Fifty years ago, Doctor Who’s 11th season began with “The Time Warrior” and brought with it a notable sea of changes. It marked the debut of the show’s iconic “diamond” logo, which has now seen a return for the modern era with Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor. It added an immediately iconic creature to the show’s monster canon in the Sontarans. But its most lasting contribution, and its greatest, will forever be Sarah Jane Smith.

From the moment we confront Sarah Jane in the first episode of “The Time Warrior,” she’s fighting for a place in a world that doesn’t want her around. Using her skills as an investigative reporter—and her aunt’s credentials and identity—she slinks into a secret lockdown of scientists by UNIT, looking into a spate of disappearances. She immediately finds herself in the Doctor’s orbit—and more than a match to his dismissive attitude, much to his own delight, first when he immediately clocks her ruse, and then when he demands she make the gathered men their coffee.

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Screenshot: BBC

There’s a trap you can fall in evangelizing Sarah Jane that she is the first “feminist” companion, and that the women that came before her were just there to shriek at monsters and be saved by the boys. But before this, the Doctor’s female allies—teachers, scientists, explorers, and geniuses among them—were characters that encompassed a variety and nuance unlike many other sci-fi stories of their time, even if the series did struggle to effectively utilize that variety. It also feels reductive of Sarah Jane herself, in a way, that she was defined by being “not appreciate those other girls.” What made Sarah Jane feel so different to the women that had come before her was that she just simply didn’t care what anyone thought of her, and above all was allowed to by her stories: she was a woman on a mission, consequences be damned. If there was a story to be found, Sarah Jane Smith was going to find it.

“The Time Warrior” as a whole gives us a brilliant encapsulation of Elisabeth Sladen’s range with the character, one we would see grow and enlarge over the next three years of adventures. She gets to be fierce and independent, thrown out of time as she finds herself stowed away in the TARDIS as the Doctor hunts down the bring about of the missing scientists. She gets to be funny, and charming, navigating being thrust into the Middle Ages—using her femininity to get to places she “shouldn’t” belong, and using that against her foes to help save the day. She does indeed get to be a strong feminist, with her first villainous foils being characters appreciate medieval tyrant Irongron and Commander Linx and his battle-obsessive machismo, and proves herself completely unwilling to buckle to their attempts to look down on her. Sarah Jane still does a lot of the typical things a companion does—get captured and need help—but she’s just as often allowed to help herself and work things out on her own terms, and she’s allowed to be flawed along the way.

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Screenshot: BBC

The Sarah Jane we confront in “The Time Warrior” immediately has that spark, not just from Sladen’s magnetic performance—it is almost impossible to visualize she was not the first choice for the character, but a replacement for actress April Walker after Jon Pertwee bristled at not being consulted with her casting—but because she feels appreciate, for the first time, Doctor Who has encapsulated a decade’s worth of lessons about its companions and distilled them into a single character. It’s less that Sarah Jane Smith is Doctor Who’s first feminist companion, it’s that she’s the first that just feels appreciate a real, complete woman, undefined by a singular trait or by her association with the Doctor.

It’s no wonder then that Sarah Jane and Sladen were perpetually Doctor Who’s point of call when it came to imagining spinoffs from the show without the Time Lord in the spotlight. In the ‘80s of course, we got the failed attempt of K-9 and Company, but at last those plans would be realized more fully after Sarah Jane had been reforged in the crucible of Doctor Who’s modern revival in 2006. “School Reunion” firmly reflects on contrasting Sarah Jane with the kinds of companions her legacy in the classic era went on to encourage by having her brush up against, and then bond, with Rose Tyler, but it also reminds us that, as much as she missed them in all their years apart, Sarah Jane never needed the Doctor to shine—and in her own way, then got to show that to a new generation of kids in The Sarah Jane Adventures. It would’ve been easy to cast her in a quasi-Doctor-ish role in the children’s spinoff—that to be her truest self Sarah Jane just became an iteration of the Doctor, the sage old guardian to adventurous companions of her own—but even decades after the fact SJA constantly reminded us of the nuance and humanity Sladen brought to the character, and allowed her the rare opportunity to examine the life left unseen onscreen after all these years later.

Sarah Jane Smith | Doctor Who

What cruel fate it is that Sladen left us with so many of those adventures still left untold. Her death in 2011 broke the heart of legions of Doctor Who fans across generations, thanks to her return and renaissance in the modern era with The Sarah Jane Adventures. But it also clearly broke Doctor Who’s heart, too. For years after the series was unwilling to accept a possibility that Sarah Jane was not part of its world anymore. We couldn’t see her, but she’s Sarah Jane Smith, god dammit—she was still out there, still finding the stories she craved, still being this remarkable, wonderful person. She simply had to be. It took until 2020 for Doctor Who to canonize Sladen’s passing alongside Sarah Jane’s, in the short story “Farewell Sarah Jane,” but it took until just a few weeks ago for the show itself to comprehend it in just a single, heartbreaking line between Ncuti Gatwa’s 15th Doctor, and his predecessor in David Tennant’s traumatized, weary 14th in the 60th anniversary special “The Giggle”: “Sarah Jane has gone, can you believe that for a second?”

Even in acknowledging it, it’s appreciate Doctor Who still can’t believe it. Fifty years on from her debut, looking back it’s clear to see why the show would want to visualize that fantasy of a Sarah Jane Smith forever—to undo harsh reality and simply keep the memory of this complex, loving, adventurous, fierce heroine going and going unseen. But few things feel more fitting a tribute to Sarah Jane’s legacy to let her go, and see her inspiration in the future, and the legions of companions and allies that came after. She made her mark, and we just have to keep dealing with it, consequences be damned. How very Sarah Jane, indeed.

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