Sci-Fi Doctor Who's No. 1 Gal Pal Shares Secrets of Sarah Jane's Success


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Doctor Who's No. 1 Gal Pal Shares Secrets of Sarah Jane's Success

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Portraying The Doctor's companion on Doctor Who can be a great gig. The role can open doors for actors, immortalizing them with fans and creating a cottage industry of convention appearances for life. But that doesn't mean playing a sidekick on the long-running British sci-fi show is easy.

Whoever's the Doctor at the time gets to do most of the cool stuff while the companions -- especially ones of the traditional female variety -- are often left to scream, ask questions and shift expressions between scared and confused. But no self-respecting actor would take on such a role without trying to inject intelligence, personality and force of will into the character.

Throughout Doctor Who's 45-year history, nobody has pulled those threads together better than Elisabeth Sladen (pictured), who took on the role of journalist-turned-time traveler Sarah Jane Smith in 1973 during third Doctor Jon Pertwee's final season.

"When I started Doctor Who, I wrote down things the character would be for me," said Sladen, who played Sarah Jane for several years in the '70s before reprising the role, first in a pilot for 1981's failed Who spinoff K-9 and Company, then in the current version of Who and now in the kid-friendly The Sarah Jane Adventures. "I wanted her to be smart and feisty. Since I never considered Doctor Whoa sci-fi show but a character-driven story with some adventure, thatsaved me from just rolling into a character who was the little girl whoneeded saving."

With Sarah Jane Adventures currently in its second season in the United Kingdom, the show's first season arrived on U.S. DVD shelves this week following a successful run on the Sci Fi Channel last spring. The second season is scheduled to return to Sci Fi after its current BBC run concludes in a few weeks.

Sladen's opportunities to revisit her Who character over the years are a rarity in the world of sci-fi television -- comparable only tothe careers of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame.

Just as Kirk and Spock have continued to entertain fans through Trek'sfour-decade run (with the latter returning yet again in J.J. Abrams'coming reboot), Sarah Jane has appeared in more eras and alongside moreDoctors than any other Who companion: It wouldn't be out of line to suggest that Sladen's character is themost popular supporting player ever to follow the Doctor inside theTardis during the show's record-breaking run.

With the Russell T. Davies-created Sarah Jane Adventures now well into its second successful season, Sladen spoke with by phone fromthe United Kingdom to reflect on her character's enduring appeal.

She credited former Who producer Barry Letts not only with casting her in the '70s but with instilling a sound work philosophy.

"I sometimes think, 'If I knew what made Sarah Jane so popular, I'd bottle it,'" Sladen said. "I love her as a character, and I credit Barry for instilling something special in the character. He is a truly gentle and honorable man and has such a wonderful take on life. I took some of that influence for Sarah. You also scavenge some of what you are as well. But, I wish I was more like her."

Three decades passed between Sladen's last appearance on Doctor Who and Sarah Jane's return to the show in the 2006 episode "School Reunion" with current Doctor, David Tennant.

"It was a little odd returning to the character, as I never really intended to come back when the show returned," Sladen said. "I thought it was someone else's job now. But, though I left Sarah Jane, she never left me. When the time came to pick the character back up again, she was right there. I could hear her voice."

Sladen credits much of that comfort level to the fans who keep Sarah Jane in a special place in the Who companion pantheon.

"I am so grateful to the fans," she said. "They were always good to me. Whether I was meeting them at conventions, or they were supporting the DVDs (of the classic series) or the Big Finish radio shows (audio Who episodes performed with Pertwee during the show's long hiatus in the 1990s), the fans never lost track of Sarah Jane."

The biggest transition for Sladen to handle during her return to the 21st-century version of Who was adjusting to the show's elevated production standards and inflated effects budget. The days of tinfoil monsters and color-separation rear projection are over.

"There is a sense of higher stakes with the bigger budget these days," she said. "The crews are much larger, and the production much faster. But, I'm still proud of what we managed to get done back in the '70s with no money."

Though stars such as Trek's Shatner and Nimoy went through temporary periods of discomfort with the success of their sci-fi personas, Sladen says she never suffered any sort of typecasting crisis.

"I say, 'Get over yourself,'" she said. "So many actors are out of work out there. Be grateful for the success. At the end of the day, what’s important is getting that job, doing that job, and working with like-minded people. I say, 'Thank God for Doctor Who!'"

While Sladen is thrilled over the positive reception The Sarah Jane Adventures is getting from a diverse family audience, she said her appearance in last season's Who climax ("Journey's End") would probably be her last alongside The Doctor.

"It's kind of sad," she said. "I think that's true, yes. But, I thought Sarah Jane had a good ending in 'School Reunion,' and I returned after that. I don't know what could happen in the future. For now, I'm really enjoying The Sarah Jane Adventures."

So is a new generation of sci-fi fans around the world.

Images courtesy BBC, The Character Group

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(Via Wired)
To this day I still cherish the Tom Baker & 'Sarah Jane' adventures over the rest of the Doctors. While I certainly enjoy the revived series, and watch it faithfully, it is those old episodes from the 70's that I will watch over & over again like a little kid and wistfully think back to those years when I was a little kid watching those shows for the first time.