Until we meet again, Sarah Jane: Elisabeth Sladen

Like the rest of Doctor Who fandom, I was gutted — the Britishism sums it up as nothing on this side of the pond quite does — by the sudden death of Elisabeth Sladen at the age of 63. I’ve watched Doctor Who pretty regularly since the mid-eighties, and while my estimation of various Doctors, writers and producers waxed and waned, my admiration for Sarah Jane Smith only grew. Brave, loyal, intelligent, unpretentious and really quite pretty, she made for a perfect geek crush, which later morphed into a sincere and growing admiration for the extraordinary unsung actress who brought her to life.

I once wrote an essay on The Doctor’s female companions for a now-defunct website, and this is what I had to say on the subject of Sarah Jane Smith.

First things first: there were in a sense only two companions in Tom Baker’s era: Sarah Jane Smith and everybody else. Originally conceived as a one-dimensional foil for the chauvinist Third Doctor, Sarah Jane began life as a flinty feminist go-getter, Mary Richards with a small helping of attitude. Once Baker began to hit his stride, she lost much of that edge, but what she gained was far more important and interesting. The Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane took the mentor/acolyte dynamic established over the previous decade and turned it on its head. Despite — or because of — all the Fourth Doctor’s brilliance, he seemed frequently unable to fully occupy a given situation: he snapped at the people he sought to help, ignored their questions or answered them with callous jokes, or simply gazed off into the ether. It was Sarah Jane who provided the emotional context for the Doctor’s journeys: yes, her presence seemed to say, we are here to help, and it will be all right.

A character is only as great as the actor who plays her, and Elisabeth Sladen made Sarah Jane into far more than what appeared on the page. She invested every moment with a deceptively simple, human believability, and thus remade the character into a common yet fully realized person, quite possibly the most well-rounded character Doctor Who ever had. Her mix of decency, intelligence, and heart gave Baker the freedom to make the Doctor as remote and alien as he dared, and to depend more and more on Sarah Jane in the process. “I worry about you,” she chides him in “The Hand of Fear,” and the beauty of the scene is its truth: The Doctor really is a little helpless without her, and he knows it. Baker himself seemed quite devoted to Sladen, professionally if nothing else: much of his performance was tuned to their chemistry and he dreaded her departure from the show. Indeed, following Sladen’s farewell in “Hand of Fear,” Baker pressed the production team to let the Doctor travel solo; it was as if he knew the ideal balance of the Doctor and Sarah could never be duplicated, and that even to try would be futile.

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Little wonder, when all’s said and done, why Lis Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith still retains her Best Companion trophy all these years later (though Ace’s rapport with the Seventh Doctor makes her a close runner-up). The role of the companion, after all, is to stand in for all us humans watching the show, and Sladen worked her ass off to make Sarah Jane the most accessible, likeable, and interesting human being she could. For all her successors’ talents, they lacked either the scripts or the personality to bring out the best in insecure Tom Baker.

Until we meet again, Sarah.

I never imagined when I wrote that piece that Doctor Who would come back as spectacularly as it has. I certainly never imagined that Sarah Jane and I would, as it were, meet again, let alone with such bittersweet feeling; “School Reunion” is a lump-in-the-throat episode for any fan of the original series. And despite all the drama and heartache that came with Rose Tyler, Martha Jones and their successors, Sarah Jane’s bond with the Fourth Doctor — with all the Doctors — remains pitch-perfect. Some things really are worth getting your heart broken for.

There’s a Place in France Where the Naked Ladies are Discouraged from Breastfeeding

Every now and then you have that paradoxical experience wherein you realize just how much you don’t know about a particular topic. An article on France in the Guardian drove that home in a big way. Consider just this paragraph:

Breastfeeding – particularly after two or three months – is regarded in France as something akin to drinking your own urine. Strange foreigners may do it, but that is no reason a nation brought up to idolise Liberté in the form of Marianne’s perfect breasts should. As a gynaecologist reminded a friend of mine the day she confirmed her pregnancy: “Your breasts are for your husband, not your baby.”

Apologies to those for whom this is old news, but I was incredulous that a First World, 21st-century nation would hold such ideas — so incredulous that the story’s April 1 pub date had me suspecting that I had been punked. (Those Brits and their, um, dry sense of humor.) I would be relieved if that were the case. Do French anthropologists believe that women evolved breasts as a tool to lure potential males, and that their ability to lactate is just a happy biological accident? For whom are, say, a cow’s udders intended, if not her calf? What if you’re a Frenchman who happens to be an ass man? Is your wife’s bottom likewise assumed to be for your pleasure, rather than an evolutionary adaptation to help her walk upright?

Anyway, I have nothing insightful to say about this. Just read the article and be lightly astonished.

Pick Your Poison

From screenwriter John Rogers:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

Think for a moment what a different world we would be living in if just a single man — Alan Greenspan — had fallen for Tolkien instead of Rand. It’s staggering to contemplate. Hell, even if it had been L. Ron Hubbard instead of Rand, I’m thinking it would be a net win for humanity.

Hat-tip to the Daily Dish.

Truth and Beauty: Tender Is the Night

While traveling in Spain I finally read Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. It seemed a nice “continental” choice for a trip to Europe.

I have a soft spot for Scott (whom I occasionally call by his first name). Raymond Chandler felt that Fitzgerald just missed being a great writer, and I can see his point: an awful lot of Fitzgerald’s work is either not quite formed (his first two novels, which honestly I have been so far unable to finish) or commercial and vaguely hacky (much of his short fiction, although many of his stories are beautiful and completely honest). Someone once said Fitzgerald is a writer best discovered when young, and as a no-longer-quite-young person, I think that’s true. He has a young person’s longing to be swept up and away, a young person’s ideals, a young person’s eagerness to admire — even to worship — and to mold himself in a beautiful and noble image.

Yet while I am no longer able to look at life quite as breathlessly as his characters do, I sympathize with, and even admire, their determination to live in a kind of refined and rarefied grace. I am nearly Fitzgerald’s age when he died, and I marvel at how strong his idealist streak remained through years that tried him severely. I can’t remember where I read it, but I recall he once described Tender Is the Night as a “testament of faith.” Partly it was simply faith in himself, in his ability to persevere while living with a mad wife, deepening debts and dwindling inspiration. And partly it was faith that the beautiful illusion was still worth cherishing, worth nurturing, worth bringing, however improbably, toward reality. Beauty is truth, as Keats said and Fitzgerald believed, and it’s no coincidence that a Keats verse inspired the novel’s title.

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