Even though the new series starts on Saturday, the world of Doctor Who is a somber place today. Elisabeth Sladen, the actress most well-known for playing Sarah Jane Smith, has passed away. It was an unexpected shock for fans, and the loss is felt deeply across multiple generations.
I’ve said before that I come from a family of Doctor Who fans. My mother has often mentioned that while her first Doctor was Pertwee, more importantly, her first companion was Sarah Jane Smith. You see, Sarah Jane provided the consistency, the normalcy, after the shock of regeneration and a new, wild Doctor. And it didn’t hurt that she was just plain likable; she was a favorite companion of many, regardless of when they began watching the show.
Years later, the show Doctor Who was regenerated itself; brand-new actors, music, TARDIS, everything. It was ostensibly in the same universe as the original show, but no one could deny there were major differences: no Gallifrey, Daleks that “questioned themselves,” and a grittier, more modern feel. A bit of regeneration shock was to be expected.
And in the second season of the new show, Sarah Jane returned. Once again, she brought consistency, legitimacy. For many long-time viewers, it was like having a trusted friend endorse someone new. Yes, logically we’d known this was the same Doctor as Hartnell, Baker and all the others, but now finally there was a tangible merging of the old and the new.
Meanwhile, a new spinoff was created, The Sarah Jane Adventures, and new viewers were discovering just why Sarah Jane Smith was such a popular companion in the first place. Actress Elisabeth Sladen had always had charisma and charm as Sarah Jane; now, as a mature woman, she carried a bit of wisdom along with the familiar fun. For young and old viewers alike, she was someone who represented safety from the monsters of the world, as well as the courage to confront and defeat them. She even managed to have fun on the way; still, perhaps even more so than the Doctor, Sarah Jane was secure, dependable. She was everyone’s fun sister or aunt. She was home.
I have no words for the loss of Elisabeth Sladen, other than that it feels unbelievable. I’m dreading the call to my mother – my mother, who is only a few years younger than Sladen herself, is probably feeling this on an entirely different level. And that’s just it – while every Doctor Who fan is experiencing their grief in a different way, on a different level, it’s undeniable that almost every Doctor Who fan is feeling grief. Because Elisabeth Sladen was just one of those people who managed to reach everyone.