Elisabeth "Sarah Jane" Sladen, Queen of Companions, RIP

Elisabeth "Sarah Jane" Sladen, RIP

On April 19, 2011, BBC News confirmed that actress Elisabeth Sladen, age 63, has died due to complications with cancer. She leaves behind her husband Brian Miller, a fellow actor, and their daughter Sadie Miller, an actress and writer.

Elisabeth Sladen had a passion for performance starting at an early age. As a young girl, she performed with the Royal Ballet. As an adult actress, she appeared on television with roles in Coronation Street, Doomwatch and Z-Cars. At age 28, Sladen auditioned for Doctor Who, not realizing the show intended to replace Katy Manning, who had portrayed the Doctor's young lab assistant Jo Grant. Sladen's performance and chemistry with Jon Pertwee, the 3rd Doctor, impressed everyone. In December of 1973, the eleventh season of Doctor Who opened with “The Time Warrior”, a story that introduced the villainous Sontarans and marked Sladen’s debut as journalist Sarah Jane Smith. She fought alongside the Doctor for a full season before he regenerated during “Planet of the Spiders.” Sladen then stayed on with Tom Baker, the 4th Doctor, and appeared in another three seasons before finally leaving the program in October, 1976.

Since the show's beginning in 1963, most of the characters who traveled in the blue box time machine, the TARDIS were labeled as the Doctor’s “assistants.” Many treated the hero as a mentor or lovable uncle. And since the first two incarnations of the Doctor had no control at all over where the famous time ship landed, his friends were stuck with him until either chance brought them back to their native time or they simply found a new home.

But Sarah Jane was different. By the time she arrived, the TARDIS had been tinkered with by the Time Lords, allowing for greater control and navigation. She wasn’t stuck with the Doctor, she was there because she wanted to be there and, unlike predecessor Jo Grant, she was no one’s student. He talked about the famous figures he knew, she put her hands on her hips and accused him of being a name-dropper. The hero now had an ally who regarded him as an equal. She was not an “assistant” but a “companion” in the best sense of the word.

In her new role, Elisabeth Sladen set a new standard for Doctor Who companions. She also represented a stronger portrayal of women on television. Yes, she was sometimes kidnapped and would scream when facing Daleks, Cybermen, robot mummies, anti-matter monsters, dinosaurs, and the Loch Ness monster. But she was also a woman who mouthed off to sword-wielding maniacs and told kings and queens when she didn’t like how they operated. Life without risk was pointless to her and she wasn’t afraid who knew it. As time went on, Sarah Jane became more like the Doctor and developed such a closeness with the Time Lord hero that some wondered if he had found a true kindred spirit at last.

Elisabeth Sladen's portrayal of Sarah Jane was so strong that script re-writes occasionally happened when she appeared too weak or foolish in a story. As the actress explained to The Daily Mirror, the character had originally been “a bit of a cardboard cut-out... You had to flesh your character out... Because if you didn't, no one else would."

When it finally came time for Sarah Jane to leave, initial ideas from the staff involved the character either being killed off or meeting a new love interest and quickly deciding to marry, leaving the Doctor behind so she could settle down. Elisabeth Sladen did not agree with these scenarios and, in the end, she and Tom Baker wrote Sarah Jane’s final scene aboard the TARDIS. It has been hailed by many fans as perhaps the most heart-breaking goodbye of the Classic Series. With the Doctor suddenly called back to his home planet Gallifrey, the journalist knows she cannot join him on what could be a very dangerous adventure. Unsure if she'll see him again, Sarah Jane simply says, “Don’t forget me.” The Doctor forces a smile and replies, “Don’t you forget me.”

In early 1981, Tom Baker’s seven-year tenure as the Doctor ended. Producer John Nathan-Turner asked Sladen to return for Baker’s final adventure, hoping she would stay on as a companion to Peter Davison, the 5th Doctor, along with two new characters. Sladen declined, feeling it would be a step backwards for Sarah Jane to return as part of a TARDIS entourage without any serious change to her role. She did, however, accept Nathan-Turner’s other offer to appear in a new series called K-9 & Company, co-starring the famous robot dog that had joined the Doctor after Sladen’s departure. Though the show would stand on its own, it would take place within the Doctor Who universe (or "Whoniverse").

