Sarah Jane Smith, played by the late, great Elisabeth Sladen, was the most important companion in Doctor Who’s history. She played the companion character alongside Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s Doctors from 1973 to 1976 and was so successful in the part that she single-handedly made a case for equal billing for the companion character 30 years before it actually happened in the 2005 season.
Looking back, she had such a profound impact on the show and became such a popular character that there was virtually a rejection of other characters in favor of Sarah, leading to the creation of her own spin-off series. But who was Sarah Jane Smith, and how has she evolved in Doctor Who?
Who Is Sarah Jane Smith?
Sarah Jane Smith is a dogged investigative journalist and a companion of Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, as well as Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, though she met him once again as David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor and Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor.
In fact, having the honor of being called one of the Doctor’s best friends, Sarah met nine of the Doctor’s incarnations throughout the show — those we already mentioned, as well as the First, Second, Fifth, Seventh, and Eighth Doctor.
Following the conclusion of her adventures with the Doctor, Sarah spent most of her life with K9 for company, though she maintained friendships with the UNIT staff, and her connections to the eponymous Time Lord and the Brigadier granted Sarah enough influence with the organization to call them in an hour of need.
Sarah Jane Smith is probably the most popular companion of the classic era of Doctor Who and even appeared in several episodes of the New Who series. Sarah Jane witnessed when Davros created the Daleks and even faced some of the series’ most iconic villains. She was actually so popular that she appeared in two spin-off series. K9 and Company and The Sarah Jane Adventures.
The former never got past the pilot episode, but the latter hosted David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor and Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, as well as classic Doctor Who companions, such as the Brigadier, Jo Grant, and K9. The list of stars would’ve included Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor, as reported by the showrunner Russell T Davies, but the series was canceled by the death of Elisabeth Sladen.
The Abilities of Sarah Jane Smith
Sarah Jane Smith is a regular human, which means she lacks any form of superhuman or alien powers. She’s not immortal as John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness, nor super-intelligent as the Doctor. However, she did pick up a trait and a skill or two during her travels as part of the Team Tardis.
For example, despite her strong stance against violence, Sarah was an excellent shot with firearms and even knew Venusian karate – she even demonstrated both skills in the television series. On top of that, she was also resistant to hypnosis, much more than a regular human, as she was often subject to hypnosis while traveling with the Doctor.
But perhaps her biggest “power” was her inquisitive and investigative nature, which made her one of Britain’s top journalists. In fact, she met the Doctor while investigating the disappearances of scientists from a UNIT facility and was only one of three journalists invited to watch the presentation of the SerfBoard.
Key Appearances of Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who
Sarah Jane Smith made 22 appearances in the Doctor Who television series, counting both the episodes from the classic Who era and the New Who reboot. However, we didn’t account for any of the spin-offs in which she might’ve appeared or starred. Here are the key appearances of Sarah Jane Smith.
The Time Warrior — Season 11, Old Who
Sarah Jane meets the Third Doctor while impersonating her aunt, looking for a story at the scientific research facility where numerous scientists had gone missing before she accidentally stowed away on the TARDIS on a journey to the Middle Ages. In addition, this episode introduces a Sontaran, who provides futuristic weapons to a medieval robber while fixing his destroyed starship.
Invasion Of The Dinosaurs – Season 11, Old Who
Her second narrative is as good as her first. When the Doctor and Sarah Jane return to the present day after their historical adventure, they discover London under martial control due to sudden dinosaur incursions.
Robot – Season 12, Old Who
Sladen’s debut season was Jon Pertwee’s concluding performance as the Doctor before he regenerated into Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor. Sarah’s second season essentially makes her the longest-serving regular, with the arrival of two new Doctors – Baker and incoming colleague Harry Sullivan.
Genesis of the Daleks – Season 12, Old Who
Furthermore, in Season 11’s Death To The Daleks, Sarah Jane meets the mutant aliens, allowing Harry to ask questions while she’s off leading a B-plot. By this stage, it’s evident that Sarah Jane Smith is a better asset to a six-part story, entirely capable of running her own show.
Pyramids of Mars – Season 13, Old Who
Although Pyramids of Mars is best remembered for the monster Sutekh, voiced by Gabriel Woolf, Sladen provides one of his best performances in this story. The episode begins with Sarah Jane mocking the Doctor’s proto-Tennant complaining about Time Lord commitments but then pivots around a point during the crisis in which she considers that the world cannot end in 1912 if she was born later.
The Hand of Fear – Season 14, Old Who
After everyone involved rejects the idea of killing Sarah Jane, this story is a brief epilogue in which a friendly squabble develops into a sorrowful parting of ways. It doesn’t convince us that the Doctor won’t return for her right after his dumb journey to Gallifrey, though.
The Doctor And Sarah Jane Smith Connection
The more recent Whovians probably know Sarah Jane Smith from the spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventure, which ran from 2006 until Sladen’s unfortunate passing in 2011. However, older fans, or those that watched Old Who, know that the character originated there, joining the series as a stowaway on the TARDIS.
Her prominence in the series grew as she was confident, courageous, and benevolent, shared a strong rapport with the Doctor, and her later life was shaped by her finding him a tough act to follow. She left the Doctor to pursue her own adventures, as well.
How Has Sarah Jane Smith Changed Over Time?
Well, Sarah Jane, as part of the Whoniverse, has seen a significant change from her first appearance in The Time Warrior to her departure from the television show and her own spin-off series.
While she evolved very little during her original tenure as the companion of the Time Lord, her subsequent appearances over the years have gradually introduced numerous changes to keep the character relevant with the canonical time flow — as relevant as possible in a television show centered on time and interdimensional travel.
The biggest changes were introduced when she set out on her own adventures in The Sarah Jane Adventures, where she had grown more pacifist — choosing to help the Earth by quietly and covertly opposing hostile alien species and welcoming those that were benevolent. In fact, her approach was often quite the opposite of how the UNIT and Torchwood Institute handled alien encounters.
What More Can We Speculate about Sarah Jane Smith in the Future
It’s important to note that, despite fantastic on-screen chemistry, Elisabeth Sladen and Tom Baker didn’t socialize outside rehearsals and filming, but their on-screen relationship still resonated. However, after three seasons as Sarah Jane Smith, Sladen decided it’s time to move on and bowed out while the character was still in good grace with the audience.
During her departure, however, Sladen was specific that Sarah shouldn’t be killed or married off, which played a part in setting the foundations for the later spin-off series. The Sarah Jane Adventures started in 2007 and aired for five seasons, coming to an abrupt end in 2011 due to the untimely passing of Sladen, which left the character’s story unfinished.
With that said, the role was later recast for the Big Finish audio drama production, with Sadie Miller — Elisabeth Sladen’s daughter — stepping in to play the character originally portrayed by her mother.