I was born and raised during a time when there was no Doctor Who on television. As a child of 1997, I was 8 years old when it returned to our screens and I only discovered its existence by coincidence. My family were on a trip to a small Scottish island at the time and, as often happens on a Saturday evening, we found ourselves flicking through the television channels. I can’t remember if we were waiting for a show on BBC 1 to air, but this is where we arrived on the 18th of June 2005 as The Ninth Doctor defeated the Daleks and exploded in a radiant display of flames. By the time the first series with The Tenth Doctor began the following year, I had learned everything I could about this fascinating entity through magazines and fact books and I very quickly came to love the dumb little show about time travel and aliens. The show has gone through ups and downs since then, but I’m still here and committing that cardinal sin of believing the show was better back in my day.
When School Reunion aired on the 29th of April 2006, I was aware of Sarah Jane Smith but my knowledge mainly consisted of her being a companion to The Fourth Doctor who everybody loved. This episode was the first time I was properly introduced to her character, and to Elizabeth Sladen- the actress who portrayed her. Here was a companion who The Doctor had hurt, who felt abandoned by him, and the show didn’t hold back in talking about it. Sarah Jane had become a hardened investigative reporter, partly in the hopes of finding him again, and that was really cool to me. I left that episode wanting to spend more time with her. In 2007, I got my wish.
Once again, my family was on holiday. We had gone stay with my Grandma in the central Scottish belt, as we did every year, and I was perfectly aware that the first episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures was due to air while we were there. Despite not getting my interest in the show, my family let me watch it, and for a whole hour I followed the wonderful Sarah Jane as she embarked on a new journey and made new friends. The excitement level when it was announced that this show (and the more adult spinoff show Torchwood) were going to cross over for the Series 4 finale of Doctor Who cannot be overstated. I had gotten completely sucked in to the Whoniverse over those few years and this was the culmination of all those shows existing at the same time. It was my very first shared universe, and that concept has gone on to be quite the special interest for me. There was a hype around this show that, I feel, was only seen again with the 50th anniversary episode in 2013, and I don’t think words could explain what it was like to experience it at the time. There is a weight behind every single character in this finale, but especially from Elizabeth Sladen. Her ferocity when challenged, her terror at hearing the Daleks and her grief of realising what she had to lose really finalised how much I love acting.
The Sarah Jane Adventures would continue, and Sarah Jane herself would reappear for The Tenth Doctor’s swansong in 2010, but what happened next made all those moments so much more special. On the 19th of April 2011, exactly ten years ago, Elizabeth Sladen passed away. As was my weekly plan, I was at my Grandad’s after school watching whatever re-run was on television. My Uncle had returned and it was then that he informed me of her passing. I didn’t believe him at first, and I think that’s because I really didn’t want to. I’d never met Elizabeth Sladen, but Sarah Jane Smith had been an integral part of my life for 5 years, and I didn’t know how I was going to cope now that she was gone. We’d buried my Grandpa the previous year, so I’d already dealt with death, but this was the very first time that a celebrity I cared about had gone. She was 65 and that is far too young.
That final series of The Sarah Jane Adventures was halfway through production, and those 3 stories would be broadcast over a 6 episode run, but there was a real sense of bitter sweetness surrounding them. This was the last time we would ever see or hear anything new from Elizabeth Sladen, and that final episode ends with a voiceover from her cut together from unused Series 1 dialogue. I look back on that show with such a massive amount of fondness because that was my Sarah Jane. There is an entire generation that grew up with her as a companion, but there are an equal portion of us who grew up with her through the new era, and it doesn’t matter which one you are. Both generations loved her and both generations miss her terribly.
On the ninth anniversary of her passing, showrunner Russel T. Davies penned a loving tribute episode that, due to a global pandemic, was shot by individual actors from individual homes. Farewell, Sarah Jane brought together everybody that Elizabeth Sladen had worked with through the Whoniverse, and in character, they attended the funeral of Sarah Jane Smith. Even all these years later, she is still making a difference.
Elizabeth Sladen deserves every single letter of affection being penned today and in the years to come.
This is mine.