Remembering Elisabeth Sladen

It’s a bit difficult to believe that it’s been a decade since English actress Elisabeth Sladen passed away on April 19, 2011 at the age of 65. Sladen was well-known for playing the beloved character of Sarah Jane Smith on the long-running British science fiction television series Doctor Who.

Sladen was cast as Sarah Jane Smith in 1973 by Doctor Who producer Barry Letts and made her debut in the four-episode serial “The Time Warrior” which opened Season 11 of the series. At the time the Doctor was being played by Jon Pertwee, in his fifth and final season in the role.

Initially written as an investigative journalist & feminist, Sarah was intended to be a bit of contrast to Pertwee’s take on the Doctor, who could definitely come across as arrogant, headstrong and chauvinistic. For better or worse, the rough edges in the relationship between the Doctor and Sarah were quickly smoothed down. Sladen and Pertwee did seem to have a good rapport, although Pertwee choose to depart at the end of the season in order to avoid being typecast and to work on other projects.

Tom Baker was cast as the next incarnation of Doctor in 1974. As effective as the bond between Pertwee and Sladen had been, the chemistry between Baker and Sladen was absolutely amazing.  The two actors played off each other incredibly well. The Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith are regarded as one of the all-time greatest Doctor-companion teams in the entire history of the series. And, yeah, I am definitely one of those fans who agrees with that assssment.

Sladen remained on Doctor Who for three and a half years. She left the show in the middle of Season 14, and Sarah’s departure from the TARDIS was seen in the final episode of the four-part serial “The Hand of Fear” broadcast 23 October 1976. It was a very effective, moving scene. Sladen and Baker apparently worked out most of the dialogue between themselves.

Sarah Jane Smith was well-loved by fandom, and Sladen found herself returning to the world of Doctor Who on several occasions over the next three decades, beginning with K-9 and Company, a pilot for a proposed spin-off that would have paired Sarah with the Doctor’s beloved robot dog that aired in 1981. K-9 and Company was not picked up, but Sarah would soon return again along with a number of other past actors from Doctor Who, in the 1983 anniversary special “The Five Doctors.” Sladen then reprised the role of Sarah in the 1993 charity special “Dimensions in Time” and the 1995 direct-to-video story Downtime.

Sladen was reunited with Jon Pertwee for a pair of radio plays featuring the Third Doctor and Sarah, “The Paradise of Death” in 1993 and “The Ghosts of N-Space” in 1996, both of which were written by Barry Letts.  In 1999 Big Finish Productions obtained the license to produce Doctor Who audio dramas, and they released several stories featuring Sarah Jane Smith, with Sladen once again playing the role.

After a decade and a half long cancellation, Doctor Who finally returned to television in 2005. Series Two episode “School Reunion” by Toby Whithouse, broadcast 29 April 2006, saw the Doctor, now in his Tenth incarnation and played by David Tennant, reunited with Sarah Jane Smith. One aspect of the story examined the difficulty Sarah had experienced in adjusting back to a normal existence after her fantastic adventures with the Doctor across time & space, and her ambivalence about him once again entering her life. Sladen really did a great job with the material, and clearly enjoyed the opportunity to play Sarah as a more complex, rounded character.

“School Reunion” was very well received and quickly led to the spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures which was broadcast from 2007 to 2011 on BBC, as well as further guest appearances on Doctor Who itself.

In addition to her work on Doctor Who, Sladen acted in a wide variety of British television productions, among them the soap opera Coronation Street (1970), police procedurals Z-Cars (1972) and The Bill (1989), sitcom Take My Wife… (1979), medical drama Peak Practice (1996), and the BBC Classics production of Gulliver in Lilliput (1982), the last of which she was cast in by former Doctor Who producer Barry Letts. Sladen also did extensive stage work, appearing on several occasions alongside her husband Brian Miller.

I was fortunate to have met Sladen once. I visited in London for several months in 1999. Sladen was doing a signing at The Who Shop in East Ham, London. At the time she was promoting the Big Finish audio play Walking To Babylon which was adapted from the Bernice Summerfield novel written by Kate Orman. (Bernice Summerfield is a time traveling archeologist who made her debut in the Doctor Who novels published in the early 1990s.) Sladen played Ninan-ashtammu, a priestess in ancient Babylon.

Even though Doctor Who had been canceled for a decade by this point, there was quite a crowd at The Who Shop for the signing, which really demonstrated how beloved Elisabeth Sladen was to fans of the show. I think Sladen was more than a bit surprised that this American fan in his early 20s (i.e. myself) was there to meet her, since at the time Doctor Who had basically just a fringe cult following in the States (it would not become really well-known here in America until several years after the BBC revived it).

