After Katy Manning’s Jo Grant left the show in 1973, a companion-sized vacancy was left in the TARDIS that needed to be filled. Business as usual for Doctor Who, you might think… but little did anyone know at the time just how important and influential the casting of that next companion would be. Joining The Doctor for the next chapter of intergalactic adventures was Elisabeth Sladen, who played the plucky Sarah Jane Smith – quite possibly the most famous assistant of all, and certainly the Doctor Who companion that all others strive to be.
What can possibly be said about Elisabeth Sladen that hasn’t been said already? Working alongside both Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker in her original stint on the show, Sarah Jane Smith was the freelance journalist that put The Doctor through his paces in some of the most iconic episodes of the last 52 years. From her first appearance in The Time Warrior, through to Planet of the Spiders (where she was one of the rare companions to witness a regeneration) and Genesis of the Daleks, right up until her departure in The Hand of Fear, the Sarah Jane years are no doubt some of the finest in Doctor Who history and will always be looked back on fondly, not least thanks to Elisabeth Sladen’s excellent performances.
Sladen’s character proved so popular, in fact, that she couldn’t escape from the world of Doctor Who for long – she reprised her role in spin-off K-9 and Company before returning for the main show’s twentieth-anniversary celebration, The Five Doctors. She even crossed over with Eastenders in the Children in Need special Dimensions in Time, before triumphantly blasting back onto our screens in 2006’s School Reunion, where she was firmly reintroduced as an ally of The Tenth Doctor. This would lead onto later appearances in Series 4 finale The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End and David Tennant’s swansong The End of Time, but along the way she was gifted, a brand new show all of her own – The Sarah Jane Adventures. This CBBC spin-off saw her taking on alien threats and keeping the Earth safe in The Doctor’s absence (although she did manage to cross paths with him on two memorable occasions). The fact that the show ran for five successful series and only came to an end as a result of Sladen’s sad passing in 2011 is a testament to just how strong a character and actress she was.
Sarah Jane has also had the privilege of working with more Doctors on screen than any other companion – or at least, she’s worked with more actors who have played The Doctor if we discount Clara’s time-stream shenanigans. Such a feat seems only fitting for a character of her legendary stature – if anyone were to hold that title, there’s no argument that she’s certainly a worthy winner. After all, it’s been forty years since she initially left the show, but her impact continues to be felt even now.
Today, on what would have been her 70th birthday, let us remember the brilliant work of Elisabeth Sladen and all the magic she has brought to Doctor Who over the years. There will never be another like her, and the series has been all the richer for her involvement.
Watch a great moment from School Reunion where Sarah Jane is reunited with the Doctor.