Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Remembering Sarah Jane

Sometimes an actor or a character catches your attention--and you can't look away. You may never get the chance to say "thank you, you influenced me in an unexpected way"--but you hope that somehow that thought is received and understood. Tonight I suspect many Doctor Who fans feel this way when they learn of the death of Elisabeth Sladen, best known in the Whoniverse as Sarah Jane Smith.

Funny how one person's performance can create a community among such disparate people. Tonight I have read moving tributes recorded or posted by those who knew the actress well and those who only knew of her. I first learned of Sladen's death when I browsed my Facebook friends' posts tonight. Of course, I was saddened, but then I felt a remarkable sense of comraderie with mourners around the world. In my list of FB friends alone, I read messages from people who worked with Sladen or had friends or family who knew her, fans like me who had never met her but felt a profound connection with Sarah Jane, or new fans of the Sarah Jane Adventures. I read memories shared from people in Wales, England, New Zealand, and all across the U.S.

How wonderful for one person to have touched so many lives!

I first met Sarah Jane in the early 1980s via reruns on a Northwest Ohio PBS channel. A friend's child was a Doctor Who fan and coerced me into watching the Fourth Doctor's adventures. Tom Baker became my Doctor, but I bonded with Sarah Jane. As a writer in my twenties, I may have lacked the journalistic credentials of Sarah Jane (my brother became the journalist in the family), but I latched on to her inquisitive nature and common sense in the face of danger. I fell in love all over again nearly a quarter century later during "School Reunion." Like Sarah Jane, I had made some compromises in the intervening years and had ended up doing well for myself--but, if I had been asked in my 20s, I was not quite where I expected to be. Then, with The Sarah Jane Adventures, once more Sarah Jane gave a middle-aged woman hope that she could still make a difference in a world of younger adventurers and have a family to boot.

Ironically, the news of Sladen's death came to me as I am about to participate in a Popular Culture Association conference in which there's a special section about Doctor Who and Torchwood. I suspect the conversations this week will more than once turn to Elisabeth Sladen and Sarah Jane Smith. As we huddle together around a television on Saturday night to watch the Eleventh Doctor visit the U.S., I imagine we'll be thrilled with the start of yet more new stories, but we'll also reminisce about the past.

People who don't understand science fiction, or fantasy, or the power of Story, for that matter, may scoff that "it's just a television series." But those of us who find a character who touches our lives and makes our daily struggles understandable and, better yet, meaningful know how important a good story and empowered characters can be. We know that Story outlives us and can make a difference in the way people think and act.

Elisabeth Sladen was part of a powerful Story, one that survives her through us and, I hope, our children. She will be missed. But she and Sarah Jane will not be forgotten.

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