I was really struck by how little Sladen appeared to have changed in the two decades since she had left the show. I said something to her along the lines of “You must have been very young when you appeared on Doctor Who.” She smiled and replied “I know what you’re trying to say. Thank you.”

I grew up watching reruns of Doctor Who on the local PBS station in the early 1980s, so it was definitely a huge thrill meeting Elizabeth Sladen. I’m glad I had the opportunity.

Doctor Who reviews: Under the Lake and Before the Flood

Here’s my overview of the second two-part storyline of Doctor Who Series Nine, “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood,” written by Toby Whithouse and directed by Daniel O’Hara.  Once again, if you’re looking for a detailed synopsis, there’s always Wikipedia.  The numbered thoughts format worked well in my last Doctor Who review so I’m going with that again.

Under the Lake Radio times poster

1) A fate worse than death

Let’s face it: dying violently & unexpectedly sucks.  But there’s something worse than that, which is dying violently & unexpectedly and then coming back as something that’s neither alive nor dead.  That is a major reason why the zombie sub-genre is frightening; it’s not just the idea that if the zombies catch you that they’re going to kill you, but also that you are then going to be turned into one of them.

That’s pretty close to what happens in Whithouse’s story.  If you get killed, you then come back as a “ghost” with no will of your own, existing only for two purposes: to signal the Fisher King’s people to invade Earth, and to create more ghosts for that same purpose.  We’re never told how much sentience or intelligence, if any, remains of the victims after they die and come back.  But the mere possibility that you will spend the rest of eternity as a mindless, incorporeal wraith is undoubtedly horrifying.

It’s no wonder the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is utterly disgusted at the Fisher King’s actions…

“You robbed those people of their deaths. Made them nothing more than a message in a bottle. You violated something more important than time. You bent the rules of life and death. So I am putting things straight. Here, now, this is where your story ends.”

Capaldi does a superb job conveying both the Doctor’s moral outrage and his grim determination to thwart his adversary.

Under the Lake ghosts

2) Sometimes less is more

Back in April 2013 I compared “The Rings of Akhaten” to “Cold War.”  The former was ambitious, a special effects laden episode set on a far-off alien world.  Yet it was also a story that very much underwhelmed me.  The later was contained within the claustrophobic interior of a Soviet submarine, but was effectively written and directed, leaving me much impressed.

That comparison comes to mind again this year.  Series opener “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar” had the spectacle of the Doctor facing Davros and an army of Daleks on a restored Skaro, but it was a very uneven story.  There were some great scenes, but also moments that were really weak, resulting in a story that was merely good.

In contrast, these two episodes are much more limited in scope.  Part one is set in a shadowy underwater base in the early 22nd Century.  Part two expands the action to a deserted Welsh village in 1980.  The special effects and make-up are rather minimal, limited to the ghosts, the Tivolian undertaker and the Fisher King.  Yet the writing, the acting, and the directing are all absolutely top-notch.  This two part entry is intelligent and suspenseful, both scaring the audience and really making them think.  And speaking of which…

3) Round and round we go

The bootstrap paradox, aka stable time loop, is an intellectually perplexing aspect of time travel, as well an incredibly unnerving one.  The idea of an event existing without a prima causa, but rather as an endless Mobius strip running back & forth though time is definitely the sort of thing that can make your head hurt.

It is also disturbing because it seems to completely nullify the concept of free will.  In a bootstrap paradox, your actions are apparently totally pre-determined.  That is a frightening concept, the idea that no matter what you do, whatever choices you make, they are inevitably going to lead to a single outcome that cannot be altered.

Doctor Who has utilized the bootstrap paradox previously, most notably in “Blink.”  A variation of it appeared as far back as the 1972 serial “Day of the Daleks,” although in that story it’s implied that the Daleks initially altered history, and a failed attempt to undo their changes led to the temporal paradox.

Outside of Doctor Who, the excellent novel The Anubis Gates (1983) by Tim Powers contains one of the most interesting utilizations of the bootstrap paradox.  Also noteworthy is the very unsettling comic book story “Counter-Clockwise” by Bill Elder & John Severin from Weird Fantasy #18 (March/April 1953).  I find myself wondering if that tale was an influence on the Doctor Who novel Vanderdeken’s Children (1998) by Christopher Bulis.

Before the Flood Clara

4) Clara Oswald: action junkie

Last season in “Mummy on the Orient Express” Clara (Jenna Coleman) asked the Doctor if he was addicted to traveling through time & space, and to making life & death decisions.  If he is, then it appears Clara herself also now suffers from that ailment.  As “Under the Lake” opens she is chomping at the bit, eager for the TARDIS to land somewhere new & exciting.

