April 29th, 2011

Whale fluke

A Doctor Who thought I haven't heard elsewhere -- and a small tribute to Elisabeth Sladen

I'll risk making Doctor Who fans get emotional. I'll also risk being wrong, because maybe -- likely -- I am.

Even I, only barely immersed so far in the world-soup of Doctor Who, am so surrounded by die-hard Who fans that I got a little sad at the death of longtime Who actor Elisabeth Sladen, who played the Doctor's human companion Sarah Jane Smith. Also dying that (relatively) young -- from cancer, which sucks -- gets to me.

Most people didn't know Sladen was sick. She kept it quiet, and was still working. Which makes me think of her series The Sarah Jane Adventures, which ran for four series on the BBC and was in production on a fifth when she died. Last fall, an episode of it made the news, because a long-held issue of the ongoing Doctor Who universe -- in which the Doctor can regenerate as a different Doctor, to stave off death -- has been How many times can the Doctor actually do that? In the 1970s, during Tom Baker's run as the Fourth Doctor, the show said that the Doctor could do this 12 times, meaning the 13th Doctor would be the final one.

Appearing on the Sarah Jane episode that made the news last fall is Matt Smith, the current Doctor. And the 11th. And in this episode, Sarah Jane asks this new Doctor how many times can he regenerate, really, and according to this, he replies "Five hundred and seven."

What if the producers, and the episode writer Russell T. Davies, knew Sladen was ill? And knew that she could only be on the show a finite stretch before she'd be too ill to work? Because this scenario flashed into my mind: in some future episode of Doctor Who, the main series of which Sarah Jane is a spin-off, the characters learn that Sarah Jane Smith is no longer in their world. Perhaps she's dead, perhaps something...else...happened to her, something more science fictional, but that, one way or another, they would not see her again.

The Doctor would know he wouldn't see her again. Time travel is his thing, after all. Maybe somehow, sometime, he would see her in an earlier part of her life, but he'd know that there would be no later parts of her life. And The Doctor would say "That's why I told her. That's why I let her believe that I can come back so many times. She needed to believe that. She deserved to believe that. That meant she passed believing that I'd still be here, doing my work, helping as I do, long past the time that her life would allow her to do the same."

And The Doctor would get back to doing his work, helping as he does, for as long as he is able.

Sometimes, the illusions which exalt us are dearer to us than ten-thousand truths. (Heck, now I can imagine that The Doctor actually met Aleksandr Pushkin.)

This scenario is probably not what is going to happen. And, likely, Doctor Who can simply let its characters, and its audience, imagine that Sarah Jane's adventures are still going on. But what I imagined, it makes a kind of sense to me. As a tribute. As a send-off. As a "godspeed" to one of the people most important to the buildup of love that Doctor Who's fans have generated. Someone held dear by many.

Thank you for being worth being held dear, Elisabeth Sladen.