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On the Passing of Doctor Who‘s Elisabeth Sladen

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I remember my first episodes of Doctor Who so well. I was about seven when I learned the trick of turning the antenna. On good days, if you pointed in the right direction, you could pick-up the Orlando station in addition to normal local stations.

One Sunday afternoon, I did the usual rotary move (by hand as we couldn’t afford one of the fancy mechanical turners) and found the strangest thing. It caught my attention straight away. In brilliantly clear black and white (once again all we could afford in the mid-’70s) I caught a riff of a bizarre theme, slightly like a theremin. The first scene I ever saw was with the crazy-curled coif of Jon Pertwee’s opera cloak-clad Doctor and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith.

For more than three years (1973-1976), whether it was Pertwee, or Tom Baker and his never-unending scarf, Sarah Jane was always there, steadfast and unflinching as she ran around the various BBC gravel-pits that served as stand-in alien planets. For many Doctor Who fans, Sarah Jane was the ultimate companion. Being cute didn’t hurt either.

But, Sarah Jane wasn’t your typical sex object. In the age of women’s liberation, she was an independent women who survived by her wits. It was often her role to play the rational foil to the Doctor’s off the planet nuttiness. For that, she became more than just a companion. For a generation of sci-fi obsessed geeks, she became an icon.

That might have been enough, but the story doesn’t end there. In the years after 1976, Sladen made various guest appearances, most notably in several episodes of the re-revived series. There was such a positive reaction to these appearances that she was asked to star in a Doctor Who universe spin-off called The Sarah Jane Adventures. Looking nothing like a 60-something (she looked great), she introduced a whole new generation of sci-fi lovers to the character of Sarah Jane Smith, intrepid reporter and time-traveler. At the time I am writing these, my teen daughters (and yes they are sci-fi geeks too) will not have awoken to the news of Sladen’s passing. When they do, they will be greatly saddened by the passing of someone who gave so many hours of brilliant entertainment. It is now small measure of her acting achievement that I will always hope in my heart of hearts my daughters grow up to be just a little like the unstoppable, unshakable Sarah Jane.

Rest in peace, Elisabeth Sladen (1948-2011).

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About Jerald Cumbus