Clara also once again, much as she previously did in “Flatline,” finds herself stepping into the role of the Doctor, taking charge and nudging, almost manipulating, the actions of others.  And, whereas previously Clara found herself angry that the Doctor had made her an “accomplice,” here it is almost second nature.  If Clara is a positive influence on the Doctor, making him a better person, well, certainly the Doctor seems to sometimes be a negative one on Clara herself.

And, just as certain people are understandably resentful of the Doctor’s machinations, so too do they not take kindly to Clara’s.  As Cass inquires through Lunn…

“She said to ask you whether traveling with the Doctor has changed you, and why you always have to put other people’s lives at risk.”

I wonder if Clara is embracing the Doctor’s travels and lifestyle so whole-heartedly because she is attempting to fill the void left by Danny’s death.  Perhaps this is going to be an ongoing subplot through the year.  We know now that Coleman is leaving the show soon, so inevitably there is going to have to be some form of closure for Clara’s character.

5) It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever

In his various incarnations the Doctor has always walked a tightrope between a wise, caring guardian and an arrogant, obtuse meddler.  That is especially true of Capaldi’s portrayal of the Twelfth Doctor.  He is an individual concerned with safeguarding the innocent and combating injustice, yet he is frequently cold and dismissive towards those he is supposedly protecting.

The idea that Clara has the Doctor carry around cards with sympathetic expressions for him to read aloud because he is too self-absorbed and alien to see how much he is upsetting people is both brilliant and all too on-the-mark.  On a more serious note, yes, it does seem that the Doctor made only a token effort to save O’Donnell, and he was actually curious to see if she would be the next to die.  He obviously cares a great deal more about Clara since he was seemingly ready to break the laws of time to save her life.  The Doctor can be maddeningly inconsistent… but, then again, so can most of us.

The Fisher King

6) Fishing for compliments

The design of the Fisher King was really good, making him a menacing figure.  The voice was also well done.  The Fisher King was more effective in the scenes set indoors when he was kept somewhat in shadows.  Later, when we see him outside in daylight, he is not nearly as impressive, but still works pretty well.

Having said all that, considering how damn tall the Fisher King was, how exactly did he plan on fitting into that stasis chamber?

7) One final note

Once again the Doctor plays the electric guitar, this time performing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in the pre-credit sequence to “Before the Flood.”  Is it a little self-indulgent to let Capaldi play the guitar two stories in a row?  Possibly.  But I enjoyed it.  As Jim O’Brien astutely observed in the comments section last time…

“While over the top, one of the things I like about Capaldi’s depiction of the character is he can pull off things that might come off as a bit too “twee” or camp if it were say, Matt Smith, or maybe even Tennant doing them. That stern gravitas Capaldi conveys makes the comedic stuff even funnier for me.”

Crap!  I wish I’d been able to articulate my thoughts that well.  Anyway, my point is that much of the time Capaldi is brooding or rude or angry.  So when he then does something completely outrageous like, say, playing the electric guitar, the juxtaposition to his usual intense attitude makes it even more amusing and entertaining.  It’s yet another reason why I am so enjoying Capaldi’s portrayal of the Doctor.

Doctor Who reviews: A Town Called Mercy

In the Doctor Who episode “A Town Called Mercy,” the Doctor, Any and Rory arrive in the American Southwest in the late 19th Century.  The Doctor learns that the town of Mercy is harboring Kahler-Jex, a crash-landed alien scientist, who in return for safe haven has cured the town’s cholera outbreak and wired it up for heat & electricity.  Now, though, a deadly cyborg hunter known as the Gunslinger is camped outside of Mercy, demanding the town turn over Kahler-Jex to him for execution.  The Doctor attempts to come up with a plan to aid Kahler-Jex in his escape, but cuts short his efforts when he locates the alien’s spacecraft, intact, out in the desert.  Suspicious, the Doctor accesses the ship’s log, and learns that Kahler-Jex was part of a group of scientists who performed a series of hideous medical experiments to create a cyborg army in the hopes of ending a war that had decimated their planet for nearly a decade.  The cyborgs did indeed bring a quick end to the carnage, but one of them, the Gunslinger, went rogue and began hunting down the team who created it.  Kahler-Jex is the last survivor.  The Doctor is now confronted with the moral dilemma of whether to still aid Kahler-Jex, or to leave him to the Gunslinger’s brand of justice.

