Elisabeth Sladen died this past Tuesday.
If you don’t know who Elisabeth Sladen was, that just means that you, like most people, have probably never watched Doctor Who. For those of us who have followed the Who universe for any significant part of the past 48 years, Sladen was known as Sarah Jane Smith, one of the longest-lasting companions of the entire franchise. At the time of her death, she was even starring in her own Doctor Who spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures, which was in the middle of filming its fifth season (or, if you prefer the British wording, “series”).
It may seem odd for me to start a reflection on one of the most holy days of the Christian calendar by mentioning the passing of a science fiction celebrity, but it’s actually pretty relevant.
Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion of Christ, or perhaps more to the point, his death.
The temptation for us on Good Friday is to move past Jesus’ death and on to his resurrection on Easter Sunday. But to do so, it seems to me, fails to give adequate respect to what death is. It’s final. It’s the end. If it weren’t so, the resurrection itself would be robbed of its meaning. We must allow ourselves to sit with the awkward, painful, uncomfortable reality of death for a little while longer.
Science fiction writers have to fight the same temptation. Creative writers are always coming up with ways to bring characters back from the dead. This is easily demonstrated within Doctor Who itself, as the lead character (“The Doctor,” for those who don’t know) is able to “regenerate” (and thus, be played by a new actor) after events that would normally kill a human being. I believe that such ways of cheating death are so common precisely because death is such an uncomfortable reality. While I don’t expect that they would do such a thing to replace Elisabeth Sladen in the role of Sarah Jane Smith—to do so would be an incredible insult to Sladen’s memory—the point is that there is something about us as human beings, whether religious or not, that causes us to resist acknowledging death’s presence.
Good Friday forces us, at least for a few days, to resist that impulse. To recognize that death is real. Christianity is not a religion that ignores the reality of death. It faces it head-on. Only after facing death do we move on to Easter and the resurrection promise.
We can rejoice that death is not the last word on Sunday, but for now, death is allowed its day. Goodbye, Elisabeth Sladen. Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith.