“School Reunion” has an interesting if quickly resolved story, new aliens with a suitably grand goal and a creative way of achieving that goal, and some good performances from all involved. I do have some issues with characterization, but I’ll come to those in a moment.
I think this is the first time the 45 minute format really seemed too short to me. So many ideas and story threads are crammed into this episode, but it’s not as though they aren’t dealt with. It’s just that every little plot idea is shown and resolved so rapidly that the episode really does feel rushed. There’s no dramatic process of discovery, where events proceed and I as the audience have time to think about and mentally digest the latest plot revelation before the next one comes along. Everything is thrown at the audience at a break-neck pace. This approach doesn’t derail the story by any means, but it’s just not as emotionally satisfying as I would like.
That being said, at least the story isn’t dull. The Doctor is already in place and investigating when the story opens, which is new ground for the series, and also indicative of the generally rushed pace of events. It’s hilarious that Rose is working in the school kitchen and that she’s clearly resentful of that fact! It doesn’t take long figure out that something is amiss in the school, as demonstrated by the genius kid in the Doctor’s physics class and the odd cooking oil in the kitchen.
Then during the chat in the teacher’s lounge one of my favorite companions is added to the mix: Sarah Jane Smith. I’ve been looking forward to this episode ever since I heard that Elisabeth Sladen would been guest starring. And John Leeson is back voicing K9 as well! And while it’s wonderful to see the two characters again, the characterization of Sarah is the part of this episode that bothers me. I don’t want to criticize said characterization, since apparently Mrs. Sladen felt that the writers had treated Sarah well, but it’s just sad to think that she had pined away for the Doctor for thirty years. That’s not the strong independent Sarah Jane I remember. I imagine it would be very difficult to go back to an ordinary life after all those experiences and adventures she’d had, but to have denied herself a family and a life of her own is just sad, and frankly a little tough to believe. I’d rather they hadn’t gone that route with her story. Especially when it’s patently obvious that Sarah is being treated in part as an object lesson for Rose as much as a character in her own right. That isn’t sad, it’s downright irritating.
The first meeting between the Doctor and Sarah where he knows her but she doesn’t recognize him is lovely, as he’s clearly delighted to see her again, and as proud as he can be of her. David Tennant just does an outstanding job in that scene. Later on when they meet in the school and head down to the diner, he’s clearly enjoying her company, though Rose is not. Now here I have to say that though I’ve generally liked Rose up to this point, her little jealous fits are becoming very irritating. So much so that I’d just as soon she left the show than put up with having to watch them over and over. It’s bad enough when she’s throwing the evil eye at Lynda with a y, but when she starts criticizing Sarah Jane it’s too much. Grow up and get over it already. In this fan’s view, if it comes down to a choice between Rose and Sarah Jane, Sarah wins every time.
Is it me, or is “The Five Doctors” pretty much ignored? It’s odd with all the continuity that’s on display that Sarah pretty much acts as if she hasn’t seen the Doctor since he dropped her off in what turned out to be Aberdeen. I suppose that in “The FIve Doctors” she did spend the majority of her time with the third Doctor, who of course hadn’t been the one who dropped her off and left, but she did meet the fifth briefly. Perhaps we could rationalize it away by saying that she didn’t realize he was the ‘successor’ to her Doctor. But then there’s the presence of K9, who the Doctor obviously left for her some time after he dropped her off, so she would have known he hadn’t died. I think that in order to write the story he wanted to, Toby Whithouse had to ignore the fact that Sarah had already had some closure, and had to play fast and loose with the old series in order to make something more out of the ‘best friends’ that the fourth Doctor and Sarah were. I get the feeling that like so many people today, the writers of this show have a hard time conceiving of a close friendship that doesn’t involve romance and sex, which shows a lack of imagination on their part, to say the least. As I said before, turning Sarah into the victim of unrequited love so she can be a sad old spinster and a object lesson to Rose is certainly not respectful of the character, or faithful to the past.
All of that being said, Sarah is still one of my all-time favorites, and the use of her character, above complaints excepted, is good enough that I still enjoyed her inclusion in the episode tremendously. And the ‘real goodbye’ at the end is touching, and I’m glad to see she finally got that goodbye.
Poor K9 is all rusty and not working well. But Sarah is still carrying him around, and the Doctor is happy to see him again, and Tennant just does so well in expressing his delight that it’s infectious. The little dog is as endearing as ever, though he doesn’t get a lot of time on screen, he is crucial to resolving the plot and ending the Krillitane threat. He’s a brave little fellow, and I’m glad I knew he was coming back at the end of the episode, or I’d have been really unhappy when he sacrificed himself to blow up the school. As it is, he gets some of the best lines, telling Mickey several times “We are in a car”, and his smug little “Affirmative” to the Headmaster’s “You bad dog!” I was just grinning like a little kid again when he comes to the rescue in the cafeteria and starts shooting down Krillitane.
