Over the close to 50 year run of Doctor Who, a lot of companions have come and gone through the doors of the TARDIS. Some were memorable for the way they joined the Doctor on his journeys and some for how they departed. But in the run of classic Doctor Who companions, there was perhaps none more beloved than Sarah Jane Smith.
Created by producer Barry Letts and script-editor Terrance Dicks, Sarah Jane was added to the cast in the final year of Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the Doctor. And she faced the daunting task of replacing popular companion, Jo Grant. Letts and Dick said they wanted to create a companion who was more independent than Jo had been and, in their words, a “feminist.”
The result was Sarah Jane Smith, a journalist who first met the Doctor by borrowing her aunts credentials to get the big story of a group of disappearing scientists. Curiosity about the Doctor led to her stowing away aboard the TARDIS and ending up back in mid-evil England, facing off against the Sontarans and trapped in a time when feminism wasn’t the word of the day. From that point on, it would be three and a half more years of travels in the TARDIS for Sarah Jane, facing just about all of the Doctor’s big adversaries during her time.
Letts often said that the decision to cast Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane was an easy one. Letts says that Sladen was head and shoulders above the rest of the actresses he auditioned for the role and he knew right away he had found something special.
And while Sarah Jane’s first year in the TARDIS is a good one, it’s the next year when the character came into her own and took her place as the definitive companion for classic Doctor Who. Pertwee left the role and in came new Doctor, Tom Baker. The rest is, as they say, history.
But it almost wasn’t. The original outline for the fourth Doctor called for an older actor to take on the role. Letts felt that if an older actor took the job, a younger male companion would be needed to carry the “action” of the show and so hired Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan. Then Letts hired the younger Baker, who could carry off the action roles as required by the stories, making Harry redundant in some ways.
Not that is was obvious, at first, to Sladen. Sladen admits she contemplated leaving the role at the end of Baker’s first season because of the friendship between Baker and Marter. But she was persuaded to stay and Marter’s character was written out. And one of the most dynamic and well-loved Doctor/companion teams was born.
None of this would have been possible without the performance of Elisabeth Sladen. From her first moments in “The Time Warrior” to her final scenes in the classic series on “The Hand of Fear,” Sladen brought a preciousness, vulnerability and humor to Sarah that endeared her to the Doctor and fans. Sarah gave as good as she got and Sladen proved time and again she was up to whatever demands the script called on with each new story. Sladen even managed to make Sarah Jane being possessed by various adversaries on a weekly basis interesting, even when it should have been feeling stale.
Many point to the early years of Tom Baker as the high water mark for classic Doctor Who. Baker, producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes get a lot of the credit for this, but much of the credit should also be given to Sladen. The companion is the audience’s entry into the world of the Doctor and our understanding of who is he is based on the companions and their reactions and relationship to the Doctor. And Sladen understood this and played it beautifully.
But all good things must come to an end. Sladen left the show in the middle of Tom Baker’s third season, but was never far from the minds of fans or producers. Graham Williams wanted to bring Sarah Jane back after Leela departed, but Sladen wasn’t available. Sladen starred in an early attempt at a spin-off, “K-9 And Company.” And while it’s not a great pilot or story, Sladen still delivers a solid performance and carries much of the heavy-lifting in the story.
The popularity of Sarah never waned and it’s easy to see why Russell T. Davies decided to bring her back in series two of the relaunched series. With “School Reunion,” Sladen easily stepped back into her role as Sarah Jane, delivering what is one of her best performances as the character and giving fans one of the highlights of David Tennant’s eras as the Doctor.
And, at long last, Sarah Jane got her own spin-off. And it was much better than “K-9 and Company.”
It ran four seasons and was ready for a few more. Until we got the sad news that Elisabeth Sladen has passed away this week from cancer. Few in the Doctor Who community knew of Sladen’s health issues, so the new came as a bit of a shock. Coupled with the loss of Nicholas Courtney a few weeks earlier and many Who fans are feeling nostalgic today. While we are excited for the new series starting Saturday, don’t be surprised to find many fans dusting off their VHS and DVD copies of stories with the Brigadier and Sarah Jane Smith in the days and weeks to come.
The family of Elisabeth Sladen has our sympathies at this time of loss. Our thoughts and prayers go out to them at this time of loss. But let us also remember the fond memories of Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. A lot of the reason Sarah Jane is still so beloved rests firmly with Sladen.
Thank you, Ms. Sladen for the fond memories. And may you rest in peace.
On a final note, many in the Doctor Who community firmly believe that the BBC and 2|Entertain are holding “Terror of the Zygons” as the final release in the classic range so the range will end on a high note. I implore them to consider moving up the release of this story, featuring both the Brigadier and Sarah Jane in the release schedule as a tribute to both actors and what they meant to Doctor Who and its fans for so long.