A tear, Sarah Jane?
Yes, this is a movie blog. But before movies – and after movies, if I’m honest – there was Doctor Who.
For me, it’s the ultimate example of what they call motion pictures, despite being mostly recorded in multi-camera video on tiny, cramped sets for next to no money. Because it moved – further and faster than any other film, or TV show, or novel has ever done. Past, present, future. Alien planets, foreign countries, the chippy down the road. People came and went; even the lead character changed. But the format was unassailable: go anywhere, do anything.
The smaller the budget, the greater the likelihood that there would be an insanely ambitious monster that couldn’t possibly be realised. It didn’t matter. Because Doctor Who‘s virtues were those of my favourite movies. Character, wit, imagination. So, even though I’m a member of the Star Wars generation, I’m not particularly a sci-fi fan. I’m a fan of writing and directing and acting that dares to achieve beyond its means. It’ll always be the indie flick over the blockbuster for me, and that isn’t me trying to be a hipster, it’s because that’s what Doctor Who taught me to look for – the substance, not the surface.
There is one period in Doctor Who’s history, above all others, that embodies this ethos. Between 1974 and 1977, producer Philip Hinchcliffe and head writer Robert Holmes re-invented a frothy family entertainment into probably the best drama on television. They did this by:
– a) pilfering classic horror movies to scare the shit out of children – King Kong, Frankenstein, The Thing From Another World…
– b) shoving the sometimes clumsy moralising of earlier creative teams into the fabric of the action, for rounded, complex psychology and subtext;
– c) hiring the best young guns working at the BBC… and we’re talking about people of the calibre of costume designer James Acheson, who would go on to win three Oscars for the likes of The Last Emperor.
– and d) making the Doctor and his companion (previously mad scientist and dolly bird) into a Bohemian anti-authoritarian agitator and a crusading journalist.
The Doctor was Tom Baker, and you probably don’t need me to tell you about him. The companion was Sarah Jane Smith, played with such commitment, charm and intelligence by Elisabeth Sladen that she became the archetypal companion. Yes, she screamed. Yes, she was unusually prone to hypnotism. Yes, she once wore an outfit that made her look like Andy Pandy. But she was brave, she was resourceful, she was pro-active, and she had a devil of a tongue on her when somebody treated her like a fool. (Intriguingly, this was the only period in Doctor Who history when both Doctor and companion were Scousers, and their natural sarcasm shines through.) It is a verifiable scientific fact that there is at least one Sarah Jane Smith story in every Doctor Who fan’s all-time top 10.
Lis Sladen was mesmering, and I was always disappointed that she never appeared to have the career she deserved. (Of course, what I didn’t know was that she had the career she wanted, on stage – it’s hard for a child of television to countenance that some actors don’t need a primetime profile to thrive.) And greater minds than mine thought the same. So it was that Russell T. Davies invited Sladen back to play Sarah Jane Smith again – not as a ‘nod to the past’ for the fanboys but a living, breathing presence. Her return in School Reunion remains one of the series’ most emotional, meta-textual moments, a story about the passing of time, and its regrets and memories, but also the realisation that even fictional characters must get on with their lives when the cameras stop rolling.
Sladen was so good, so undimmed in the quality of performance, that a new generation of kids naturally fell in love with her. She got her own show on CBBC, a spin-off as wild and witty and unpatronising as Doctor Who was before it became a national treasure. A kids’ show about a 60-year-old woman getting to live those old dreams of fighting aliens all over again! It’s a stern rebuke to our society’s ageism, and one of the great TV comebacks.
And now she’s gone, aged 63 (the same age as my parents, there’s a sobering thought) and the news, and Twitter, are awash with tributes and genuine sadness. Because she wasn’t just another Doctor Who girl. She was Sarah Jane Smith, braver than Ellen Ripley, funnier than Annie Hall, lovelier than Holly Golighty.
Yes, this is a movie blog, but before movie stars there was Lis Sladen. RIP.