I really enjoyed Anthony Head’s performance as well. I remember him from the Excelis audios that Big Finish released a few years back, where he was quite good as Lord Grayvorn. He’s just as good here, with his distinctive voice and restrained mannerisms. Then he gets angry and looks rather fiendish, and clearly seems to be having fun in the part of an evil alien school headmaster who eats students. He’s a good strong bit of casting which I think was certainly needed in a story with so much going on. A less distinctive actor might well have been lost in the shuffle or just outshone by Sarah and K9’s return.
The coda at the end is welcome, as Sarah gets to see the TARDIS and comment that she ‘preferred the old one’, and turn down an offer to travel again. It’s good to see the Doctor express his affection for her so openly. Most of the time I prefer the Doctor to be reserved, but not in this case. Sarah’s obvious happiness at seeing K9 again is well performed, and the scene elicited a bit “awwwww” out of my wife, who didn’t know it was coming.
As for David Tennant, he put in another fine performance. His acting is first rate from start to finish. As is the episode itself. It’s not perfect by any means, and I have other minor nitpicks besides the characterization of Sarah, but generally speaking the story is good and works quite well. One of my favorites of the new season.
Okay then, in a nutshell…the Doctor meets an old companion resulting in much “you left me you cad” dialogue, all of which takes place in a school to get the kids interested, while a bunch of bat creatures try to take over the universe with super-enhanced chip-oil. Add to that a robot dog with a laser in its nose, and I’d be hard pressed to find a less enticing prospect for an episode. Actually School Reunion is okay, but rather than falling short of greatness like some other episodes do, “okay” is all this episode can ever hope to achieve. With Toby Whithouse not being a fan of the original series, it becomes a worrying sign of the way the series could go if more writers came along taking their inspiration solely from Russell T. Davies’s blueprint.
I write my reviews by going chronologically through the episode and highlighting anything interesting on the way; the first notable element is Anthony Stewart Head as Mr Finch, who immediately sees his character for what it is. Whether or not having the monsters led by a campy supervillain (apparently an “ironic” one, not that that necessarily makes a difference) detracts from their credibility, Head plays the role the only way that could possibly work: by hamming it up. It’s done with a lot of skill though, making it seem genuinely ironic (and therefore clever) rather than an attempt at it (and therefore smug). With every scene he’s in geared up to cater for his character’s cartoonish quality (“nearly time for lunch…”) he says in the pre-titles sequence, there really isn’t any other option.
Some of the Doctor’s lines are terrible (“physics, physics, physics, physics, physics, physics, physics, physics, etc”) and combined with David Tennant’s performance, which is growing increasingly irritating by this stage, the character becomes cringe-inducing. The creepy little kid with alien knowledge is contrastingly effective, and it speaks volumes when the series’s lead actor is outperformed by a twelve-year-old.
Having the episode start with the Doctor and Rose already two days into their investigations is a good use of the forty-five minute format, and throughout its length the pacing feels much more natural than with many other episodes. It isn’t structural problems that beset School Reunion. The problem is with the characters largely, and the Doctor’s line of “happy-slapping hoodies with ringtones” (or something like that) is unbearably self-conscious, the kind of pop culture reference that really needs toning down – especially with all the “eh? Eh?” stuff he gives it afterwards. Such relentless referencing of 2006 going to look so silly in years to come, you mark my words: how much would people laugh at the Jon Pertwee years if he went round with the latest Mud LP under his arm going on about greebos with flares and lapels, on space-hoppers? It’s followed by a tense scene where one of the Krillitanes gets burned by the oil – it’s only when they start cooking chips in it that it loses its allure as a science-fiction device.
It’s great to see Elisabeth Sladen again as she is a really wonderful actress and my favourite original series companion, but she shows up a flaw in the episode’s characterisation very early on: the Doctor (a complete stranger at this stage) only has to mention “John Smith” and suddenly she’s off down memory lane like somebody has flicked a switch.
Perhaps it seems odd because Sladen plays it so straight, while Anthony Stewart Ham, the Doctor’s wackiness and Mickey’s “where’s the Maths department” routine owe more of a debt to season 24. Sarah’s first sight of the TARDIS is possibly the episode’s best scene: it’s manipulative, like all the rest, but it gets away with it for being reasonably well-written and well directed by James Hawes (who still disappoints after the tour de force that was The Empty Child), although as usual Murray Gold overdoes the music. His scores for the new series are much easier on the ears than many early scores, but they can’t hope to just fade into the background, and nothing removes mystery more than having that ubiquitous “oooooooOOOOOOOOooooo” singing come floating out of nowhere whenever anything remotely enigmatic happens.
There’s yet another moment of self-referential metafiction, when Sarah responds with “okay, now I can believe it’s you” when she hears a scream. I tuned in to watch Doctor Who, not a programme about Doctor Who!
The vacuum-packed rats are a slight improvement in terms of imagery, and these little touches are what rescue the episode to an extent.
K9 makes for a large prod at my fanboy-nature but he was never my favourite original series creation.
