Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith

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After a tragically brief battle with cancer, actress Elisabeth Sladen died earlier this year.  Science fictions knew her as Sarah Jane Smith, the Doctor’s most capable companion in the original classic run of Dr Who.  She was so popular that the BBC gave her a spin-off show in the early 80s called K-9 and Company.  It was atrocious and lasted only four episodes.

Fast forward three decades and Sladen reprised her classic role in a guest spot on the new Dr Who, opposite the new doctor, David Tennant.  She was so wonderful that the BBC tried again, this time with an older Sarah Jane Smith, and with a show more directly targeted at children.  The result was The Sarah Jane Adventures, which I originally reviewed quite positively.

SJA was, in my opinion, the true successor to the classic Dr Who series.  Its aliens were preposterous but fun.  There was lots of running.  The good guys were really good, and always managed to save the day morally without killing anyone.  Resolutions were always clever, and the protagonists were well acted and, frankly, lovable.  Yes, it was a kid’s show, but a smart and engaging kids’ show.

With Sladen’s death, SJA had to end.  The final episode that she filmed, number 6 in the 5th season, was just broadcast.  If you have anything resembling a heart, it will bring a tear to your eye.  It marks the end of the show, and the end of the one of the most beloved female science fiction characters of all time.

The character Sarah Jane Smith was abandoned by the Doctor back in the 80s.  She was a journalist who spent the next three decades trying to regain the adventure that was once had on board the Tardis.  She never married, never had kids.  Now, in her late 50s, she lives alone on a street called Bannerman Rd, secretly defending the Earth from alien incursions.  Then, into her life comes a series of youths.  As a group, they become her investigative team.  Over 5 seasons, their line-up has evolved, but no one was ever really lost.  The Doctor himself made guest appearances.  And gradually viewers young and old learned to love them all, with their youthful zeal and genuine camaraderie.

Of particular note was a fellow meant to be a secondary supporting character, young Clyde Langer, the rakish Black boy from a broken home, who yearns to be an artist, but who was clearly intended solely for comic relief.  As the show evolved, Clyde’s profound human courage emerged again and again.  Many feel that it is Clyde, flawed, tragic, beset and beloved Clyde, who is the true hero of SJA, not Sarah Jane, not her genetically engineered genius adopted son (episode #1), and not her alien adopted daughter (season 5, episode #1).

The show managed to touch on serious social issues, too, but not in that cloying afters-chool special way that American networks would tend to embrace.  Homelessness, broken homes, child abandonment and slavery were all dealt with smartly on SJA, in a fashion accessible by children.

The show ended with the death of Sladen.  To their credit, the producers decided to complete production of the final episodes that she filmed and to broadcast a shortened season.  And also to their credit, they included a marvelous voice-over by Sladen herself, played just before the credits rolled to end this marvelous show.  She said something to the effect that throughout all her travels in the universe and through time, the last thing she expected to find at the end was a family.  And then there was text: “The adventure continues… forever.”

Goodbye, Elisabeth Sladen, and goodbye Sarah Jane Smith.

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