Elisabeth Sladen, who has played the most popular, most enduring companion in the history of DOCTOR WHO, the irrepressible Sarah Jane Smith, on and off since 1973, has died at age 63, following a battle with cancer.
There’s a saying in DOCTOR WHO fandom that the first Doctor you ever saw was “your Doctor.” Well, by that measure, Sladen’s plucky Sarah Jane was “my companion.” She and the well-meaning but bumbling Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) were the companions for “Genesis of the Daleks,” the very first DOCTOR WHO story I remember seeing, way back in the primitive days of late 1970s syndication. Back then, WWOR Channel 9 out of New York City purchased a bloc of Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor stories, and introduced them to a benighted America that had previously never known the Time Lord. I vividly recall her in that yellow rain slicker and blue knit cap, clambering over the rocks.
Of course Sarah Jane herself actually debuted during the tenure of the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee), in a story called “The Time Warrior,” which also had the distinction of introducing the Sontarans, and was the first episode in which the Doctor revealed his homeworld’s name, Gallifrey. (A most auspicious episode; penned by the prolific Robert Holmes). She traveled with the Third Doctor right through his regeneration and stayed with him until she got fed up with being cold and wet and constantly hypnotized and decided to storm out of the TARDIS at the end of “The Hand of Fear.” (Who else remembers that episode’s catchphrase, “Eldrad must live!”) Sarah was so popular that was given a one-off spin-off in 1981 called K9 AND COMPANY, and another, THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES, in 2007.
Sarah is well-known as the first “women’s lib” companion, the first assistant who dared to try to be the Doctor’s equal. She was not in the TARDIS crew to wear a miniskirt and scream a lot; she was there to actually assist the Doctor! To me, Sarah Jane was remarkably human and relatable. She seemed like a lady who would be cool to know. Sarah Jane was clever and resourceful, but also compassionate, providing that dose of humanity necessary to keep the Doctor grounded. However, in “Genesis,” Sarah demonstrated another very human quality when she urged the Doctor to wipe out the nefarious Daleks while they were gestating in their incubators – an act of genocide that the Doctor ultimately resisted (well, at least until a later incarnation). Sarah was brave, standing up to not only Daleks but mummies and (shudder) giant, telepathic spiders that shoot lightning and turn invisible (ack, “Planet of the Spiders” still gives me the chills!).
I actually had tears in my eyes when Sarah Jane met up with the 10th Doctor (David Tennant) in “School Reunion.” I was shocked that the scene played out not as misty stroll down memory lane, but rather a harsh confrontation from a jilted friend; Sarah Jane was never able to move on after her time with Doctor, and she resented him for not returning to visit. But she was clearly more angry that he had moved on while she couldn’t. But over the course of the adventure she got over him and learned to move on. But, more importantly, this incarnation of the Doctor actually gave her closure by saying the one thing his fourth persona never did: Goodbye. Their final embrace once more brought tears to my eyes – especially when he called her “My Sarah Jane.” It was ironic that 10 bid her a proper goodbye because he eventually saw her again (in the SJA story “The Wedding of Sarah Jane”). The 11th version of the Doctor (Matt Smith) also ran into Sarah in SJA’s “The Death of the Doctor” – a story that also an appearance by another former companion of the Third Doctor, Jo Grant (Katy Manning).
There was just something about Sladen that made Sarah Jane work. She was amazingly popular with children as well as old-timey Whovians like me. The news of her death has hit me hard, and I will miss her so. I guess I feel like a part of my youth is gone now that Sladen has joined Pertwee (who died in 1996) and fellow companion Nicholas Courtney, who played Brig. Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. Courtney passed away in February. (A proper tribute to Courtney is forthcoming…)
I’d like to remember Sladen as “my companion,” Sarah Jane Smith. She will live on through her work, and anytime I want I can watch “Genesis of the Daleks” or “Pyramids of Mars” or “The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith.” Which would be fitting: After Sarah’s abortive wedding, the Doctor praised her: “The Trickster wanted to end your story. But it goes on. The things you’re gonna do…”