Sarah Jane Smith: Roving Reporter

by Kevin W. Parker

Based on the official biography, as published in Doctor Who Magazine (Holiday Special, 1992).

Sarah Jane Smith was born on the 28th of May, 1956, in Liverpool, England. She was the only child of Nigel Collins Smith, a local businessman, and Alice Trent Smith. Tragically, her parents were to play only a limited part in her life, as in 1961 they were both killed in an automobile accident. Five-year-old Sarah Jane was taken under the care of her aunt, Lavinia Smith, the noted virologist, and grew up under the wing of that strong female figure.

Everyone who knew her as a child remembers her as quite a tomboy, always interested in exploring and continually allowing her curiosity to get the better of her. She developed an odd coterie of friends, often preferring the company of adults to those her own age. Her aunt has remarked:

She always seemed to be around the grownups, asking questions about what they were doing and frequently making a nuisance of herself. And she preferred the more unusual characters: one of her favorites was an elderly chap who was rumoured to have been a poacher in his younger days, though he was never caught at it. He even taught her how to use a rifle, a skill she was quite pleased with.

Doctor Smith took pains to give her charge a suitable education, eventually sending her off to Caterham School for Girls, a reputable but forward-looking establishment whose headmistress had views on the place of women in society that accorded with that of both Smiths. Young Sarah Jane made her mark at the school in three respects: as an excellent student with a gift for communicating, as one of the fastest field hockey players, and as something of a maverick, inclined to simply ignore any rules that didn't make sense to her.

After finishing at Caterham, she went on to the University of Nottingham, which also brought on a surprising (to her, anyway) change in her social life:

I had always been rather an ugly duckling, with a fat face and no figure to speak of, plus I didn't concern myself much about my appearance. But I decided if I were going to university I had to be a bit more of a lady, and so I tried to dress up and take care of myself a bit better. And I think now that I must have blossomed quite a bit that summer. So I started at Nottingham and the boys were all after me, which was quite a new experience. I didn't twig why for a while. At first I thought it was just that university blokes had better taste!

Her first real romance came when she met Andrew Lofts, an ambitious student one year ahead of her whose goal was to become a television journalist. However, she does not credit Lofts for her choice of journalism as a career. Her aunt had encouraged her to go into science, as she had done, but young Sarah Jane had other ideas.

I had nothing against science, and I think I could have been good at it, but it just didn't seem right. I was always more interested in people. Since I knew I could write, journalism just seemed to be the obvious choice.

She became engaged to Andrew during his last year at Nottingham; however, this did not last:

Andy was an enthusiastic supporter of women's lib in the abstract, but he never realised that it applied to him, too. When he graduated, he thought I should leave school and help him with his career. I had other plans.

After three years of dedicated work on the university magazine, she had been rewarded with the position of editor for her final year. Going with Lofts would have meant losing that opportunity as well as not completing her degree. After much soul-searching, she chose to break the engagement. (Lofts went on to become a very successful television reporter, specializing in the Middle East. He was killed a few years ago while covering the civil strife in Beirut.)

She graduated with honors and went into a rather peripatetic apprenticeship, doing stints at various local newspapers. She began with a small Liverpool weekly, then opted to get away from familiar ground and moved to Scarborough. A year there, then two years in Manchester, and she took on the big time, moving down to London.

She remembers this as one of the most challenging periods in her life. Her job on one of the Manchester dailies had not given her the opportunities she craved, since her editor kept pushing her toward the women's pages when her interest, as now, lay more in the direction of investigative reporting:

I wasn't about to write women's stuff unless it was from a feminist angle. That was still quite controversial and my editor there would have none of it. Finally, I became fed up with the situation, lost my temper, and handed in my notice on the spot. I was hoping to move to London eventually, but in retrospect I should have done more in the way of preparation and networking.
It was very difficult at first, but she scratched and scrabbled for the odd freelance assignment, and was beginning to achieve some success.

But at this point Sarah Jane's career takes a most unusual turn. As one of her more adventurous attempts to get a story, she actually impersonated her aunt and managed to worm her way into a top-security government research centre. The United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) was providing security there at the time, and somehow she ended up working with them. Several UNIT members remember her quite clearly, as with then-Captain Michael Yates:

She appeared quite suddenly, attaching herself to the Doctor and quickly becoming very much a part of the team. She was very interested in everything that was going on, asking all sorts of questions. I remember it was very difficult looking into those big hazel eyes and keeping my mouth shut when I was supposed to!

And Warrant Officer Benton:

I probably shouldn't say this, but my first impression of her was what beautiful teeth she had. What a thing to notice about a bird, eh? Seriously, she was always polite and curious. Not everyone takes much notice of us enlisted men, but it never seemed to matter to her.

Sarah Jane shortly after joining UNIT

Her exact duties have never been described, though she acquired the title of assistant to the chief scientific advisor. This position was evidently quite important to her, as she devoted far more time to it than to her budding journalistic career, a choice which set back her progress in the latter by several years. She received only a few assignments during this period, in particular one for the Metropolitan to research local resistance to property speculators, but was inconsistent about completing them. This lack of reliability lost her much face with her editors.