The Doctor’s first reaction to Kahler-Jex’s true nature is one of absolute disgust.  Charging back into town, he forces the scientist out into the desert at gunpoint, ready to give him over to the Gunslinger.  Although shocking, I do not think this action came out of nowhere.  In the episode preceding this one, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” the Doctor left the ruthless space pirate Solomon, who had murdered thousands of innocent Silurians, to be killed when a fleet of missiles was diverted towards his spaceship.  I was a bit surprised by that, as the Doctor very rarely kills anyone in cold blood.  But Matt Smith had done such a superb job of conveying the Doctor’s slowly mounting anger at the pirate’s crimes, so that it seemed understandable from the Doctor’s point of view that he did what he did.  And, indeed, “A Town Called Mercy” follows up on the Doctor’s changing attitude.

Once again, Smith brilliantly conveys the cold fury coursing through the Doctor.  In a brilliant exchange penned by writer Toby Whithouse, a shocked Amy demands to know why killing has suddenly become a choice.  And the Doctor, full of rage & anguish, tells her “But they keep coming back, don’t you see? Every time I negotiate, I try to understand. Well not today. No, today I honor the victims first. His, the Master’s, the Daleks’.  All the people that died because of my mercy!”  And Amy responds by telling him “This is what happens when you travel alone for too long.”

Whithouse’s script is tapping into the idea that the Doctor’s companions serve to ground him, to give him the ability to empathize, and grant him morality.  This is something that was seen in David Tennant’s final year on the show, but actually goes back to the very first season of Doctor Who, broadcast in 1963-4.  When we first see the Doctor at the start of the series, he is rather ruthless, manipulative figure, kidnapping Ian Chesterton & Barbara Wright to keep his granddaughter Susan from leaving him, ready to bash in a caveman’s skull with a rock to save his own life, and sabotaging the TARDIS so that he has the opportunity to stay and explore an alien planet.  But Ian and Barbara had a humanizing effect on the Doctor.  Their presence gradually seemed to make him a better person.  And by the time the serial “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” aired a year later, it was the Doctor who was stopping others from killing in cold blood, stating that he would only take a life in defense of his own.

High Noon for the Doctor

“A Town Called Mercy” presents a very real moral conundrum for the Doctor.  The character of Kahler-Jex is a very complex one.  He epitomizes just how much of a fine line there is between “war hero” and “war criminal.”  Kahler-Jex feels he absolutely did the right thing in creating the cyborg army, that he saved millions of lives.  Yet, when pressed on the issue, he is forced to admit innocent people suffered & died on his operating tables in order for that to be achieved.  He is a mixture of self-righteous justification and monumental guilt.  And, as the Doctor points out to him, now the citizens of Mercy have been drawn into his conflict, putting the fate of further innocent people in his hands.  Adrian Scarborough does a magnificent job at portraying this contradictory, conflicted individual.

This is one of the few Doctor Who stories I can recall offhand with such a high level of moral ambiguity to it.  Reflecting on the Doctor’s ambivalence about what to do with him, Kahler-Jex observes “It would be so much simpler if I was just one thing, wouldn’t it? The mad scientist who made that killing machine. Or the physician who’s dedicated his life to serving this town. The fact that I’m both bewilders you.”  Whithouse did an excellent job scripting a story which raises some very difficult questions, really bringing the characters to life.

In the end, there aren’t any easy answers offered in “A Town Called Mercy.”  While on a certain level this is frustrating, it is also more realistic.  As those who regularly read this blog may realize, I am not any kind of adherent to black & white morality, to Objectivist thinking.  In real life, answers very seldom come wrapped in neat little packages marked “right” and “wrong.”  This story address that, as we see the characters grapple with the issues and try to come up with the best possible solution to a complicated problem.

I was very impressed by the production values of the episode.  It really did look like it was set the post-Civil War American West… or, at least it looked like what we’ve come to think of as the Old West.  After all, I myself have never actually been in a time machine that took me back to Arizona in the 1880s, so I can only comment on the seeming air of authenticity!  I’ve read that the Doctor Who team actually filmed this episode in Spain, with sets from an old Sergio Leone western being utilized.  However they pulled it off, it looked great.

I cannot even think of anything critical to say about composer Murray Gold.  Often I have found his scores for Doctor Who to be too whimsical.  But on “A Town Called Mercy,” Gold absolutely hit all the right notes (no pun intended).  When it needed to, his music absolutely packed the requisite emotional punch.

My only real complaint concerning “A Town Called Mercy” is that Rory seemed to be a fifth wheel for most of it, either running around to provide a distraction for the Doctor or just standing in the background.  I probably should not complain; he received a really prominent role just last week in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.”  It’s just that Whithouse appears to have written a script that could have easily functioned with only just the Doctor and Amy.  From what I’ve read, there are just two more episodes before both Amy and Rory leave the series for good.  So I certainly hope those stories give him more of a presence before that departure.