Ordinarily the café scene would be one of those moments where the plot has to grind to a halt to allow for an emotional moment (a common fault of the new series), but it feels less obtrusive here; it takes place at night, when there’s a natural break in the narrative anyway, and the repairing of K9 gives it more of a sense of focus. However, all the “you were my life” moments are annoying, retconning the original series into line with the new series’s mawkish ethos.
I’m all for engaging with what happens to companions after they’ve left, but to have them miserable and pining is to remove all their dignity – not to mention spoiling Sarah’s wonderfully elegant departure at the end of The Hand Of Fear. It’s rescued by Mickey to a large degree, as Noel Clarke stakes a claim for the episode’s best actor. There’s some unusually crude exposition as the Doctor gives a mini lecture on the Krillitanes – a race that reshapes itself with parts of other species is a very nice idea, but since they’re sidelines for so much of the episode they can never be a classic monster and can only be relegated to the “could have been good with more care” bin.
The Doctor’s confrontation with Rose outside the café comes from an interesting perspective, asking the question “what do you do when he’s left you?” but it’s very badly handled with excessive “curse of the Time Lords” guff and the Doctor just breaking off his sentence before saying the word “love”. The are-they-aren’t-they aspect of the new series is one of its less mature features – who cares either way, where are the monsters?
The swimming pool scene, which surprisingly seems to have become one of the big set pieces of the entire second series, is a worthy moment in the episode; Head gets some interesting dialogue, and both performers do well with even Tennant quietening down for a moment.
By contrast, there’s more peculiar characterisation going on in the Maths lab: first of all the episode goes into complete continuity meltdown, referencing fourteen other episodes in the space of about half a minute, an excess to which John Nathan-Turner never stooped to even at his most insular. For some reason it triggers another random change in the characters as Rose and Sarah go from hating each other to being best friends in the space of a single line of dialogue.
School Reunion is an explicitly character driven episode, the series two equivalent of Father’s Day in that respect, and while that’s not necessarily a problem (I liked Father’s Day) it does mean that it’s a fairly basic requirement that the characters are convincing and you don’t get this by removing all trace of emotional development. What actually happens is that characters go from A to Z without ever passing through the rest of the alphabet, if you’ll pardon that horrendous analogy.
Okay, here’s a criticism that’s going to sound really unreasonable: the Scasis Paradigm is bad because it’s too interesting. That really sounds like I’m looking for things to criticise, but the reasoning is this: the thought of an equation that can unlock complete control of time and space is a massively compelling one. In fact, in the late 1970s an entire season was dedicated to a not-dissimilar concept. In this case though it serves merely as a platform for the characters to go on one emotional journey to another, and as such feels like a real wasted opportunity. What could be the best idea of the episode is thrown away.
However, it does lead to a great scene where the Doctor is tempted by the prospect of power…which is itself let down by Sarah suddenly changing her mind yet again, like she’s having a breakdown, and telling him in a great monologue (one of the new series’s trademark features) about the importance of change.
It’s quite fun watching K9 shoot at the Krillitanes and I suppose the simplicity of how the plot is resolves is proportional to how much prevalence that aspect of the episode had in the narrative anyway.
However, the children cheering as the school blows up puts the episode firmly in kids’-show territory. It finishes with a sugary-sweet ending scene where emotional dialogue, and the music to go with it, gets delivered by truck. I won’t dwell on it really as my opinion of this kind of thing is already well documented. One thing though: isn’t Sarah saying that she preferred the old TARDIS console room a bit of a v-sign at production designer Ed Thomas? Not that she’s wrong or anything.
School Reunion is one of those episodes that depends on my mood, and tonight I didn’t enjoy it that much. Looking at it more objectively I feel it just about squeaks an average rating, but only just. All I can say for it is that it doesn’t disappoint; where Tooth And Claw should have been a classic, School Reunion just settles into its furrow and stays there. A common complaint with many average episodes is that “it’s not as good as it could have been”; in this case I find myself thinking that it’s not as bad as it nearly is . The only thing I can’t work out is whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
We knew this was coming for a while. We had the return of Cassandra and her spiders, the return of the “celebrity historical”… but we were all waiting patiently for this episode. The return of the old friends. I was doubly excited to learn that this episode would take place in a comprehensive school. I can’t tell you how much I’ve wanted to see a Doctor Who story in this setting. It took far too long, if you ask me. And, of course, Anthony Stewart head as the main villain… what more could one ask of a Doctor Who story?
After an excellent opening, we’re straight into the action. The Doctor and Rose are already on the case… a rarity in these modern narratives, but I feel they always work well. The look on Rose’s face all through the school-dinner scene is just priceless. We’re heading into “romp” territory here, with Mickey’s undercover work and the strange demise of a dinner-lady (and “She’s fine… she does that” is my favourite comic line in this series so far). But right on time, we get our dose of drama, when our old friend Sarah Jane Smith walks down the stairs and into the staffroom. When the Doctor looks up and sees her… well, can’t you just see the character behind his eyes? True, David Tennant was starstruck by Lis Sladen’s presence, but in the context of the story, this is the Doctor incredibly happy to see his old friend again. The Time Lord just can’t contain himself when she simply strides up to him and shakes his hand like he’s a stranger… which, as far as she knows, he is. But the Doctor knows better, and he can’t stop beaming. He’s even happier to find out Sarah Jane is investigating again. Some things never change.
