Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Elisabeth Sladen, 1946-2011

On Tuesday night I saw a rumour over the Internet that I hoped wasn’t true. It was that Elisabeth Sladen, famous for playing the role of Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who and spin-offs, on and off, for over thirty years, had died at the age of 65,* which frankly, is no age at all. A few hours later, it was obviously true. The first thing I could think of to say was “No!” It’s been a long time since a celebrity death upset me to this degree.

Sarah Jane Smith was for me, as she was for David Tennant when he was growing up, the Doctor Who girl. She has long been one of the most popular companions in the show’s history. Part of this is the result of timing; Sarah Jane was a companion in the Pertwee and Tom Baker eras, when the show’s popularity was at its height. Part of it is the length of time Sladen stayed with Who; she first appeared in December 1973, in the first story of Season Eleven (The Time Warrior), and left at the end of 1976, in the middle of Season Fourteen (The Hand of Fear). As a result, Sarah Jane was the companion for a longer time period than any other non-Doctor series regular apart from Tegan Jovanka, if one excludes the various UNIT personnel. (Tegan was companion from February 1981 to March 1984, but only appeared in 69 episodes, as opposed to Sarah’s 80; shifting transmission dates and the fact that Tegan arrived at the end of Season Eighteen and left in the middle of Season Twenty-One meant that her less than three seasons equivalent was stretched out over a longer period than Sarah’s three and a third seasons. Because the first six seasons broadcast almost all year round, Sladen does not have as many episodes to her name as Frazer Hines [113], in the role of Jamie McCrimmon, another popular companion who returned to the show some years after his original departure.) Sladen was even on the show, in terms of actual broadcast period and/or episodes made, longer than some Doctors (e.g. Patrick Troughton and Peter Davison).

And finally, between them producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks came up with an excellent character, an independent woman who, whilst clearly the junior partner in the Doctor’s adventures, was nevertheless a partner. And they then cast, in Sladen, an excellent actress who had obvious onscreen chemistry with Jon Pertwee, and later, even more so with Tom Baker.

Young girls looked to Sarah as a role model, but as Nicholas has said, it wasn’t just young girls. The following is partly a rewritten version of an article published this time last year, in Lilian Edwards’ fanzine The End of Time sorry Fanzines (Part 2), entitled “‘There’s nothing “only” about being a girl’: or, how Doctor Who made me a feminist”.

In one of life’s little ironies, I found myself writing the article the day after International Women’s Day. Actually, as it was early morning, I suppose in some places it still was International Women’s Day – Hawaii, for instance. But I wasn’t in Hawaii; I was in Kent.

I like to think of myself as a feminist. Some may say that, as a man, I can’t be. I don’t accept that. As someone wrote in a Guardian article a couple of years or so ago (and no, I can’t find it now), feminism is an ideological slant, not tied to any particular biological sex. I can be a feminist because I believe in the equality of women with men. This doesn’t mean that I am incapable of saying or doing sexist things. I was brought up as a male in a patriarchal society, so inevitably my ideals and my upbringing are in conflict with one another, and sometimes the latter will win. That isn’t an excuse, by the way – if you see me being a male chauvinist pig, then you have every right to call me on it. I’m just saying that I think it’s easier to deal with my inner sexist if I acknowledge that he’s there – the major thing I learnt from RaceFail ’09 (a massive row across the Internet about the representation of Persons of Colour and other minorities in science fiction) was that an awful lot of problems are caused by white liberals who deceive themselves into thinking that they have set aside their privilege, and get very upset when it’s pointed out that this isn’t so.

(Don’t worry, this will eventually have something to do with Sarah Jane Smith and Doctor Who. Pretty soon now.)

There are a number of factors that brought about my feminism. One is my general opposition to unfairness in all its forms (which I suspect derives ultimately from being bullied at school). One is that the girls were nicer to me at primary school than the boys (see above). One is that, after my father died in 1975, I was in a family environment that was dominated by strong women – my mother, my grandmother, and two aunts (my grandfather kept himself to himself mostly, and my uncle moved away, first to Morecambe and then to the United States). One is reading The Guardian at a very young age, and the “Naked Ape” section that then used to grace the women’s page, where egregious examples of sexism were exposed mercilessly (I wonder sometimes if the fact that The Guardian no longer has this feature is a contributory factor in the slow return of such egregiousness).

