It’s a bit difficult to believe that it’s been a decade since English actress Elisabeth Sladen passed away on April 19, 2011 at the age of 65. Sladen was well-known for playing the beloved character of Sarah Jane Smith on the long-running British science fiction television series Doctor Who.
Sladen was cast as Sarah Jane Smith in 1973 by Doctor Who producer Barry Letts and made her debut in the four-episode serial “The Time Warrior” which opened Season 11 of the series. At the time the Doctor was being played by Jon Pertwee, in his fifth and final season in the role.
Initially written as an investigative journalist & feminist, Sarah was intended to be a bit of contrast to Pertwee’s take on the Doctor, who could definitely come across as arrogant, headstrong and chauvinistic. For better or worse, the rough edges in the relationship between the Doctor and Sarah were quickly smoothed down. Sladen and Pertwee did seem to have a good rapport, although Pertwee choose to depart at the end of the season in order to avoid being typecast and to work on other projects.
Tom Baker was cast as the next incarnation of Doctor in 1974. As effective as the bond between Pertwee and Sladen had been, the chemistry between Baker and Sladen was absolutely amazing. The two actors played off each other incredibly well. The Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith are regarded as one of the all-time greatest Doctor-companion teams in the entire history of the series. And, yeah, I am definitely one of those fans who agrees with that assssment.
Sladen remained on Doctor Who for three and a half years. She left the show in the middle of Season 14, and Sarah’s departure from the TARDIS was seen in the final episode of the four-part serial “The Hand of Fear” broadcast 23 October 1976. It was a very effective, moving scene. Sladen and Baker apparently worked out most of the dialogue between themselves.
Sarah Jane Smith was well-loved by fandom, and Sladen found herself returning to the world of Doctor Who on several occasions over the next three decades, beginning with K-9 and Company, a pilot for a proposed spin-off that would have paired Sarah with the Doctor’s beloved robot dog that aired in 1981. K-9 and Company was not picked up, but Sarah would soon return again along with a number of other past actors from Doctor Who, in the 1983 anniversary special “The Five Doctors.” Sladen then reprised the role of Sarah in the 1993 charity special “Dimensions in Time” and the 1995 direct-to-video story Downtime.
Sladen was reunited with Jon Pertwee for a pair of radio plays featuring the Third Doctor and Sarah, “The Paradise of Death” in 1993 and “The Ghosts of N-Space” in 1996, both of which were written by Barry Letts. In 1999 Big Finish Productions obtained the license to produce Doctor Who audio dramas, and they released several stories featuring Sarah Jane Smith, with Sladen once again playing the role.
After a decade and a half long cancellation, Doctor Who finally returned to television in 2005. Series Two episode “School Reunion” by Toby Whithouse, broadcast 29 April 2006, saw the Doctor, now in his Tenth incarnation and played by David Tennant, reunited with Sarah Jane Smith. One aspect of the story examined the difficulty Sarah had experienced in adjusting back to a normal existence after her fantastic adventures with the Doctor across time & space, and her ambivalence about him once again entering her life. Sladen really did a great job with the material, and clearly enjoyed the opportunity to play Sarah as a more complex, rounded character.
“School Reunion” was very well received and quickly led to the spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures which was broadcast from 2007 to 2011 on BBC, as well as further guest appearances on Doctor Who itself.
In addition to her work on Doctor Who, Sladen acted in a wide variety of British television productions, among them the soap opera Coronation Street (1970), police procedurals Z-Cars (1972) and The Bill (1989), sitcom Take My Wife… (1979), medical drama Peak Practice (1996), and the BBC Classics production of Gulliver in Lilliput (1982), the last of which she was cast in by former Doctor Who producer Barry Letts. Sladen also did extensive stage work, appearing on several occasions alongside her husband Brian Miller.
I was fortunate to have met Sladen once. I visited in London for several months in 1999. Sladen was doing a signing at The Who Shop in East Ham, London. At the time she was promoting the Big Finish audio play Walking To Babylon which was adapted from the Bernice Summerfield novel written by Kate Orman. (Bernice Summerfield is a time traveling archeologist who made her debut in the Doctor Who novels published in the early 1990s.) Sladen played Ninan-ashtammu, a priestess in ancient Babylon.
Even though Doctor Who had been canceled for a decade by this point, there was quite a crowd at The Who Shop for the signing, which really demonstrated how beloved Elisabeth Sladen was to fans of the show. I think Sladen was more than a bit surprised that this American fan in his early 20s (i.e. myself) was there to meet her, since at the time Doctor Who was basically a fringe cult following in the States (it would not become really well-known here in America until several years after the BBC revived it).
I was really struck by how little Sladen appeared to have changed in the two decades since she had left the show. I said something to her along the lines of “You must have been very young when you appeared on Doctor Who.” She smiled and replied “I know what you’re trying to say. Thank you.”
I grew up watching reruns of Doctor Who on the local PBS station in the early 1980s, so it was definitely a huge thrill meeting Elizabeth Sladen. I’m glad I had the opportunity.