That night, the Doctor’s “team” sneaks back into the school, as does our intrepid journalist. First she discovers a hauntingly familiar blue box, then she’s confronted with a very serious-looking Doctor, marvellously wearing his long coat (I guess it makes him more familiar as the Doctor). Once again, I can see every previous incarnation behind his eyes. It’s a disarming feeling. Of course, Sarah’s a smart woman, and he hasn’t completely disarmed her. She wants to know why he left her, and naturally, he skirts around the subject. Well, wouldn’t you? Luckily for our Doctor, they’re soon joined by the rest of the “gang”, and the plot thickens. It’s a very simple plot so far – bat-like aliens have taken over the school for some reason – but it’s clear that the alien plot doesn’t matter too much. We’re here for Sarah. Still, it’s too bad the creatures don’t look more realistic. After last year’s Reapers, and last episode’s wonderful CGI werewolf, I expected The Mill to come up with something slightly less cartoon-like. Oh, well. Like I said, we’re not here for that. It’s the girl we want.
And, of course, the tin dog. Bless the tin dog. Even if we’ve laughed at you for twenty-five years, K9, we’re still happy you’re back. What can I say? We’re fans. We’re hypocritical. John Leeson doesn’t sound like he’s missed a day of filming – let alone a couple of decades. Meanwhile, Mickey is in Smug Mode with Rose. That’s very cute, but I can’t believe how jealous Rose is. Okay, she didn’t realise she was “the latest in a long line”, but the Doctor is over nine centuries old – obviously he’s had a life before her. I far prefer Mickey’s subplot here… yes, he’s the tin dog. And suddenly, I love him for it. Rose has been quite callous towards Mickey, if you think about it. I’m beginning to prefer him to Rose. Yikes.
Finally, we have a scene between the Doctor and Mr Finch. Anthony Head is incredible in this role… he seems so comfortable in the world of Doctor Who, and I do hope the production team find some way to resurrect his character. It’s a crying shame that he was sidelined so much in this story, but being the wonderful actor that he is, he managed to stick in my memory more than any villain in this new version of the programme so far. You can keep your Cassandras, or your Blons, or even your Emperor Daleks. Mr Finch blows them all out of the water.
Aha, so they’re trying to crack the Scasis Paradigm. Very nice name, clever little concept. Again, it’s a shame there’s not more time to explore it. But the image of those children typing furiously away at those terminals (just like I’m doing now, come to think of it) is inspired, disturbing, and very Doctor Who.
Gloriously, it’s Mickey, K9 and the schoolboy Kenny who end up saving the day. I’ve got no complaints that the Doctor wasn’t the one who blew up the Krillitanes – it’s not his style to pull the trigger, is it? K9’s death is such a noble moment, it’s easy to forget he’s a robot. Sarah is obviously distraught – it’s also easy to forget K9 was, above everything else, her dog. The companion’s companion.
It’s difficult for a longtime Whovian not to well up in the final scenes. We want the Doctor to be right – no more goodbyes – but when Sarah begs for a last farewell, we somehow understand. People have to move on, they have to evolve. They have to say goodbye. And that’s okay. We’ll still survive.
Thankfully, though, Sarah doesn’t have to try and survive without her companion. K9 Mark IV is waiting for her, and sounds pleased to see his mistress. And as they walk off into the distance, I reflect on the past forty-five minutes. Was there something about aliens? I distinctly remember Anthony Head’s incredible performance, and it was great to see Kenny taking the credit for blowing up the school, but the rest belonged to Sarah. And that’s exactly how it should be.
I suppose I should start with the problems and the plot. The Krillitane storyline has been criticized by some for being ‘uncomplicated’ (read: stooopid), and it’s true it does have some problems. I’ve been disappointed to see how quickly Russell T. Davies’s Doctor Who, at times so wary of imitating the classic series, has begun to imitate *itself* instead. Already this season we’ve had another gothic monster story in which the Doctor meets a giant of the Victorian Era (‘Tooth and Claw’), and now we get a kind of fat-free remix of the Slitheen scenario (though minus the ‘laughs,’ thank god). And not only is the story unoriginal, it's unbelievable as well, as we are asked to swallow that beings whom the Doctor identifies as an incredibly grave threat to the universe would a) allow two complete unknowns to be placed on staff within their undercover operation, and b) let a member of the *press* wander around their HQ with an open invitation! "Imagine how bad things could possibly get," indeed – these Krillitanes do everything to give themselves away short of buying a full-page ad in ‘Time Out.’ And the concept of the aliens as composite monsters that take on the characteristics of consumed races is a great one, yet it is hardly borne out by their appearance, unless of course the Krillitanes spent many campaigns conquering one species of giant bat after another. (Seriously, one wonders whether the designer even read that bit of the script).
