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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Goodbye, My Sarah Jane

I feel like I've stolen my title from at least a half dozen other sources, including my friend Kathleen, bu t to be honest I'd completely forgotten David Tennant's line from the "School Reunion" episo de that reintroduced Elisabeth Sladen's Sarah Jane Smith into the world of Doctor Who. Before that I just had the phrase "Goodbye, Sarah Jane" in my head which was leading my brain into futile attempts to rewrite a certain Elton John song (which really doesn't need a third rewrite). Couple that with the fact that I was saying to myself "I've lost my Sarah Jane" and I realized I had to let originality be damned. It doesn't matter if everyone else is using it as their lead line, it's the most appropriate line for my piece as well. After all, the very first Doctor Who story I ever saw was "The Hand of Fear" so if Tom Baker is My Doctor, then truly Sarah Jane is My Companion. Though I went on to enjoy the adventures of Leela and Romana, Sarah Jane, who was also a part of my introduction to Daleks and Cybermen, remained an important part of my fondness for the Doctor Who mythos.

I suppose the new series is a bit to blame for the tears that flowed yesterday, and I don't mean that poetically, I mean my tears. I'm sure I still would have been saddened to lose her, it's just that Doctor Who had sort of slid into a corner of my mind reserved for fond memories. I still had a bit of nostalgia for the TARDIS and Daleks and the like, but they belonged more to my past than my present. Then the new series started and as I developed a fondness for Christopher Eccleston's Doctor my enthusiasm for the world of Time Lords was not only reawakened, it reached levels it never had before.

Unlike now when we're actually getting to see new episodes on the very same day they're broadcast in the United Kingdom, when the show returned there was a sizable delay between their initial broadcast and their American debut. (No, I did not go the illegal download route.) My eagerness between episodes often led me to the internet, but spoilers often lie in wait on the internet. (We only get Eccleston for one series?) But sometimes those spoilers gave me something to anticipate as my enjoyment of the new show and my nostalgia for the old one began to collide. Daleks! Next week there's an episode with a Dalek! What? Next series there's an episode called "The Rise of the Cybermen"! But what's this? Before the Cybermen, something even bigger: Elisabeth Sladen returns as Sarah Jane Smith!

I think for many of the long term fans this was a major moment. Daleks, Cybermen and even our beloved TARDIS, when you get down to it, are merely props and costumes. (No disrespect to voice actor Nicholas Briggs or the operators.) But here was the flesh and blood return of possibly the most popular companion the Doctor ever had. A humbling experience for the show's star, yet long time fan David Tennant who said, "That was a particular thrill for me having grown up watching Elisabeth Sladen, to suddenly be in a read-through with her calling me the Doctor." As, then showrunner, Russel T. Davies put it "Sarah Jane was.. the biggest step in... saying this is the same program as the old series."

And it was a great episode. One of those stories where the monsters, while themselves engaging, take a back seat to the human drama. A story where in meeting a past companion, the current one gets a glimpse at her possible future. And if it had stopped there, I'm sure we, as fans would have been satisfied. Who would have thought in 2004 that not only would we shortly see the return of Elisabeth Sladen in a new episode of Doctor Who, but it would lead to her own successful series featuring the character we'd loved so much in the seventies.

I found myself very happy for Elisabeth Sladen. It's not easy for any actress to maintain a career as they get older and such triumphant comebacks are quite rare. Amidst the popularity of The Sarah Jane Adventures she returned for what would be her final major appearance on Doctor Who and I remember being thrilled for her as "The Stolen Earth" began and for the first time in her nearly forty year history with the show, her name was in the opening titles. And I was proud to see in the last reader's poll of Doctor Who Magazine that she still was being voted the Favorite Companion. My Companion. Still number one.

And all of this probably contributed to why I found myself crying yesterday afternoon. I received my first notice by cellphone on Twitter from Neil Gaiman. It seemed uncertain. Another from Doctor Who Magazine that seemed far too certain, but still I was in denial. This had to be wrong. But by the time I was seated at my computer and Googling her name it became undeniable. And it's only been five years. Five years seems like such a short time to bring this success story to an end. Five years since she was brought full front into our consciousness again and then she was snatched away with little or no warning. Of course for her that lack of warning was probably a blessing; she got to depart on her own terms without a surge of publicity surrounding her. I'm told they didn't even know she was ill on the set of her show.

I kind of got lost in cyberspace yesterday as I sat there watching the outpouring of love for this woman across sites like Twitter and Facebook. Among all the fans, the likes of Tom Baker, Colin Baker, Russell T. Davies, Steven Moffat, John Barrowman, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Noel Clarke, Nicola Bryant, Murray Gold and Stephen Fry weighed in with their own reactions. Friends' reactions began to trickle through. Then I was reminded of another Sarah Jane line: "You know, you act like such a lonely man, but look at you! You've got the biggest family on Earth!" Liz, I doubt you were lonely, but judging from what I saw yesterday, that's quite a family you've got there.

One last note to the writers and producers of Doctor Who, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures: I understand a handful of episodes were shot for a fifth series of The Sarah Jane Adventures. By all means, broadcast them, and let it end there. Don't write an episode or a line for any of the shows referring to the passing away of Sarah Jane Smith. Just let her go on having adventures with Luke, Clyde, Rani, Maria, Mr. Smith and K-9 even if we don't get to see them. Liz may be gone, but let Sarah Jane live on. Noel Clarke put it quite well yesterday on Twitter: "#SARAHJANESMITHLIVES because Elisabeth Sladen made her Great. -Liz, you were awesome and will be missed. (no more to be said tonight) NC".

Eleven Doctors. Only one Sarah Jane.

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