It is with great sadness that I learned of the death of Elisabeth Sladen on April 19, 2011. In 1978 or thereabouts, I was surfing through the channels looking for something interesting and came upon Ontario’s public network, TVO, at 7PM on a Saturday night. This strange theme music started and my interest was piqued as I realized this was some sort of science fiction show. The opening scenes featured a spaceship crashing in medieval England and an alien using time-travel technology to kidnap scientists from the future to help him repair his craft. The show was, of course, Doctor Who and the first episode I ever saw was part 1 of the “The Time Warrior” featuring Jon Pertwee as the Doctor. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had stumbled upon a time of transition in the programme as the Doctor’s previous companion, Jo Grant (played by Katy Manning), had left and was replaced by the perky journalist Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elisabeth Sladen.
The cliffhanger scene at the end of part 1 was the alien being removing his helmet and revealing his ugly countenance. At the time, I didn’t know this was a staple of the show and I was totally hooked. I tuned back in weekly for much of the next decade. As Tom Baker took over the role of the Doctor, Sarah Jane remained a constant and I joined them as they battled Daleks, Cybermen, and the Loch Ness Monster. It seemed it would go on forever, but at the end of “The Hand of Fear”, Sarah Jane had had enough of scaly monsters, narrow escapes, and galaxy-threatening pepper pots. The Doctor dropped her off in South Croydon in her Andy Pandy jumper, with Sarah only realizing shortly thereafter that while she might have been in London, but the Doctor had missed South Croydon by a sizable margin.
I taped a large number of Doctor Who episodes from the re-runs on YTV in the 80’s, but serials such as “The Time Warrior”, “Genesis of the Daleks”, and “Terror of Zygons” were singled out for repeated viewings. It was a special time in the history of Doctor Who and Elisabeth Sladen was a big part of it.
Doctor Who left the airwaves in 1989, was revived in a TV movie in 1996, and finally came back on a regular basis in 2005. In what can only be described as a goosebump-generating moment, Sarah Jane returned to be reunited with the Doctor (now brilliantly portrayed by David Tennant) in the 2006 episode “School Reunion”, looking none the worse for wear 30 years later. So great was the popularity of Sladen’s character that the BBC spun her off in The Sarah Jane Adventures.
Unfortunately, Elisabeth Sladen lost her battle with cancer but I will always remember her portrayal of Sarah Jane Smith with tremendous fondness. I just hope she realized how much enjoyment she brought to Doctor Who fans all of these years.