Again, details are sketchy about this period in her career, but it was clear that she was leading an exciting life. Though her job was so secretive that she virtually vanished from the face of the earth for most of the duration, she materialized on several occasions, generally ones when all hell was breaking loose.

Incidents she was spotted at include: the 1979 evacuation of London, some mysterious events at a monastery near Norwich, the downfall of the Scientific Research Society, the 1980 chain of accidents to the North Sea oil rigs, the shocking return of Guy Crayford to the Space Research Centre in Devesham, the peculiar happenings in and near the estate of eccentric millionaire Harrison Chase, and the series of freak accidents that disabled the nuclear power facility in Nunton.

This last adventure seemed to give Miss Smith her fill of excitement. It didn't help that she had almost simultaneously been hospitalized due to an accident in a nearby quarry. It was the spring of 1981, and she retired from active duty.

However, she remained close to UNIT and in fact developed a romantic relationship with the UNIT medical officer at the time, Harold Sullivan.

I think I was a bit shell-shocked, so to speak, after I left UNIT. I was looking for a bit of stability in my life, and Harry is as stable as they come.

Lieutenant Sullivan also has fond memories:

Sarah's a ripping girl, and I was very flattered with her interest in me. She seemed to need me at the time, but I think we both knew, deep down, that it wouldn't last.
They parted as good friends and have remained so to this day.

On the professional side, it was time to recuperate and mend fences with her various editors. This took some time, but a breakthrough step came when she got some help from Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, then commander of UNIT-UK:

I had heard through Lieutenant Sullivan that Miss Smith was having some difficulty re-establishing herself, and I thought this was grossly unfair considering what she had been through. So I passed the word along to some Fleet Street connections that she had been engaged in service to her country of the utmost importance and should not be penalized for doing so. It seemed to help.

It did, indeed. Percy Wollstonecraft, then editor of the Metropolitan and never one to miss an opportunity, brought a proposal to Smith. Shortly thereafter, his magazine had yet another exclusive, with a three-part article on UNIT penned by her and providing the public's first-ever glimpse at this secretive organisation.

Other articles appearing under her byline during this period were an odd assortment, but included ones on nuclear power plant safety, extra-sensory perception, the state of the art in robotics, and the possibility of life on other planets.

Christmas of 1981 approached and, with her career back in good shape once again, she decided to retreat to the quiet countryside of her aunt's new residence, a farm in the Cotswolds, and begin work on expanding her article on UNIT into a book. However, yet again she found herself in the midst of some excitement and ended up exposing a coven of witches who were about to sacrifice her aunt's ward.

Things settled down a bit after that, and her history of UNIT, Fighting for Humankind, was published in late 1982. Despite the censorship the book was subjected to in Europe, it remains the most authoritative work on that organisation available to the general public and copies are frequently imported from the States, alongside other 'banned' bestsellers such as Peter Wright's Spycatcher.

Once she had completed that book, she moved back to South Croydon and returned to her journalistic career in earnest. Her first big success came in 1983, when she published a series of articles exposing the COBRA terrorist and arms dealing network in Western Europe, coincident with a six-nation crackdown by UNIT. She has continued to report on similar stories and remains one of Britain's top journalists in that field. But she is not content to devote herself to one field and has made herself one of the most eclectic of journalists, covering areas as diverse as the space program, cults and mysticism, robotics, medicine, and hypnotism.

A few years on and another interesting addition to her resumé came along, that of science fiction writer. Her first novel, World War Skaro , was a huge success, with many readers appreciating her gift for creating vivid, realistic characters, most notably the mysterious alien Doctor, in a fantastic setting. And she has continued to produce Doctor books at roughly the rate of one per year, with the most recent one, The Monster at the End of Space, finding its way onto both The Times and New York Times bestseller lists.

Today, she is one of Britain's best-known and best-respected journalists, as well as a successful science fiction writer. Does she have any further ambitions?

Oh, yes, there's always more to do. For one thing, the European Space Agency is soliciting candidates for its journalist-in-space program, and I've put in an application for that. Of course, I don't know if I'll get in, but I have covered the space program, and I think I'd be a natural for it. We'll see. Really, I'm very happy doing what I'm doing.

She maintains a home in South Croydon accompanied by a mechanical dog, rumoured to be a gift from Doctor John Smith (no relation), one of her former UNIT associates. However, she seldom finds herself there, as, both professionally and otherwise, she is often travels to exotic locales, something she greatly enjoys doing. "Roving reporter" is indeed an apt description.

Recent update: Ms. Smith has of late often been seen in the company of Victor Nevis, an American computer engineer currently doing a consulting stint at the European Centre for Computer Engineering. Word is that they became acquainted when he repaired her robot dog. When asked about the romantic implications of this, all she would say is, "We're just good friends. Can't a man and a woman just be friends these days?"

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