Elisabeth Sladen, the actress who died on Tuesday aged 63, played Sarah-Jane Smith, the best-loved of the Doctor’s assistants in the cult television series Doctor Who; such was her popularity that, 30 years after leaving the show, the character was resurrected for a highly-successful sci-fi spin-off.
As Sarah-Jane, Sladen brought a new, feisty element to the series. Before she joined in 1973, the Doctor’s attractive female assistants had largely been expected to scream in helpless horror at some unimaginable extraterrestrial outrage before being plucked from the tentacles of doom by the time-travelling hero. But Sarah-Jane, an independent-minded journalist, gave the two-dimensional role a hint of depth.
Sladen, a stage actress more used to Shakespeare, was helped in transforming the standard portrayal of the timelord’s sidekick by the arrival of Tom Baker in the principal role. She had initially teamed up with Jon Pertwee (the third “incarnation” of the Doctor), whom she described later as “very much the parental type, telling you what to do”.
But Baker, with his long scarf, floppy hat and mirthful irreverence (in one episode he offers Davros, creator of the Daleks, a Jelly Baby), encouraged greater independence. “Jon was a sort of dandy, caring Doctor and then Tom was much more: ‘go out on your own and find and come back and tell’,” Sladen told one interviewer.
Baker and Sladen quickly won great affection among Doctor Who’s notoriously dedicated fans. She was no science-fiction addict herself, and confessed to being baffled on occasion by questions from aficionados of the show who scarcely seemed to accept that it was fiction. She even admitted to not knowing how the Doctor’s famous Police Box got its name (in fact, Tardis stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space).
But this did not dim her appeal, and fans celebrated when, in 2006, 30 years after leaving the series, Elisabeth Sladen returned to Doctor Who, in an episode called “School Reunion”. The programme sketched out the path Sarah-Jane’s life had taken in the years since she and the Doctor had said their goodbyes on an Aberdeen street (the Doctor had intended Croydon, but erred in navigation).
Such was its success that she was invited to lunch by the show’s executive producer, Russell T Davies. Worried that she would be asked to appear in more bit-parts, she prepared her excuses. “I was actually thinking: ‘How can I turn this down?’” In fact, Davies offered her the lead role in a children’s series of her own, entitled The Sarah Jane Adventures. Though filmed on the same set as Doctor Who, and sharing some monsters and characters (including walk-ons from the Doctor), the series recast the former sidekick as the heroine. It proved a smash hit, generating warm reviews, a Children’s BAFTA nomination, and three further series.
Elisabeth Sladen was born in Liverpool on February 1 1948 and went to Sunday School in Penny Lane. She attended drama school in the city before joining the Liverpool Playhouse as “a dogsbody”. She graduated from stagehand work to on-stage roles and began to travel regularly for repertory, working in Scarborough with Alan Ayckbourn, and in Manchester and at the Royal Court, London.
Small television roles followed in the early 1970s, first in Coronation Street and then in Z-Cars. Elisabeth Sladen appeared in two episodes of the police drama, as two different characters. The first was a demure teenage girl, the second “a tarty scrubber from Liverpool”. It was this performance that led to her breakthrough in Doctor Who, when the producer of Z-Cars recommended her to his opposite number on Doctor Who, Barry Letts, who was looking for a replacement for Katy Manning, the outgoing Doctor’s assistant.
Her first appearance on the show was in the story “The Time Warrior”, in which she and the Doctor meet while simultaneously investigating the disappearance of scientists at a research facility. During 80 episodes over the next four years, she encountered Cybermen and Daleks, among many other ill-intentioned extraterrestrials.
After leaving Doctor Who in 1976, Elisabeth Sladen returned to the Liverpool Playhouse and mixed drama with the occasional television appearance, in productions such as Gulliver in Lilliput and Alice in Wonderland. In 1981 she filmed a pilot for a proposed Doctor Who spin-off, K-9 and Company, but it was not commissioned. Another Doctor Who appearance came in 1983, for the 20th anniversary edition of the programme, “The Five Doctors”.
Elisabeth Sladen married, in 1968, the actor Brian Miller. He survives her, as does their daughter.