But let's move on to the good. The story’s guest star, Anthony Stewart Head, can probably be mentioned up front as well; Finch is a bit undercharacterized on paper, but Head’s acting is nicely plummy in the old style, and it’s sort of a shame he didn’t turn out to be playing the Master after all. But that would have sent the already dangerously over-percolating Nostalg-O-Meter off the charts, and there just isn’t room for this to be the Master’s story.
Sarah Jane Smith, having been one of the longer-running companions and having accompanied two of the most popular Doctors, seems like the only choice for a story that mainly leaves the monsters to the kiddies and offers the grown-ups in the audience the long-term implications of companion life instead, via a walk down Fan Memory Lane. And, somewhat surprisingly, ‘School Reunion’ does this about as well as could be hoped, especially given the constraints of the 45-min. format. Toby Whithouse’s screenplay doesn’t manage the depth or wit or poetry of, say, ‘Father’s Day,’ but it does communicate its sentimental subject matter directly and believably, without lapsing into the heavy-handedness that marred the last big attempt to wrestle with series past (‘Dalek’). Sarah’s bittersweet future is well conceived, and believably played out; and while it’s true that her spontaneous scratchfest with Rose seems a touch forced, there’s genuine emotion behind it, and each woman’s emotional response to the ‘other companion’ seems real.
A sidebar: now, some have suggested that the story projects a love relationship onto the Doctor and Sarah that was never there to begin with. One can make such an argument, I suppose, but I don’t think this script ever makes that explicit: when Sarah says “You *were* my life,” it seems like a reflection not of Love-With-a-Capital-L, but of the lost “splendor” of travel and adventure. How could an earthbound life compare after her years in the TARDIS? And even if the script implies that the young Sarah, after being unceremoniously ‘dumped’ – in Aberdeen, hilariously – developed a retroactive crush on her friend and teacher, well, is that really so hard to believe or accept? She was one of the few companions to leave the TARDIS unwillingly, and her pain at finding herself replaced and unmentioned feels authentic with or without the supposed love angle, so I guess it doesn’t bother me either way.
And as for Rose, whose take on the situation as (expectedly) less mature, she is also quite sympathetic as she realizes that maybe ‘her’ Doctor isn’t quite so lonely as he’s let her on to be. If there has been a love story between Rose and the Doctor, it’s been a one-sided one to this point, and the knowledge we have of Rose’s puppyish crush helps us to feel for her, and to see how her character grows here. Mickey grows as well – after a whole season of not knowing what to do with him, the production team have finally begun to develop him into interesting companion material. His self-comparison to K9 is funny and fitting – how often did K9 find himself stuck behind while the Doctor and Leela or Romana went rock-climbing or whatever? And as for K9 himself, he isn’t given much to do – whether this was simply because of time restrictions, or whether it was a bone thrown to all those fans who despise him, is hard to say. Still, I thought John Leeson sounded great – 25 years have not deteriorated his voice in the way they have, say, Anthony Daniels’s. (But that’s another story.)
Four episodes in, I’m still not sure I like David Tennant’s Doctor – fast-talking, repetitions, and other silly verbal tics aside, I don’t really get a sense of his personality yet. Oh, he *acts* a lot – his half-smile and obvious agitation when the Doctor sees Sarah can hardly fail to please – but I’m not sure the actor has really established who this Doctor is yet, beyond being a sort of lanky, blathering goof. The dark, damaged, preoccupied Eccleston seems long gone, and when this Doctor considers using the Krillitanes’ power to undo the Time War, it’s an odd, out-of-tune moment. Does this silly Doctor even remember or care about that?
Now, fans have also complained, as fans must, about the continuity problems created by the script ignoring Sarah’s role in ‘The Five Doctors’ and ‘K9 and Company.’ It also irked me how the script worked to insinuate that the Doctor’s call home in ‘The Hand of Fear’ had something to do with the Time War (“Everyone died, Sarah” – whatever, Doc). But the continuity patrollers will simply have to work those questions out, and besides, the ‘dueling companions’ monster catalogue scene goes along way towards validating the continuity of the old series in relation to the new, and that should be enough to make most fans very happy.
All in all a thoughtful, if not quite inspired, attempt to reconcile this show’s past and future. And Elisabeth Sladen is just marvelous.
"Give Sarah Jane Smith my fondest love. Tell her I shall remember her always." - K-9, in "K-9 and Company", 1981.
"School Reunion" was an extraordinary episode, worthy of both old and new Who. It served as a smart, well-paced adventure that didn't require an understanding of the Doctor's past to appreciate the pathos, fun and seriousness of a "missus meeting the ex" scenario.
It was also a nostalgic trip for fans of Sarah Jane and her trusty tin friend which, sensitively written and acted, added weight to the enigma that is The Doctor.
Whereas we're used to the love story of Doctor Nine/Ten and Rose Tyler, this was about a different, classic series love, rekindled after three decades.
But rather than resorting to a fanw*nky continuity-laden script, bogged down by references to Harry and the Brigadier (bless them) or the second Kraal from the left in 4J, the script was filled with easy-to-follow mentions which served as foundation stones for the situation.
