The news, when it came last night, was devastating. Elisabeth Sladen, who played Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who and associated spin-offs from 1973, has passed away after a battle with cancer. She was 63.
When I first came to Doctor Who in the very early 1970s, Sarah was already part of the warp and weft of the series. Through her, I came to see the role of the companion as something that is taken for granted today: independently minded, funny, and for whom terror was a trigger for thought and action instead of just screaming.
Sladen’s performance did more than anything to convey the scariness of those episodes. Sarah frequently found herself in situations where she was clearly frightened, given away by the quiver of a lip, a tremble in the voice. If Sarah was scared, my five-year-old self surmised, it was okay for me to be too. But at the same time, her reactions were reassuring: in those situations she would do her best, like the Doctor she and I both idolised, to think her way out.
Sarah ended up travelling with the Doctor for three and a half years, spending a year with Jon Pertwee’s incarnation before he regenerated into Tom Baker — at which point the Doctor/Sarah relationship really flourished. When, at Sladen’s choice, the character was written out at the end of 1976’s The Hand of Fear, there was still the sense of a story unfinished. Whether the Doctor had unceremoniously dropped her off in Croydon or Aberdeen, there was the sense of a life that would continue beyond the TARDIS.
And so it was maybe no surprise that the character of Sarah Jane was top of the list whenever a previous companion was thought of. Having declined the offer from series producer John Nathan-Turner to return to Doctor Who to bridge Tom Baker’s regeneration into Peter Davison, he gave the character a pilot for a new series, K9 and Company, uniting her with the tin dog which had itself been just written out of the series.
Perhaps thankfully for Sladen, that spin-off was not commissioned to full series. But Sarah Jane returned to Doctor Who proper in the series’ 20th anniversary special, The Five Doctors. As usual, the actress flung herself into the role with nothing less than 100% commitment — never has rolling down a gentle incline by the side of a road been made to look so perilous.
After that, the character continued to be remembered with fondness. Occasional audio drama work surfaced — first in two mid 1990s BBC dramas in which she starred with Jon Pertwee’s Doctor and Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier, and later in a series of Big Finish audio dramas.
But it was thanks to Doctor Who’s revival that Sarah Jane Smith became a household name once more. A year into the series, executive producer Russell T Davies and his team were confident enough to bring back more elements from the “classic” series — and Sarah was their first port of call. The episode School Reunion addressed that dangling question mark that The Hand of Fear had left in the air for thirty years, and exposed the frailties that existed on either side of the Doctor-companion divide. The chemistry between her and David Tennant was palpable, and when it was later announced that Sarah Jane Smith would be getting her own TV series it felt the most natural thing in the world.
The resulting CBBC show, The Sarah Jane Adventures, seemed to achieve the impossible — for kids, it made the prospect of spending one’s days hanging out with a grown-up seem laudable. But Sarah never felt fully adult, even though in this series she became an adoptive mother. There was the same mischievous streak that had been present ever since 1973, helping Sarah Jane seem timeless: she was grandmother, mother, aunt, big sister, best friend, all in one. She was cool.
And now she’s gone.
Parents all over the country are struggling today to explain to their children how the role model that their respective generations have been lucky enough to share is no longer with us. Those of us who met Elisabeth are having to cope with the knowledge that someone who always seemed so joyous and full of life has gone.
And together, we all know that, while we have lost a well-loved character and friend, her husband and daughter have lost far, far more — a beloved wife and mother.
Our thoughts are with them today.