The only spinoff that made it to the screen during Doctor Who‘s first 26 years was this lone unsold pilot starring Elisabeth Sladen that aired as a Christmas special in 1981. It’s also the first occasion that the show ever gave some screen time to a former companion, as we catch up with Sarah Jane Smith, last seen in 1976’s “The Hand of Fear”.
According to this episode, the Doctor dropped K9 Mark Three off at Sarah Jane’s house in Croydon in 1978. He sat boxed up in an attic while Sarah was off being a journalist, and eventually the crate made its way to the large country house owned by Sarah’s Aunt Lavinia, just in time for Sarah to finally be in the same place as her gift and have a small adventure around some superstitious country folk still a-worshippin’ the “Black Arts” while people start disappearing, including her aunt’s science-obsessed ward Brendon.
(Incidentally, there’s no particular reason to think that the fourth Doctor dropped off a new K9 for his old friend somewhere in the space between “The Keeper of Traken” and “Logopolis,” but that doesn’t stop list-making fans from trying to crowbar it in right there. For all we know, the Doctor assembled Mark Two and Mark Three together, before he even met Romana. Or maybe the next Doctor built him.)
Anyway, despite the presence of notable actors like Bill Fraser and Colin Jeavons, the episode, written by Terence Dudley, has never engaged me much, but we had the actual target audience on the sofa between us, and our favorite seven year-old critic thought this was just fine. It may not be particularly thrilling, and it might lack menace or urgency, but the pace is just perfect for kids this age to chew on the mystery and consider who, other than Jeavons’ character and his leather-jacketed son, is in Hecate’s coven. Of course, he was most pleased with K9’s two action scenes.
The episode got some very respectable ratings – better than season 18 of the parent show, in fact – but there was some changeover of the muckity-mucks in charge at the BBC and more episodes weren’t commissioned. Elisabeth Sladen would have to wait another quarter-century to headline a Who spinoff, but she and K9 would be back in just a couple of years.