Toby Whithouse's script buzzed; there were crisp one-liners; jousts of claims and counter-claims: "The Loch Ness Monster.... Seriously?"; in-jokes: "You can keep K-9 company......"; and wonderfully considered, touching moments of dialogue ensuring that that this fan blubbed like a baby or laughed out loud through most of the 45 minutes.
The adventure is a well-executed and darn good yarn in itself, but is simple enough not to become more important than the emotional drama unfolding around it.
The actual concept is a good one: alien cherry-pickers invade a secondary school for galactic/dimensional domination by means of children's souls. Far-fetched, but typical, wonderful Who.
The special effects are magnificent, with the Krillitanes very well realised - and almost provided light relief between the emotional bits! But they would surely be scary for the young, and if would-be secondary schoolers aren't just a little bit concerned about what lies in store for them, I'd be surprised.
Murray Gold's use of the orchestra and choir complemented the action admirably, and his use of the Song for Ten was insightful.
The supporting cast are great in this episode, with Tony Head excelling particularly, dripping malevolence from the pre-titles onwards, as he eats young children and staff for lunch.
James Hawes is my favourite director of the new series; his style is pacy and cinematic, and his direction adapts to each different type of story . Here he achieves a lot with a single shot or a well-lit camera angle - a sudden view of a blue box that shocks Sarah Jane into realising her old travelling companion is nearby, a lone tin dog appearing beyond the wheezing and groaning of a disappearing TARDIS, a hug between departing friends. Hawes' direction of the scene where they acknowledge each other is an electric moment for Doctor Who and is truly magnificent television.
The Doctor's reaction is wonderful as he slowly realises Sarah is back. He's seen his friend, whom he probably thought he'd never seen again. He's surprised, and very, very happy. "Oh good for you, Sarah Jane Smith." "My Sarah Jane", back from the companion junkyard of Croydon (near Aberdeen).
And Lis Sladen. What can be said? Always a favourite companion, it was very clever to bring her back alongside the established Rose. One of the few truly self-sufficient companions, SJS was still the same, even in her late fifties. In a moment echoing the Genesis of the Daleks "You must do it" scene, it is Sarah who tries to convince the slightly-tempted Doctor that he mustn't fall in with Finch's plans, as "Everything has its time, and everything ends".
In what should be her swansong, Lis picked up the role she knows so well and gave one of her best ever performances. She was the best thing in "School Reunion", and the good use of her character in terms of emotional development (for her, the Doctor and for Rose) was pure genius.
This is a memorable conclusion for Sarah Jane's story in Who, and at same time managed to deliver real development - after 43 years! - of the Doctor's character.
We get to understand why the other Doctors have sometimes seemed detached. The Doctor cares, but his feelings are compromised by the reality that he lives for hundreds of years. Loved ones will grow old, but he will not: "I lived. Everyone died."
And Rose's story. After all, we can't have an episode of Who without a Rose story! I'm sure her jealousy will develop throughout the series as she comes to terms with the fact that she's not as unique as she may have thought. She initially distrusts SJS' intentions, perhaps believing that,"with the big sad eyes and the robot dog" she will try to take the Doctor away from her. But by the end, they understand each other, with Sarah even suggesting that, post-Doctor, Rose would be welcome to find her. She also offers advice: "Some things are worth getting your heart broken for."
And the nostalgia continued with another truly iconic blast from the past. K-9 was as endearing as ever. He was, indeed, so very "disco", but my affection him has never waned over the years, and I shed another tear or two at the sadness of his demise. But he had been well used, and played an important and amusing role in this episode. He managed to save the day again, giving Mickey a reason to travel in the TARDIS. Now Mickey will need to prove that he's more top dog than tin dog.
All in all, "School Reunion" was in my view the best of the Tennant stories so far. It appealed to new and old viewers alike, and was one of the very strongest of stories emotionally since the series returned.
“The missus and the ex. Welcome to every man’s worst nightmare!”
Mickey may have very succinctly put into words just exactly how the tenth Doctor feels about “School Reunion,” but as a long time fan of the series this episode is just about as far from a ‘nightmare’ as you can get. In his first contribution to the series, Toby Whithouse has written both a classic Doctor Who contemporary horror story and a cracking piece of emotional drama. “School Reunion” may bring back characters and dwell on certain events from the classic series, but this is no piece of fanw**k – this is a story that explores the relationship between the Doctor and Rose (and even to a certain extent Mickey) and that is the reason why we have Sarah Jane Smith and K-9 on board.
Like most people, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw how little Elizabeth Sladen had aged. Her understated introduction into the story (being shown to the staff room by Mr. Finch) is beautifully written and performed, and succeeds in establishing the character of ‘Investigative Journalist’ Sarah Jane Smith for the benefit of those new to the series or those with appalling memory. I love the Doctor’s reaction to her; he is clearly overjoyed to see her but can’t say that he recognises her. I love the line “Oh good for you Sarah Jane Smith!” which is delivered with relish by David Tennant; he’s like a proud parent or teacher, over the moon that his star pupil is still doing what she does best.
