When I heard of the passing of Elisabeth Sladen today, my day was all but ruined. Since 1979, when I first saw Doctor Who on Chicago’s PBS station WTTW, I became a huge fan of her portrayal of intrepid reporter Sarah Jane Smith. Of course, by the time the US public broadcasting stations had acquired the BBC series, she was gone from the show over three years and the program itself was in season 17.
But it was Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor, and Sladen’s Sarah (though she had joined the show a year earlier, when Jon Pertwee was heading into his last season as the Doctor) that cemented the series here in the US, and during his reign, the show became, arguably, what many thought to be the "golden years" of Doctor Who. When she left the show after three and half seasons, Sarah Jane had become the most popular companion the series had.
As she often said, that while she left Sarah Jane behind, "Sarah Jane never left me," because she continued to be associated with the show. She was even asked back in 1981 to help TV viewers with the regeneration of Tom Baker’s Doctor into Peter Davidson’s Doctor, but declined. However, she did agree to do a pilot for a potential spin-off called K9 and Company. While the show was never picked up, she did return in 1983 for the series 20th anniversary movie, The Five Doctors.
All through the rest of the 80's and 90's, Sladen would do conventions, all while doing other acting and raising her daughter Sadie, who was born in 1985. But when Doctor Who was revived in 2005 after a 16 year absence from the TV screens, a chance meeting between her and showrunner Russell T Davies (and huge fan of Sladen to boot) lead her to guest star on the second season episode School Reunion. And by bridging the 20th century series with the 21st, Sladen and her Sarah Jane character somehow did something the Doctor’s most popular villains, the Daleks, could not do: she made the show even huger with old and new fans.
So, a year later, she would be starring in her own spin-off, this time called The Sarah Jane Adventures. She produced 4 seasons worth of the show, with 3 unaired episodes yet to go.
What made her one of the most popular companions the show has produced in its 47 year history? I’m sure a lot had to do with her performance, as she was really the first “modern” companion the series had. She was tough, smart, “cheeky” (as RTD called her today) could never be taken for granted. She asked the right questions, and could defend herself. And a lot had to do with the writers, who were trying their hardest to create a companion that was not afraid.
But for me, I guess, Sarah Jane (along with Lis Sladen) was a great role model for women and even gay men. She was a totally modern character, who gave as good as she got, and stood up to the men and monsters she encountered, when before her there was (somewhat) the “victim” companions.
Her passing today at the young age of 63 seems tragic for not only her husband Brian and daughter, but all fans of Doctor Who. While it seems she was suffering from cancer for some time, she apparently had everyone fooled. That is a strong woman, and one all of us can learn a lesson from. And like the passing of each actor who has played the Time Lord, the death of Elisabeth Sladen can be, and probably will be, felt just like one of those.
Her impact was that great.