Sarah’s a character who doesn’t come across particularly well on the page. Looking at the scripts for mid-70s Doctor Who, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether she had any personality of her own at all. But Lis Sladen’s magical performance lifts the “strident investigative journalist” to a different level. She fills her with warmth, mischief, and a sense of adventure. She makes her completely human. Paired with Tom Baker at his most distant and alien, she becomes the eyes, and voice, of all of us. Faced with the wonders and horrors of the whole universe, what would we do? Don a series of increasingly ridiculous outfits and plunge into adventure with a sense of fun and a sprinkling of sarcasm? I’d like to think so.
Watch any of her classic episodes. Her reactions, her readings, her ‘choices’, as they say in the biz, are always extraordinary. She lifts the most mundane of scenes into something captivating. As a character, she brings the Doctor down to size, and she brings us up to his. Her ordinariness becomes iconic. Brilliant.
Her death feels particularly sudden and awful because she’s been so much a part of the modern Who family recently, brought back to front the excellent The Sarah Jane Adventures on CBBC for the last few years. When she first reappeared in School Reunion she had the opportunity to best Rose in a roll call of the terrors she’d faced: “Mummies!… Robots, lots of robots!… Daleks!… Anti-matter monsters!…. Real life dinosaurs!… THE Loch Ness Monster!” An impressive list to which I’d only add the essential “Been menaced by a giant tentacle in a cottage!”
I can’t sincerely say “R.I.P.” because I don’t believe in an afterlife. I believe we live in a random, uncaring universe that’s mostly shit but can be lightened with moments of silliness and joy. We’re all just dogs walking on our hind legs. But once in a while we might be a dog that’s in a street somewhere that’s probably not South Croydon, and someone might pass through our lives briefly, with a playful tap of a tennis racquet, who reminds us to keep whistling in the face of an uncertain future. Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith.