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In 2011, Doctor Who fans were heartbroken by the death of Elisabeth Sladen. Sladen had joined the show back in 1973, and although she only played the part for three years, she quickly became everybody’s favorite companion. Her popularity was cemented when she returned during Russell T. Davies’s relaunch, and she became the star of a spinoff series known as The Sarah-Jane Adventures.
Sladen's passing was deeply felt by Doctor Who fans and casts members alike, and – in comments at Heroes and Villains Fan Fest in London – John Barrowman gave a touching tribute that showed just how deeply Elisabeth Sladen is missed. Coming hot on the heels of Barrowman's heartfelt comments on the Manchester bombing, it lent the whole #HVFF panel a real emotional weight.
A Simple Fan Question Prompts A Beautiful Moment
#JohnBarrowman was having a blast. Discussing everything from his unexpected birthday treat to his favorite villains in Torchwood (the Cybermen), he then took an intriguing fan-question; if he could have three fictional characters as part of his ultimate quiz-team, who would he pick? Barrowman’s first choice was Captain America, purely because he has such a soft spot for Cap, swiftly followed by David Tennant’s incarnation of the Doctor. So far, no surprises.
But his final choice was none other than Sarah-Jane Smith. He explained that, in his view, every companion since has carried a little bit of Sarah-Jane in her. And, speaking as a Doctor Who fan, I have to say that he’s right; Elisabeth Sladen redefined what it meant to be a companion. Gone was the character who existed only to scream in fear and be rescued by the Doctor; Sarah-Jane was the first companion who truly stood as the Doctor’s equal, taking on the evils that lurk in the dark herself.
Elisabeth Sladen played alongside two Doctors — Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker — and even acted as their moral conscience on occasion. Take 'Genesis of the Daleks', for example, viewed by many fans as the best Doctor Who story of all time. That epic plot sees the Doctor taken to the birth of the Dalek race, and there’s a moment when he could have rewritten history by essentially wiping the entire race out. As he stands outside the first Dalek incubation pod, holding two wires apart that will destroy them all if he connects them, the Doctor asks if he has the right. It is Sarah-Jane who challenges him, reminding him of the Daleks’ evil, standing in for every viewer as she tells him:
“We’re talking about the Daleks. The most evil creatures ever invented, you must destroy them! You must complete your mission for the Time Lords!”
A companion strong-willed enough to give the Doctor advice? It was ground-breaking – and it became the norm.
Jon Pertwee was Barrowman’s first Doctor as a child, and he grew up in the time of Sarah-Jane Smith. As he rightly says, she redefined what it means to be a companion. She transformed Doctor Who forevermore, and Barrowman concluded his comments by observing that Elisabeth Sladen is still sadly missed. It was an umprompted, heartfelt comment that spoke for every Doctor Who fan in the audience.