Produced in 1981, the pilot featured Sarah Jane receiving a K-9 unit as a Christmas gift sent from the Doctor. But the new series was not picked up and Sladen returned to other work. Sarah Jane did return to Doctor Who later in 1983 for the 20th anniversary special “The Five Doctors.” The story re-united her with Pertwee and had her meet the 1st, 2nd and 5th Doctors on Gallifrey (though an apparent memory wipe by the Time Lords caused Sarah Jane to forget this adventure). Two years later, with the birth of her daughter Sadie, Elisabeth Sladen entered semi-retirement.

In 1989, Doctor Who was canceled and would not return to television for sixteen years (with the exception of a TV-movie in 1996). As time passed, Sladen gained fans from work in other roles, yet often was still asked to reprise Sarah Jane. She gladly appeared at conventions and gained a reputation for her open and welcoming nature with fans. In 1993, Sarah Jane appeared on the Children in Need special “Dimensions in Time.” In 1993 and 1994, Sladen recorded Doctor Who radio plays with Jon Pertwee, featuring new “untold” adventures. In 1995, Sarah Jane starred alongside the Doctor’s old friends Victoria Waterfield and UNIT Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart in the direct-to-video Downtime. Outside the Whoniverse, Elisabeth Sladen starred alongside Colin Baker (the 6th Doctor) in the audio play series The Stranger in 1999.

In 2002, Big Finish Productions featured Sladen in her own audio play series, Sarah Jane Smith. These plays showcased an older, wiser Sarah Jane investigating strange phenomena alongside new friends John and Natalie (played by Sladen’s own daughter Sadie Miller).

The last Sarah Jane Smith audio play was released in 2006, months before the character returned to television in the new Doctor Who series. Elisabeth Sladen had been uncertain about appearing, not wishing to show up for the sake of a comedic cameo. But after seeing that the story was a character-driven piece with her character finding a new direction in life, she happily accepted. Thus, thirty years after her last adventure as a companion, the episode “School Reunion” featured Sarah Jane once again meeting the Doctor (now in his 10th body), as played by David Tennant. The story also brought back K-9 and revealed why the robot dog had been absent during the audio series.

“School Reunion” inspired a whole new generation of fans for Elisabeth Sladen. And so, when Executive Producer Russell T. Davies was asked to create a spin-off of Doctor Who geared for a younger audience, he decided that Sarah Jane Smith was the answer. With the aid of a living computer named Mr. Smith and some alien technology the 10th Doctor had left for her, Sarah Jane began regularly protecting the Earth in The Sarah Jane Adventures, premiering on New Year's Day 2007. Since then, the program has received critical praise and been nominated for multiple awards. David Tennant appeared on the show as the 10th Doctor during its third season and Matt Smith teamed-up with Sladen as the new 11th Doctor during the fourth season last October. A fifth season was green-lit and much of the filming for it has been completed.

The fact that Elisabeth Sladen got her own spin-off series was no surprise to many. Sarah Jane Smith was often voted "favorite companion" of the Classic Series in fan polls. When asked in 2010 by Radio Times who the Doctor’s “definitive companion” was, actress Katy Manning answered, “Sarah Jane is the one. Lis was right there as a strong, solid woman, but with enough vulnerability. That’s why she’s perfect on this spin-off.”

Sarah Jane reappeared on Doctor Who in the fourth season and again for a cameo in the 2009 Christmas special that ended David Tennant's tenure. Concerning her final adventure with Tennant, Sladen told Doctor Who Magazine, “I said to David, ‘I’ve never thought this before, but I think this is the last time I’ll be here.’ It felt like it was my last time on Doctor Who. And I’m happy with that. You have to stop somewhere... I had the most amazing time. It’s been fun.”

Elisabeth Sladen not only leaves behind her family, but literally millions of fans across generations. Sarah Jane seemed to be the one companion we were never able to let go. The character wound up working alongside seven of the Doctor’s incarnations, a remarkable thing. It’s sadly fitting that the season four finale of The Sarah Jane Adventures was entitled “Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith.” It seems that at long last, we must now truly say those words.

“Don’t forget me,” Sarah Jane asked in 1976. Elisabeth Sladen, with your career and your enthusiasm for the work you did, with the way you protected Sarah Jane and so often showed your love for your fans - we will never forget you.

“I used to think, ‘Oh, when I’m grown up, I’ll know what I want. I’ll be sorted.’ But you never really know what you want. You never feel grown up, not really... But after today, I don’t want to... There’s strangeness to be found wherever you turn. Life on Earth can be an adventure too. You just need to know where to look.” - The Sarah Jane Adventures

Twitter activity