Elisabeth Sladen, 1948-2011


The very first scene of Doctor Who I ever saw was Genesis of the Daleks, part six, where Davros tried to talk down the Kaled scientists interested in ending the Dalek experiment. In that scene, he challenge them to follow through on their convictions, showing them a button they could press to destroy the bunker around them (save for the room they were in, of course), and the laboratories where new Daleks were being bred.

The episode was being shown on TVOntario. It was 1976, and I was four years old.

Something about that show must have caught my parents interest, because they kept on tuning into Doctor Who in the weeks that followed, and after prolonged exposure, I became a firm fan of the series.

Many people have a particular Doctor who is “their” Doctor. He’s the incarnation that introduced them to the program, or who was in charge when they became a fan. So, for me, Tom Baker is “my” Doctor, and Elisabeth Sladen — the actress who played Sarah Jane Smith — is “my” companion.

Elisabeth Sladen came aboard the television series in 1974 during the last season of Jon Pertwee’s tenure of the program. Her Sarah Jane Smith was a considerable departure from previous companions. She was a career woman, a journalist, whose inquisitiveness led her to sneak into a top secret UNIT facility, and to stow away aboard the Doctor’s TARDIS, for a trip to the middle ages. She was a feminist — unfortunately during an era when television serials tended to patronize the movement as ‘women’s lib’, and she quickly became one of the Doctor’s best friends and closet confidant.

The scripts may have paid only lip service to Sarah Jane Smith’s feminism, giving her ample chances to scream anyway at the monsters that crossed her path. But actress Elisabeth Sladen turned the character into something more. She ably brought out the character’s vulnerability as well as her intelligence. She was as scared as anybody should be of Daleks, but she was brave enough to carry on. And when Jon Pertwee’s Doctor regenerated into that of Tom Baker, she was the rock on which the series continued for almost the next three years. The actor Tom Baker adored her, and hated the thought of carrying on without her when she finally chose to leave.

Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith was human in every sense of the word. She could keep up with the Doctor without being a supercomputer in human form like Zoe. She carried her heart on her sleeve and embraced the wonders of the universe that the Doctor offered her. And as such, she became the first companion to have a spin-off built around her. In actual fact, she had two.

When the BBC brought her back to Doctor Who during the second season of its revival, and launched The Sarah Jane Adventures, the actress picked up the role without skipping a beat, and made Sarah Jane’s humanity the core of the series. As I said in my review, she and the children she led were all ordinary people, who showed that they could still do extraordinary things. For this reason, the series was popular with viewers and critics alike, standing alongside Torchwood as one of only two successful spinoffs of Doctor Who.

It was with shock and sadness that I learned that Elisabeth Sladen passed away earlier today, due to complications from cancer, at the far too young age of 63. The actress was a devoted wife and mother who stepped back from the acting profession to raise her family. A private individual, she’d kept her battle with cancer to herself for some time. She is survived by her husband Brian Miller and her adult daughter, Sadie.

Further Reading

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