And another factor was Doctor Who, and specifically, Sarah Jane Smith (told you).

My mother used to watch Doctor Who with me on her knee, so I can recall a couple of Patrick Troughton episodes (including episode seven of Evil of the Daleks [1968], long since missing from the BBC’s archives). With the Jon Pertwee colour episodes in 1970, Doctor Who became something I watched through my own volition. And in 1973, as my views of the world were starting to form in my nine-year-old head, Doctor Who gave us a new companion. Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elisabeth Sladen.

Sarah Jane Smith was conceived to reflect the strength of feminism in wider western culture in the 1970s. This was the time of “second-wave feminism”, when the terms “feminist” and “feminism” came into common usage. Germaine Greer published The Female Eunuch in 1970, and stories of bra burning (which later turned out to be apocryphal) permeated the news media. It’s not surprising that Doctor Who should reflect those cultural developments.

Despite what is sometimes suggested, early Doctor Who didn’t have that bad a record for presenting capable, independent women, at least in the general context of the times. Barbara Wright was a history teacher, Sara Kingdom a security agent, Zoe Herriot a brilliant mathematician and Liz Shaw a Cambridge Professor. But for every Sara, Zoe or Liz, there was a Susan or a Dodo or a Polly, a girl who stood around, screamed at monsters and didn’t do much useful (and yes, I know that is unfair on all three). Sarah’s immediate predecessor was Jo Grant, who was, frankly, a bit wet. She was a member of UNIT, and supposedly had been trained as an agent – yet she spent a lot of time knocking things over and being sent to make the tea. In fairness, she got better in later stories, producing skeleton keys when the Doctor needed them in Carnival of Monsters (1973), or resisting the Master’s hypnosis in Frontier in Space (1973). But producer Barry Letts recognised that the presentation of the female companions was open to charges of sexism, and took action in an attempt to rectify this.

That action was the creation of Sarah Jane Smith, a freelance investigative journalist, who was very much her own woman, and was not afraid of challenging the imposed gender limitations that she saw around her. Of course, she was a feminist created by men, and subsequently written exclusively by men, at least through the 1970s – so undoubtedly they got things wrong about her. And, as the years went on, she became less impressive, as her role was hemmed in by the essential restrictions of the companion (who has to be someone to whom the Doctor can explain the plot, and who can advance that plot by getting in positions of peril from which the Doctor can rescue her). SF and Fantasy author Kari Sperring has told me that she never liked Sarah.

I thought, and still think, she was brilliant. Take, for example, The Monster of Peladon, a story from Sarah’s first season, broadcast in 1974. This is not a story that has a particularly good reputation. It is generally seen as a poor retread of 1972’s Curse of Peladon, with added unsubtle allegory about the 1973 miners’ dispute, which by the time of broadcast had developed into a full-blown strike, and ridiculous badger wigs for the supporting cast. This is a view that overall I think is justified, but the story does have some wonderful stuff for Sarah. Not so much the lecture about feminism that she delivers to Queen Thalira of Peladon, from which I drew the title quote for the original article; what Sarah says here is rather hectoring and cringe-inducing, and obviously a male view of what a feminist ought to say. But in Part Five, the Doctor is believed killed. Sarah is upset about this, but doesn’t just wander around in a state of shock. There’s still a crisis going on, and Sarah essentially takes over in the Doctor’s absence, leading the good guys, and chivvying them along. It’s Sarah who comes up with a plan. When the Doctor reappears, he doesn’t say that she has done wrong, or make her look foolish. He just picks the reins back up, apparently safe in the knowledge that his deputy has looked after things in his absence. He doesn’t even patronise her. This is quite astonishing for the Pertwee Doctor, who patronises everybody (in one glorious moment in Day of the Daleks [1972], a temporary time loop allows him to patronise himself!). It is indicative of how the dynamic between Doctor and companion changed with Sarah’s arrival. Indeed, all through this story, which I’ve just watched again, Sarah makes it quite clear that she isn’t going to let the Doctor get away with his patriarchal nonsense, and gives as good as she gets.

