Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Goodbye, Sarah Jane

Of course with the recent death of Elisabeth Sladen, the actress most famous for playing Sarah Jane Smith during the 70s and early 80s in the British TV show Doctor Who, I figured people would maybe expect me to say something, given as I've made clear my love for the original show and my general distaste and disappointment with the new series (Call me a Paleo-Whovian, I guess). Or maybe this cold is making my ego swell along with my sinuses and glands. Oh well, this is my blog and I'd like to point out I've shown remarkable restraint given the way some people go apeshit on the Internet.

The one thing that bothered me after my sadness over her too-early passing was people praising her as an actress. I think Steven Moffat said something about her being a "ferociously talented actress". Well, I hate to say it, but no. Sorry. I don't speak ill of the dead, but I don't like when elegy turns into hagiography, either, as I think it does a disservice to the intelligent and aware and makes the deceased seem crass even though none of this involved them other than the event of their death.

Don't get me wrong. She was a great Companion, probably the best ever in the original series, and a big part of the reason why so many people count Baker's Doctor as their favorite. Of all the people who played second banana to the various Doctors, she was probably the most real (Teagan struck me as trying to be a punkier Sarah Jane so she automatically comes in second). She had a hell of a pair of lungs - remembering her shrieking "DOCTAAHHHH!" as some Welsh stuntman in a rubber outfit shambles towards her and the Moog's droning rises to a crescendo still gives me a frisson. It had the right element of grating against your ears combined with the melodious undertones of a woman's voice - which is probably why screaming is so important to get right in these kinds of shows.

But, let's face it. Dame Judy Dench she was not. She was what they used to call a trouper - manfully struggling along, doing her part, keeping her end up as they say over there. And you know what? That's good enough for a low-budget scifi show mostly enjoyed by kids and weirdos and weirdo kids. I defy anyone to look at this classic moment from the monumental special "The Five Doctors (skip forward to 1:28 or so to see what I'm talking about):

OK, so notice two things. The first is that this is fucking hilarious. The second is that this game girl not once lets it show on the film and really works hard to make you think Sarah Jane is in mortal terror of falling into a gaping chasm. It works great if you're a kid and that's what counts to me. We grownups put too much of our own desires and peccadilloes on top of stuff that was never meant to carry that weight, and it ruins the magic. Actually this one iconic scene, to me, is the perfect moment to show of this character as well as the way Doctor Who should be done. It's a good litmus test and I think I'll start using it. If all you can see is a silly girl rolling around gurning next to the side of the road like she's been drinking antifreeze and turning tricks at the truck stop up the road - then go watch your muppet and leave me and the rest of us alone (there is more than just me, right? Hello ... hello ... hello ...).

Actually working along these lines, I only caught the pilot of her "Sarah Jane Adventures" and thought it was not bad. Reminded me a lot of Classic Who, actually. I think I will go track those down, I think the Brigadier showed up in one or two episodes. What's funny is it was the one "for kids". Remember when Dr. Who was for kids? Sadly a lot of you probably don't. Or even if you do you've forgotten what made the show so fun.

OK, OK, I'll stop. Nicholas Courtney died the other day, did you hear about that? It was like no one cared, including me, Mr. Here's My Elegy to Sarah Jane Smith when I always thought the Brigadier was way more awesome. I am a lazy, selfish fallible human being.

Times like this it seems like the whole world is just falling away into nothing, and you just have to keep rushing ahead to keep from falling into the void along with them. Not just people, but ideas, culture, a way of being. The other day I saw someone who is smart enough to know better say that the new series was better even though he later admitted he never saw the original. And there's really no excuse other than you just don't want to because, well, it is a lot of TV to catch up on. I guess in a way that makes me optimistic; we'll always have the tapes, discs, files, whatever medium, you can bet some crusty guardian will keep it archived somewhere. These people, these places, these moments in time, will always be alive.

Kind of like having a time machine. Better, really. No chance of accidentally breaking the universe. Well, unless you go remaking shit you have no business ... alright, alright, stop poking me.

Till we meet again, Sarah.

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