life. It was all tied up with Doctor Who, of course, but even more than the Doctor, Sarah Jane inspired me. Discovering Doctor Who opened up a whole world to me during my teens, and was the first step that led me to my first magazine publication in high school, my college major in physics, my career in journalism. It did more: geeking about the show also led me to my husband and many of my friends.
The Doctor was the hero of the show. But he was also ancient, alien, and dangerous. One could love him, but never really know him, nor ever aspire to be him. Sarah Jane, though…. I could be her. I could be like Sarah Jane if I was brave and good and curious, if I took the risk to explore and question and push instead of staying home, instead of staying quiet, instead of staying complacent. Sometimes Sarah Jane screamed in the face of peril. Sometimes she screamed a lot, but as the years have gone by, I’ve forgiven her that. Sometimes screaming is the healthy response. And she didn’t just scream. She also did stuff that was necessary and useful.
When the Doctor dumped her at the end of “Hand of Fear” it was one of the first times I understood that bad things sometimes happen to good people. Her resilience gave me a model for coping with my own, considerably smaller, challenges in school. When she came back in “School Reunion” and confronted the Doctor, she also provided a model of grace. She forgave him, but didn’t forget what he did, what he was capable of, and she didn’t dull the sharp edges of her judgment for nostalgia’s sake. I loved The Sarah Jane Adventures, I thought the show was the best thing ever: Sarah Jane had come into her own as the hero, using her tools and judgment, with brave assistants to help. And I loved that she solved problems using sonic lipstick and a supercomputer, rather than a gun and a fast car, or even a time-and-space ship.
My life would have been different, and poorer, without Sarah Jane Smith. And for that, I mourn the passing of Elisabeth Sladen.