Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures: Interview with Elisabeth Sladen

By Stephen Cass | October 8, 2008 6:15 pm

Elisabeth Sladen publicity photographSarah Jane Smith is one of the most enduring figures in the Doctor Who universe, appearing as a regular companion to two incarnations of the Doctor (Jon Pertee’s third Doctor and Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor) between 1973 and ’76 and occasionally popping up ever since. The character currently has her own spin-off show, The Sarah Jane Adventures that is nominally intended for children. BBC America has just released the first season of The Sarah Jane Adventures on DVD (look for Science Not Fiction’s review tomorrow), and so I got to talk to the woman behind Sarah Jane, actress Elisabeth Sladen, about playing such a popular character and other things Who.

Science Not Fiction: How has the character of Sarah Jane changed between 1973 and 2008?

Elisabeth Sladen: Dear me — you know, I once called her a cardboard cut out! But that’s what was on the page [of the script] when it was presented to me. It just said, “Enter Sarah Jane.” If you’re used to plays, [those scripts] say “Enter Mary Jane. She’s 5’4” tall. She has a limp. She doesn’t like her father,” — you’re clothed. I just looked at this script and I thought “Oh my god, what the hell am I going to do with ‘Enter Sarah Jane?'”

Well, I love Doctor Who. I had two Doctors, and I was able to progress a little bit with their input, because you react off them. When I left [in 1976] I thought, “How lovely. [But] that’s the end of that.” Then what happened was I never stopped getting letters. And you lovely Americans, you kept it alive for me as well, I would go over there and talk about it … answering questions, would she do this, why did she do that, why wouldn’t she do this. Then [in the ’80s] the BBC got the videos out [and] you had a new audience. I’d start to get questions as the years went on: where do you think she would be now, what would she be doing, so in my brain I’d be adding to her, she was growing all that time. I used to say “[Sarah Jane] is nothing like me, I just played this character,” but I as you go on over so many years with something you add yourself to it. So by the time Sarah Jane got to School Reunion [a 2006 episode of Doctor Who, where Sladen reprised her role alongside David Tennant‘s tenth Doctor] you know there was a lot more going on. It was a brilliant script by Toby Whithouse, so where I thought she would be. It was just seamless for me. I do think I add more of myself now, [for example] being in The Sarah Jane Adventures a surrogate mum, you know I am a mum, so that kind of comes quite well.

SNF: Why do you think the the character of Sarah Jane Smith has such longevity?

ES: I hesitate to answer, because I think it’ll jinx it! I just am so thankful for it because the fans have been so good to me.

SNF: Prior to your arrival on the show, Doctor’s and their companions stayed at an emotional arm’s length, but there was an undeniable chemistry between you and the fourth doctor, Tom Baker. Do you think this opened the door for the later romance between Rose and the current Doctor?

ES: When I was with Jon and Tom, there was “no sex in the Tardis!” That was a definite. But for this generation, you have to be real for them, otherwise you know there’s a great deal of people who don’t believe it. [The relationship between Rose and the Doctor was] done in a very caring way, not in an explotative way.

SNF: Is there a mission statement or message that runs beneath The Sarah Jane Adventures?

ES: I think you have to be very real. You don’t talk down to kids, they spot it. We say the show is for six-year olds, but the enjoyment in age range is ridiculous because parents are enjoying it for themselves. This is what [creator] Russell [Davies] has done, not just with Sarah Jane but also with Doctor Who, he’s brought back family viewing. I think of the program as “safe fear.” You are taking children into the realms of a very scary place, but they have to be taken there to enjoy it. So you have to be very responsible. [The children watching] must know that we are in a dire situation but we will not give up and we will make it work. We make mistakes. You’re allowed to make mistakes, you’re only human. You do your best. [That sounds like] such a message, but no, it’s being responsible and giving them a damn good adventure.

SNF: The themes of duty and sacrifice are deeply woven in the DNA of Doctor Who. Does this carry over into The Sarah Jane Adventures?

ES: Yes, but you don’t dwell on it. You’re moving on to the greater good. There are sacrifices made, you know life’s not always pretty. We’ve touched on Alzheimers, we have parents who are split up, you know [life’s] not perfect, but you know you’ll get there in the end.

SNF: The second season of The Sarah Jane Adventures is already airing in the U.K. Will there be a third season?

ES: I think we’re all very up for it. They’re going ahead writing it, everything is going ahead, but you never say you know until you sign on the line. The actors are the last people to know. But I don’t see a problem at the moment. I hope there won’t be, because we’ve gone further with season two and I would just love to know how we could [go even further] and do a trilogy.

SNF: At the end of School Reunion, the Doctor gave you the robot dog (and audience favorite), K-9, but he’s been almost completely written out of The Sarah Jane Adventures. Do you miss him?

ES: No. Quite seriously, [K-9] is a difficult problem. If he was in the series more, they would really have to address the fact that he actually is a very difficult lump of metal to work with. If you want a close up with him you’ve got to go down on all fours, it’s very, very, limiting. He’s a very unwieldy object. Having said that, the kids love him! I don’t think the BBC want to lose him because he’s a good marketing ploy, but I really don’t see [using him continually] unless he was drastically changed.

SNF: I have to ask: who is your favorite Doctor?

ES: I used to hedge that question and say Peter Cushing from the film, but to be honest: you know, I love David [Tennant, the tenth Doctor]. We had such fun and he is so good. He is so amazing. Jon [Pertwee, the third Doctor] was my first one, and Jon and I did a tour across the States and we had a amazing time. But Tom [Baker, the fourth Doctor] was more near the way I work. I worked with Tom for a long time, and we did have an amazing chemistry. How it worked, God knows, but it worked, and you don’t question that, you just lap it up. So for me, my Doctor would be Tom.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: TV

Comments (5)

  1. Quite nice. More than nice: brilliant! Well done! I have been a fan of the series since it aired on PBS in 1979. The first episodes I remember watching were “The Seeds of Doom”, and “The Android Invasion”, both Fourth Doctor adventures with Sarah Jane Smith. So just as much as Tom Baker is “My Doctor”, so Sarah Jane Smith is “My Companion”. She’s always been my favorite! I hope I get to meet her someday, at a conventon or something. I promise I won’t ask her to say “Eldrad must live!” I have that episode on DVD, so that’s sufficient. I just think she’d be an extremely interesting person to talk to. ^_^ Thanks for the memories!

  2. Gina

    I know people don’t like it when someone says, “When I was a kid, I used to watch you…” but, when I was about 8 or so, I would beg my parents to let me stay up until 11 p.m. to watch Doctor Who reruns in the U.S. on PBS on Saturday nights. The ones they aired back then were Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen. I remember the monsters would scare me and then I couldn’t sleep afterward, but I kept coming back every weekend because I loved you Elisabeth, and Tom. Now I’m 32 and a die-hard fan of the new Doctor Who. I was soooo happy to see you do the reunion episode, and then when I saw you were getting your spin-off show. Thanks for coming back to Doctor Who!

  3. Debbie

    Lis Sladen is so wonderful! Like so many others, she was my first Companion, alongside Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor. Sarah Jane exemplified all the things I wanted to be when I grew up–smart, brave, funny, loyal, clever, and…well, pretty. Now that I’m in my 40s and “Sarah” is in her…over 40s…she still exemplifies what I want to be when I grow up. Complex, accomplished, active, involved, brave, funny, intelligent, empowered, and…well, pretty…

    So I’m shallow. Shoot me.

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