The BBC will launch the new series of Doctor Who this evening with two tributes to Elisabeth Sladen, the actor who played companion Sarah Jane Smith since 1973.
As reported earlier this week, Sladen, 63, died on Tuesday morning following a battle with cancer. Sladen’s death came as a shock to the actor’s colleagues and fans alike, only her close family being aware that she was ill.
However, since the news of her death broke, thousands of tributes from around the world have been posted on Doctor Who websites.
In response, the BBC will broadcast two tributes, which will be shown either side of tonight’s opening episode of the new series of the long-running science-fiction drama.
First, a short tribute will appear immediately before the opening credits of The Impossible Planet, on BBC 1 at 6 p.m.
“My Sarah Jane!”
Then, following the episode, a tribute programme – My Sarah Jane: A Tribute to Elisabeth Sladen – will be broadcast on CBBC, the BBC channel that is home to Sladen’s Doctor Who spin-off series, The Sarah Jane Adventures.
A BBC spokesperson said: “Elisabeth Sladen created one of Doctor Who’s best loved and most enduring characters. [This] programme is both a tribute and a celebration of Elisabeth Sladen. It brings together stories from friends and colleagues and draws on a rich archive of material to remind us of Sarah Jane’s journey, from companion to the Third Doctor to the central character in CBBC’s award-winning The Sarah Jane Adventures.
The Time Warrior
Sladen first appeared in Doctor Who in 1973, in The Time Warrior, when she was cast as companion Sarah Jane Smith to Jon Pertwee’s third Doctor. When Pertwee left the show in 1974, she continued to travel in the TARDIS with the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker.
On hearing of his co-star’s death, Baker said: “Sarah Jane dead? No, impossible! Impossible [. . .] She can't be dead [. . .] I had no idea she was ill; she was so private, never wanted any fuss, and now, gone. A terrible blow to her friends and a shattering blow for all those fans of the programme whose lives were touched every Saturday evening by her lovely heroic character, Sarah Jane Smith.
He added: “Lis Sladen was very important to me [. . .] Those sweet memories of happy days with Lis Sladen, the lovely, witty, kind and so talented Lis Sladen. I am consoled by the memories. I was there, I knew her, she was good to me and I shall always be grateful, and I shall miss her.
Although Sladen left the series in 1976, she was to return to the role on numerous occasions over the following 30 years.
In 1980, their had been tentative plans for Sarah Jane to return to Doctor Who for Baker’s last series. Although this didn’t come to pass, Sladen went on to star in the show’s first-ever spin-off, K9 & Company (1981), where she was teamed up for the first time with another of the Doctor’s companions, the robot dog K9.
Sarah Jane Smith
Subsequently, Sladen was to be reunited with Pertwee’s Doctor on three separate occasions. First, in The Five Doctors, to celebrated Doctor Who’s 20th anniversary in 1983.
The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) an Sarah Jane Smth (Elisabeth Sladen) (2006)
Then, for two radio serials – The Paradise of Death (1993) and The Ghosts of N-Space (1996) – alongside Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier), who also passed away only last month.
For Doctor Who’s 30th anniversary, in 1993, she took part in the mini-episodes, Dimensions in Time; and, in 1995, the independently produced straight-to-video story, Downtime.
Prior to Doctor Who returning to TV screens in 2005, Sladen’s character took centre stage in two audio series of Sarah Jane Smith, which was produced under licence from the BBC by Big Finish Productions. Released in 2002 and 2006, respectively, the audios also starred Sladen’s daughter, Sadie Miller, as Natalie Redfern.
Although popular in their own right, the audio series came to an end with Sladen’s return to Doctor Who in 2006, which was now overseen by Russell T Davies (Torchwood). It was Davies’s idea to offer Sladen the role. At the time, he said: “All the years she was off screen she did the most terrific job of defending Sarah Jane and never letting her reputation be besmirched.”
Although initially reluctant to take up the offer – reportedly fearing that the part was to be a small cameo that could be detrimental to the character – once she’d met with Davies, Sladen jumped at the chance.
The story – School Reunion, by Toby Whithouse (Being Human) – saw her, and K9, join David Tennant’s tenth Doctor in the parent show. Such was her popularity that this one appearance led directly to Sladen being offered the starring role in The Sarah Jane Adventures.
David Tennant and Matt Smith have both played the Doctor in episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures.
Tennant – who appeared in The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith in 2009 – told Newsround that he couldn’t believe Sladen had gone, adding, “She seemed invincible. [She] enchanted my time on Doctor Who and enchanted generations who have watched her and fallen in love with her – just like I did. I feel very honoured to have shared a TARDIS with Sarah Jane Smith, and I feel very lucky to have shared some time with Lis Sladen. She was extraordinary.
Smith, who joined the series in 2010 for Death of the Doctor, added: “What struck me about Lis was her grace. She welcomed me, educated me, and delighted me with her tales and adventures on Doctor Who [. . .] I will miss her, as will the world of Doctor Who and all the Doctors that had the good pleasure to work with Lis Sladen and travel the universe with Sarah Jane.”
To date, four series of the CBBC spin-off have been broadcast with another already in production. At the time of her death, Sladen had filmed six of 12 episodes of the fifth series of the show.
The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) (2010)
However, at present, it isn’t known when these episodes will be shown or whether the series will continue beyond that.
And Baker revealed on his website, in this tribute to Sladen, that he was due to join her for a series of new Doctor Who audios. “Only last week I agreed to do six new [Doctor Who] audio adventures with her for Big Finish Productions,” he said.
According to the Doctor Who News Page, the CBBC website has received more comments on the news of Sladen’s death than any other item it has ever covered.
Meanwhile, Gallifrey Base has reported well in excess of 2000 tributes to the star, and sarah-jane.tv, which was set up by fans in 2007, said: “It is with great sadness that we say goodbye to Elisabeth Sladen [. . .] When Sarah Jane first left the Doctor she pleaded with him not to forget her, and thanks to the superb performance of Elisabeth Sladen, we never will.”
Silence will fallDoctor Who starts a seven-episode run in the UK, on BBC 1 and BBC HD, this evening at 6 p.m. The episode – The Impossible Planet, by Steven Moffat – stars Matt Smith as the Doctor, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill as Amy and Rory Pond, and Alex Kingston as River Song.
In the UK, My Sarah Jane: A Tribute to Elisabeth Sladen follows Doctor Who at 6.45 p.m. Doctor Who Confidential airs on BBC 3 at 7 p.m.
The new series of Doctor Who also begins later tonight in both the US and Canada.