Sarah Jane Smith was the Doctor’s best friend, and had one of the longest and most varied journeys of all the Doctor Who companions.
Played by Elisabeth Sladen, Sarah Jane Smith joined the Doctor on his travels in 1974 in the Season 11 story ‘The Time Warrior.’ She was a journalist with a keen eye for conspiracy; when the Doctor first met her, she was investigating the disappearance of a number of scientists from a top secret research facility that the Doctor was also probing – only she had masqueraded as her aunt (the virologist Lavinia Smith) in order to gain access to the complex. Her curiosity led her to stow aboard the TARDIS and get swept up into a battle with Linx in the Sontaran in the Middle Ages.
Interestingly, Elisabeth Sladen was not the producer’s first choice for Sarah Jane Smith. Another actor called April Walker had originally been cast, and indeed was contracted for the whole of Season 11 until it was discovered that she had little chemistry with the Third Doctor Jon Pertwee. Subsequently, Walker was paid for the season, but the role ultimately went to Elisabeth Sladen. History, it seems, could have been very different if Walker had stayed in the role…
And it’s impossible to say whether she would have had the staying power of Elisabeth Sladen. By the time Sarah Jane Smith left the TARDIS in 1977, she had been travelling with the Doctor for three and a half years. This was a record run for a Doctor Who companion at the time, and indeed Sarah Jane Smith is still one of the longest-serving companions to this day. Her predecessor Jamie McCrimmon (played by Frazer Hines) stayed with the show for three years – almost the entirety of Patrick Troughton’s run, bar one story – and later companions such as Tegan Jovanka, Amy Pond and Clara Oswald had similarly long tenures.
But in 1977, Sarah Jane Smith was the first Doctor Who companion to make it to a fourth season. This was down to a number of factors. First, it’s clear that Elisabeth Sladen immensely enjoyed her time on the show, and developed a strong friendship with the Fourth Doctor Tom Baker. Second, she was immensely popular with the public, and became an integral part of many people’s childhoods having been the companion at a time when the Doctor Who ratings were enjoying record highs under the guidance of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes.
And like Jo Grant before her, Sarah Jane Smith’s appeal extended beyond being just a feisty female. Yes, she was a journalist with a head-strong and inquisitive nature, but she was more a fully-rounded character. The chemistry that she enjoyed the Doctor was a rare thing at this point in the show’s history, partly due the fact that previous TARDIS teams had been made up of multiple companions such as Jamie and Zoe, or Steven and Dodo.
Why did the Doctor abandon Sarah Jane Smith?
Her departure in the closing moments of ‘The Hand of Fear’ is a good example of her more nuanced persona. Her final scene was actually devised by Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen themselves, who deemed the scripted version as somewhat unsatisfactory – something producer Philip Hinchcliffe agreed with at the time, acknowledging that it hadn’t been given as much thought as it should have been.
The transmitted version was altogether more dramatic, sad and humorous; Sarah Jane Smith got annoyed with the Doctor’s lack of consideration for her and tried to fool him into thinking she was leaving, gathering all her things together and marching furiously towards the TARDIS doors. It was then that the Doctor received a summons to his home planet of Gallifrey which he was compelled to answer – and he wasn’t allowed to take Sarah Jane with him. His companion was forced to leave, and the Doctor rather hastily dropped her off in what he hoped was South Croydon (which later turned out to be Aberdeen!)
How did Sarah Jane get K9?
And for many years, this was the last viewers saw of Sarah Jane Smith. But surprisingly, in 1981, the character became the first companion in Doctor Who history to get her own spin-off show. (Well, it was K9‘s technically, but Sarah Jane Smith was the human lead.) K9 and Company premiered on Christmas 1981, created by the producer John Nathan-Turner in response to the voluminous number of letters he had received from young fans who were desperate to know when K9 would be making a re-appearance. (Nathan-Turner had famously axed the robot dog during his first year as Doctor Who showrunner.)
The premise was simple – Sarah Jane, now living comfortably on Earth – would receive a mysterious Christmas present from the Doctor, which just so happened to contain her own version of K9 to look after. And the pilot episode ‘A Girl’s Best Friend’ saw the pair probe an ominous witch’s coven in contemporary rural England.
Sadly, this pilot failed to spawn a full series, but the love for Sarah Jane Smith continued. She was reunited with the Third Doctor Jon Pertwee in the series’ 20th anniversary story ‘The Five Doctors,’ and when Doctor Who was revived in 2005, she became the first of the classic series’ characters to be brought back into the fray – along with her faithful robot dog, of course.
This all came about after the producer Russell T Davies decided to take a look at the companions that the Doctor had left behind, and Sarah Jane Smith was an obvious choice due to her hasty exit in ‘The Hand of Fear’ and the strong bond she had developed with the Time Lord. And Davies’ story was finally told in the 2006 episode ‘School Reunion,’ where Sarah Jane Smith once again collided with the Doctor as they investigated mysterious goings-on at a seemingly conventional high school.
Of course, the two friends were destined for separation once again, but this was far from the end for Sarah Jane Smith. Miraculously (and wonderfully) her character returned for the brand new spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures shortly after, with a pilot episode that landed on Christmas 2006 followed by a full series in 2007. This show was primarily targeted at younger viewers and broadcast on the CBBC channel, although it won the hearts of many a grown-up fan.
How does Sarah Jane Smith have a son?
And in another dramatic twist, the producers decided to give Sarah Jane a son to look after in her new show, although (with this being the Whoniverse) he wasn’t her son in the conventional sense but a genetically-engineered boy genius created by an alien race called the Bane, whom Sarah Jane adopted.
Meanwhile, her faithful friend K9 also made a few cameos in The Sarah Jane Adventures, but for Doctor Who fans some of the most exciting aspects of the series were the other ‘extended Whoniverse’ characters who put in an appearance, including the Brigadier, Jo Grant (or Jo Jones) and the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors themselves.
In some ways, many episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures feel more like canonical Doctor Who episodes than anything else, particularly ‘The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith’ and ‘The Death of the Doctor.’
How did Sarah Jane Smith die?
Alas, the series came to an abrupt and unplanned end in 2011 after the actor Elisabeth Sladen died following a short cancer battle. Half of The Sarah Jane Adventures‘ fifth series was in the can, with production going on hold as Sladen took time off to fight her illness. The final episodes were broadcast several months after her death, and the next Doctor Who episode that was transmitted (‘The Impossible Astronaut’) opened with a tribute to Sladen, preceded by a touching documentary.
And this was the last the Whoniverse heard of Sarah Jane Smith until the pandemic of 2020, when The Sarah Jane Adventures enjoyed something of a mini lockdown revival. Former showrunner Russell T Davies wrote a minisode called ‘Farewell, Sarah Jane’ which was filmed from the actors’ homes and told the story of Sarah Jane Smith’s funeral, with a whole plethora of familiar faces showing up to pay their respects, including Jo Jones played by Katy Manning and Ace played by Sophie Aldred.
As such, Sarah Jane Smith has enjoyed (and continues to enjoy) one of the longest legacies of any Doctor Who companion. And it’s a legacy that will continue for many years to come, as her character is discovered by new viewers for the first time in the remastered Blu-ray Collection sets packed with features and documentaries. Sarah Jane Smith is undoubtedly the Doctor’s best friend, and certainly the most enduring.
What’s your favourite memory of Sarah Jane Smith? And which is your favourite Sarah Jane story? Let me know in the comments below!
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