In the Tom Baker period, Sarah continued to be a trusted partner of the Doctor. She was never in charge, of course (the show is called Doctor Who, after all). But it is, for instance, Sarah that fires the shot to detonate the explosives that should (and eventually do) blow up Sutekh’s rocket in Pyramids of Mars (1975). Pyramids of Mars is actually an excellent showcase for Sarah, for the way she and the Doctor work as a team, for Sladen’s performance and for her chemistry with Tom Baker; and it is, special effects aside, every bit as good as anything that has gone out under the Doctor Who brand since 2005.

I realise I’ve been talking about Sarah Jane Smith here, not Elisabeth Sladen. But then I didn’t know Lis Sladen; I knew Sarah. Of course, Sarah would be nothing without Lis Sladen’s performance. In a very real sense, at least to the viewers, Sladen was Sarah Jane, so much so that it was jarring to see her in anything else, such as playing a shopkeeper in Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, as Michael Crawford unfunnily demolished the shop around her. For me, it probably also helped that she was a northerner; under her received pronunciation tones there flowed a foundation of pure Scouse.

Through three and a half years, I found Sarah inspirational. I wanted to know feisty, intelligent, capable women like that. Despite what some friends have assumed, I’ve never, as far as I can recall, had overt romantic or sexual feelings about Sarah Jane Smith (or Lis Sladen). Sex wasn’t part of Sarah’s appeal – the one time she wore a (very modest and proper) two-piece swimsuit, at the beginning of Death to the Daleks, it actually seemed rather incongruous. Sarah was more of a big sister type to me. But I suppose that she has something to do with my attraction in adulthood to intelligent, capable, independent women, one of whom I have since married. (And probably my inclination towards short brunettes - though actually I always thought of Sarah as taller than she was, perhaps because she acted taller, i.e with authority.)

The other thing about Sarah is that her relationship with the Doctor showed me that men and women could be friends, without there having to be Unspoken Sexual Tension. The sort of close, but non-romantic, relationship that the Doctor and Sarah had is rarely seen on television. Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman decided that Steed and Cathy Gale would have a non-romantic relationship in The Avengers (though that didn’t stop viewers wondering if there was anything going on, and later relations between Steed and his female associates had more obvious romantic undertones). Apart from that I can think of few examples, and they are even fewer today. I thought the new Battlestar Galactica missed a trick when, having made Starbuck a woman, the creators then didn’t leave the Starbuck/Apollo relationship as just the same sort of friendship it had been in the first series; they had to introduce a sexual element. I think this is a shame, and doesn’t reflect reality, or at least my reality, where some of my closest friendships have been platonic ones with women. I’ve never been much of one for hanging out with the lads.

I didn’t much care for Leela, Sarah Jane’s replacement. Oh yes, two of her stories, Robots of Death (1977) and Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977), are amongst the very best that the show has ever broadcast. But Leela herself annoyed me. Of course, part of the problem was that she wasn’t Sarah. But beyond that, whilst she was another capable strong woman, she seemed to need to express that strength through exposing lots of cleavage and thigh. She always struck me as more of a Red Sonja-style male fantasy character.

Given everything I’ve written above, you can imagine how pleased I was that Sarah was returning to Doctor Who in 2006, in “School Reunion”. And you might have some notion of how disappointed I was when Russell T Davies, who feels that placing a man and a woman on screen together automatically signals a love story, chose to construe the relationship between Sarah and the Doctor in those terms, and to portray her as a woman lessened by the lack of a man and children in her life. Lilian Edwards may be right that this hits an emotional truth about 40-something women who have lived life to the full and then find themselves single and childless, and this does seem to have been what attracted Sladen back to the role, though others would say this is Davies, as he often does, constructing middle-aged women through soap opera cliché. What it certainly wasn’t, as I’ve argued in “Whatever happened to Sarah Jane?”, my chapter in The Unsilent Library, was the Sarah we remembered. That Sarah wouldn’t have moped for thirty years about being abandoned by the one man that was ever good enough for her. It wasn’t that she was averse to emotional attachments; she was quite capable of flirtatious banter with a rugged (if slightly dim) naval officer, or a dashing renaissance nobleman. But that wasn’t the centre of her existence. She was all about the adventures, and she would have carried on having adventures. I know people like that, so I don’t think that’s any less valid an emotional characterisation than the one RTD seems to have fixed upon. (And though “School Reunion” establishes in dialogue that Sarah’s life has been put on hold since the Doctor left her, one has to ask, if that was the case, what was she doing investigating odd goings on at a school in the first place?) Matthew Kilburn has drawn attention to a line Sarah has when she comes back in “Journey’s End”: “I’ve learned how to fight.” As Matthew says, our Sarah always knew, right from the first moment she faced up to a Sontaran. Racheline Maltese writes (http://lettersfromtitan.com/2011/04/19/elisabeth-sladen-1948-2011) about how Sarah embodies the Who theme of being about loss and love after loss. That’s certainly a valid response, but again I think it is more about the post-“School Reunion” Sarah than the one from the 1970s.