As I watched Sarah come across the TARDIS I found myself right on the edge of my seat. James Hawes direction is absolutely superb; Sarah turns slowly to face her old friend and the penny finally drops. For the first time in the episode we see that this is not the same Sarah Jane Smith that the fourth Doctor abandoned in Croydon (well… Aberdeen) way back in “The Hand of Fear.” She’s grown up. She’s even become a little bitter. As Sarah herself puts it, “I got old.” The Doctor claims to have regenerated “half a dozen times” since they last met*, and he too has grown older and harder. The ‘President Flavia’ music (as Russell T. Davies calls it!) has become synonymous with pivotal, heart-wrenching Time Lordy moments in the new series and every time I hear it I end up struggling to prevent a single, manly tear trickling down the cheek. If anything I expected “School Reunion” to be a nostalgic, light-hearted romp but in fact I found it almost as sad as the closing moments of “The Parting of the Ways.”
“I thought you died. I waited for you and you didn’t come back and I thought you must’ve died.”
“I lived. Everyone else died.”
“What you do mean?”
“Everyone died Sarah.”
David Tennant’s voice sounds as if it as about to crack as he says “Everyone died Sarah,” and I can’t say exactly why but for some reason it seems so much more tragic for him to confess his loneliness to an old friend – a friend who knew him when there was a Gallifrey; a UNIT; a family - things for the Doctor that are all long gone. I also liked how the moment wasn’t dwelled on; the scene quickly moved on (thanks to a Mickey Smith scream!) and we were back into the action – even when it is at its ‘soapiest’ this show never slows.
“Did I do something wrong because you never came back for me? You just dumped me… you were my life.”
Sarah Jane is quite possibly the most recognisable of all the Doctor’s travelling companions (hence why Liz Sladen was invited to take part in this episode) and it is wonderfully to have her back for a week and to have the Doctor and Sarah to say their big goodbye, but the fact of the matter is that the real story of “School Reunion” lies with Rose. It is no longer 1976 it is 2006, and it is Rose, not Sarah Jane who we will be watching week in week out. Since “Rose” the relationship between the Doctor and his latest ‘companion’ has been shown as a strange sort of love story; a special, one-of-a-kind affair between a young human girl and centuries’ old alien bloke. “School Reunion” hammers the point home that this special, ‘one-of-a-kind’ affair is far from unique. Sarah Jane came before Rose, as did a great many others. One day Sarah was off fighting Daleks, Mummies and the Loch Ness monster, then the next she found herself lost in the middle of Aberdeen. How could she go back to lead a normal life after that? And more to the point, how will Rose be able to go back and lead a normal life after all her adventures with the Doctor? The thought of it terrified her in “The Parting of the Ways” as she cried to her Mother and Mickey “What do I do every day?” At least back then, Rose was under the illusion that what she has with the Doctor is somehow unique, and that in some way he would always remember her. Her jealous mocking of Sarah - “He’s never mentioned you” – soon comes back to haunt her as she realises that one day, she will be Sarah Jane. She will be the one who is never mentioned.
“As opposed to what?”
The Doctor finally asks the question that no one has ever dared to ask.
“I thought you and me were…”
“I don’t age. I regenerate. But humans decay. You whither and you die. Imagine watching that happen to someone who you… You can spend the rest of your life with me, but I can’t spend the rest of mine with you. I have to live on. Alone. That’s the curse of the Time Lords.”
It is still left open, although from the dialogue and the fantastic performances of both Tennant and Piper it is clear that they do love each other. The Doctor just manages to hold himself back from saying it; it’s on the tip of his tongue. I’m glad that he doesn’t actually say that he loves her – or that he has loved any of his companions for that matter – probably because of the whole eighth Doctor / Charley saga. That particular relationship was handled beautifully (“I love you’s” and all) through “Neverland” and “Zagreus,” then when Big Finish tried to ‘get out of it’ (for want of a better phrase) it just got a little bit too messy. More importantly, the words are not necessary. The audience isn’t dumb; and as it is the dialogue just sparkles and most people can reasonably infer what the Doctor is thinking and feeling.
“Oh my God. I’m the tin dog!”
With all the heavyweight drama going on in “School Reunion” it’s easy to forget Mr. Mickey Smith, who is going on an important character journey of his own. Ever since day one Mickey has been the comic relief, and although his bravery and his confidence are growing with each episode he is still the butt of all the jokes, and I dare say he forever will be. He either can’t find the Maths department or is being down told to sit in the car and “… leave the window open a crack.” However, a combination of clever writing and superb acting from Noel Clarke has slowly made me warm to the character more and more. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never disliked the character - I’ve always found him amusing, even when he was just an irritating, selfish coward, but of late I’ve found myself actively championing Mickey. I want him to do well; I want him to save the day or get the girl – God knows he deserves it! Mr. “Safety Scissors and Glitter” brings something special to almost every scene he is in – even when he has no dialogue his facial expressions alone often have me cracking up! Thanks to a little help from K-9, Mickey really does get to be a hero in this episode – he bravely crashes his car into the school so that the fat bespectacled kid can escape, and even better, he frees all the children by simply unplugging their mind-controlling computers! Incidentally, that scene is another example of just how good James Hawes’ direction is – the way you can almost physically follow Mickey’s train of thought as he looks from the computers, to the floor, to the power cables to the socket is simply fantastic.