Still, “School Reunion” did lead to The Sarah Jane Adventures, the spin-off series that Sarah had always deserved. Indeed, she was the first companion that one could imagine sustaining their own series, and there have been precious few since. This was recognised by John Nathan-Turner in 1981, and I still think that K-9 and Company might have had a better chance had it been promoted as “Sarah Jane Investigates”.

The more I think about it, the more I think that Sarah, and Lis Sladen, changed the role of the companion. The elimination of UNIT furthered the intensification of the one-to-one relationship between the companion and the Doctor that had begun with Jo Grant – but Sarah made it hard for the companion to be a wallflower again (though a few were). Companions such as Leela and Romana are variations on the Sarah Jane Smith theme. The same is true of more recent companions, especially Donna Noble, who seemed consciously modelled in some respects upon Sarah. Amy Pond is a natural descendant of Sarah Jane Smith. Sarah’s influence spread further. I had a student who had been named after her. (I deny suggestions that I took an interest in this student’s career simply to have someone to whom I could say “Come along, Sarah Jane!”) In an episode of The Archers, Lizzie Archer claimed to have been influenced by Sarah (a line which, for complicated reasons I won’t go into here, I suspect was a nod towards something I had written). And I can’t imagine there being any other regular Who actor, apart from a Doctor, whose death would get this sort of coverage in the news media – certainly Jacqueline Hill and Michael Craze didn’t. (Okay, Catherine Tate probably would, but that would be for her non-Who work; similarly I reckon when Peter Purves goes.)

As Russell T Davies said (sometimes he got it right!), the world was lucky to have Elisabeth Sladen, and is poorer for her loss.

* Obituaries originally gave her date of birth as 1948, but it turns out that this was not in fact the case. This is interesting, as it means she is the only Doctor Who female companion demonstrably over thirty in her time on the show since Jacqueline Hill and until Catherine Tate came along (Caroline John may have been, but as no-one seems to know exactly when her birthday was in 1970, it's not certain; and Janet Fielding definitely was, if the birth year given in Wikipedia is correct, but definitely not if that given by the IMDb is right). This also means that if we ever go to a second edition of The Unsilent Library, we’ll have to make some corrections.


Matthew Kilburn said...

Small pedantic sidenote to asterisk: Wikipedia now gives Janet Fielding's birth year as 1953, apparently as the result of primary research, which would give you another companion over thirty at her departure.

Tony Keen said...

Interesting. That must be a recent revelation, as when the Duncans did the research for their chapter, her birth date must have been given as a year or so later. Indeed, IMDB still gives her birth date as 1957, which is presumably what the Duncans were going on.

Tony Keen said...

Although also, D'OH! Jacqueline Hill!

Tony Keen said...

Also, Jean Marsh, though Sara Kingdom's companion status is disputed.

Matthew Kilburn said...

Jacqueline Hill, of course! Barbara is herself a one-off (though an argument could be made for Sarah having more of her character DNA than any of the intervening companions).

MadeInScotland said...

Perfect; thanks for that.

kamagra said...

Elisabeth Sladen was one of those people about whom you never hear a bad word.

Susan Deacy said...

Tony: I've just seen this piece via the link on your Academia page and now understand more deeply my own response to the news of her death.

Susan Deacy said...

Tony - I've just read this article having followed the link from your Academia page and now understand more deeply my response to the news of her death... Susan