Of course, hidden behind the character story is a wonderfully chilling horror story waiting to get out, and although it suffers slightly from not having quite enough screen-time (I think “School Reunion” should have been a serious contender for a two-part slot), it is a damn good one. Landing Anthony Stewart Head for the role of Mr. Finch is a real coup for the show, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else on Earth being as suited to the role as he is. Head can exude evil but he can also lay on the charm; he can stand on top of the school and whisper “come to me” to one of the Krillitanes in one scene and then in the next be smoothly trying to turn the Doctor over to his cause. I was also impressed by Eugene Washington as Mr. Wagner – in many ways I found him far more scary and intense than even Mr. Finch! There is so much classic Doctor Who stuff crammed in forty-four minutes it’s hard to comment on it all, but stuff like the Krillitane flying in front of the moon, the zombie kids in front of their computers and the dinner lady immolation scene are absolutely classic Doctor Who ingredients. Even for those who aren’t into the more sort of ‘real life’ / ‘soap opera’ parts of the story, there is still a hell of a lot of fantastic sci-fi horror to be found in “School Reunion.”
In the beautifully shot ‘showdown’ at the swimming pool between Finch and the Doctor, almost every element is perfect. Writing; acting; lighting; music; direction. It’s just one of those scenes that make you go “WOW!” and for those out there who doubted that David Tennant might not have Christopher Eccleston’s weight, this scene – just like “The Christmas Invasion”’s ‘satsuma’ scene – put any fears to rest.
“I’m so old now. I used to have so much mercy. You get one warning.”
I know I see it in everything, but there is a real Palpatine / Anakin Skywalker thing going on with Finch and the Doctor. This “Scasis Paradigm” idea is heavy stuff for an episode already crammed to bursting point, but it works so well. Finch can offer the Doctor absolute power over everything – quite literally power over life and death – meaning that he can resurrect the Time Lords, Katarina, Adric, Roz and God knows who else. Whereas in that ‘Anakin Skywalker Crisis Moment’ on a weak day he may possibly have broken, Sarah Jane Smith is on hand to remind him exactly why he shouldn’t. It is only as she says the words - “No. The universe has to move forward… everything has its time and everything ends” (misquoting the ninth Doctor) – that she seems to realise what they mean and for the first time since the Doctor abandoned her to return to Gallifrey, she gains some measure of closure.
“You good dog.”
K-9’s heroic sacrifice was something of an unexpected choker but like Sarah, I felt strange being saddened by the death of a “daft metal dog” (or as Finch brilliantly puts it, a “shooty dog thing”) but I suppose if you can get cut up over Data’s death in Star Trek: Nemesis then you can grieve for the third incarnation of a tin dog. I have to say though, I was annoyed at the Star Trek: Nemesis-style cop-out right at the end – how many K-9’s are there going to be? I know he’s getting his own spin-off series (again) but c’mon!
“Some things are worth getting your heart broken for.”
The episode’s ending is satisfying on so many levels. It’s nice to see the Doctor offer Sarah a chance to pick up where they left off, even though he knows that she’ll turn him down because she has a “..much bigger adventure ahead…” Sarah’s face is absolutely priceless when she hears Mickey ask, “Can I come?”, before she realises that he means with the Doctor and Rose, not with her! It’s interesting to see that Rose doesn’t seem to happy about her pseudo-boyfriend coming along for the trip of a lifetime…
Throughout “School Reunion” Murray Gold’s score is incredibly impressive; it reminds me very much of the epic soundtrack to last season’s Dalek episodes, giving the whole episode a real sense of gravity. A beautiful, soft, instrumental version “Song For Ten” contrasts the final scene of the episode with everything that has gone before it as the Sarah Jane makes the Doctor say Goodbye. That’s what really gets you. There’s not a dry eye in the house.
“Goodbye my Sarah Jane!”
As with last year’s much-hyped episode “Dalek”, the Bank Holiday weekend prevented me from watching this historic episode as it went out on Saturday evening (this year blame the Kaiser Chiefs in Millennium Square, Leeds!) but, as with “Dalek”, it was certainly worth the wait. Chilling scenes of horror, gut-wrenching character drama, fantastic dialogue (“Happy slapping hoodies with ASBOs and ringtones!”) and a retro robot dog mean that there is a little bit of something in “School Reunion” for everyone. A positive triumph in every possible respect. I honestly did not believe that the second series could be any better than the first, but the way things are going thus far…
* Probably best to either forget about “The Five Doctors”, or just say after she returned to her own time with the third Doctor, the Time Lords wiped Sarah’s memory! Sorted.