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Apr 30, 2006

Hold On To Your Friends

‘Allow me to introduce you to…Miss Sarah-Jane Smith’.

Now that’s not just a line from tonight’s episode; it’s also pretty much word for word how I remember meeting Lis Sladen at a Liverpool convention over eighteen months ago. Well, actually it went something like this…

Lis: ‘Hi, pleased to meet you. I’m Lis’

Me: ‘Er (looks to the floor, not quite believing that this moment has actually come) Yes, I think I know who you are…’

I would like to give full warning in advance for the levels of hyperbolic gushing to be reached in the following review. But at the same time make no apology for it whatsoever. Because, in a nutshell, ‘School Reunion’ did what pretty much every piece of Doctor Who that I hold dearly to my heart has ever done: it made me feel like a six year-old again. You may have already guessed from reading my musings that I am very much a child of the mid-seventies era of the show. And that can only mean one thing: for me the benchmark for all Doctor Who will always be the time when a tall, brooding, tombstone-teethed bohemian travelled all over time and space with a gutsy, likeable girl who was his (and, by extension, our) best friend. Now time may have moved on; and we’ve all (like Sarah) gotten a whole lot older. But tonight - and for just one night - the laws of time have been reversed; and the fans’ best friend has come back for a final encore. Fancy feeling like a six year-old again? Read on…

So what’s so great - beyond the obvious presence of Elisabeth Sladen - about Toby Whithouse’s debut script? Well I think it’s that very script where we should start first and foremost. This could have all so easily become an exercise in fan nostalgia; a chance for those with Who memories from before 2005 to sit back and bask in our childhoods for forty-five minutes (like, say, watching ‘Pyramids of Mars’ with added wrinkles). But to Whithouse - and, no doubt, Russell T Davies’ - credit, this is far more than bringing back one of the show’s living legends just for the sake of a few in-jokes and some emotional frisson. There is at the core of ‘School Reunion’ a very meditative take on the need to take stock and move on in our lives. It’s a theme that echoes both in Sarah’s personal journey and in the Doctor’s continuing inability to move on from the events of last season’s Time War (don’t believe me, then check out his look when Mr Finch offers him the opportunity to rewrite history and save the Time Lords. The war may be over but the repercussions, it seems, go on). And it’s a message that reinforces one of this revival’s most consistent philosophies: everything has its time. And everything ends.

And isn’t it great, for once, that the story itself has started without us. The idea of the Doctor and Rose already being ‘undercover’ at Deffry Vale High School is surprisingly effective (and makes you wonder why such a technique hasn’t been used more often in the past). And doesn’t Tennant’s Doctor look right at home as a supply teacher? What with this - and his own creation ‘No Angels’ - writer Toby Whithouse is obviously very comfortable setting dramas around British institutions. And as well as the wardrobe-dressing of Sarah and K-9’s reunion with the Doctor and the Krillitanes’ messianic master-plan, ‘School Reunion’ has a deliciously subversive take on the terrors of high school; though in this case the teachers really are monsters and something very nasty will happen to you if you eat the school dinners.

Director James Hawes provides yet another tour-de-force of camerawork here; with the skewed angles he uses to instil the school corridors with the right degree of menace being particularly impressive. And he gets more than ample support from the performances of his cast. Returnee Sladen - none too surprisingly - is the pick of the crop; giving Sarah a very believable mix of joy and bitterness at being reunited with her old travelling companion. And as with Rose’s journey never ignoring the repercussions on those she leaves behind, here we have instead the reality of what happens when the Doctor eventually leaves you.

Because ‘School Reunion’ does best what this whole RTD-fuelled revival has done best: it takes the old show and gives it an emotional depth that it only ever hinted at. We fans always knew that the Doctor loved his companions, but what the new series has done is allowed us to say as much (while, curiously, having the character himself still stop short of doing so). So while Sarah may have had a restrained farewell thirty years ago, now she gets the whole works. But in a way that is absolutely consistent with how this show - and television as a whole - has come of age these past three decades.

But as so often in Doctor Who, it’s the moments that stick longest in the mind afterwards rather than any great whole. And ‘School Reunion’ is absolutely chock-full of them. How about the Doctor’s reaction to first seeing his old companion? Or even Sarah’s reaction to finding the TARDIS in the school basement? Then there’s the Doctor’s joy at seeing K-9 (‘He recognises me’) and the oh-so sad moment when he pats his pooch goodbye. In fact, you could write a whole review on how well K-9 is used in this episode; debunking (much like the Daleks last year) all those tired old myths of the character being little more than an impotent cipher there purely for the kiddies. Believe me; you won’t have to be six years old to be moved by K-9’s last stand here.

And speaking of moments, how about arguably this series’ most compelling scene so far; as the Doctor and Mr Finch trade morality across the school swimming pool. It may be a truism, but great drama often comes from having just two actors at the height of their powers firing dialogue at one another. And that’s certainly true here. As is just how superbly sinister Anthony Stewart Head’s performance is throughout: a study in mannered diction and oily charm. The moment when Finch opens his mouth wide and screams that unearthly scream is arguably one of Who’s most chilling moments already. And for those still harbouring thoughts of ASH one day filling the good Doctor’s plimsolls, then playing a bad-guy beforehand never did Colin Baker any harm, did it?

Gripes? Well, Sarah and Rose’s reconciliation is perhaps a little too convenient; with their sharing of the Doctor’s ‘intimacies’ stretching the ‘ex-misses and new girlfriend’ metaphor a bit too far. And Mickey’s decision to join the crew at the end seems a little out of character for someone who still seems too much of a coward to make that final leap (perhaps the events of the Cyberman two-parter will correct this?). But at the end of the day this is a superb episode, with just the right mix of fun, frights and feeling that embodies all the best in Doctor Who. With arguably the most heartfelt, tear-jerking and downright perfect final scene to a story in forty-two years.

And it’s never goodbye, Sarah. Only farewell.

Quote/Unquote:

Mr Finch (to the Doctor): ‘You seem to be something new’ (he wouldn’t be hinting that the Doctor is more than just a Time Lord, would he..?)

The Doctor (to Finch): ‘I used to have so much mercy’ (and then the Time War changed all the rules)

Sarah (on seeing the TARDIS interior for the first time in thirty years): ‘You’ve redecorated!’ (insert your own ‘Three/Five Doctors’ comparison here)

Homages:

The Doctor firing questions to Milo in the opening classroom scene is straight out of Damien: Omen II. While Joss Whedon may raise a smile at a denouement which sees the alien monsters being blown up in a high school, as the children outside dance with joy: very Buffy Season Three, dontcha think?

This week’s topic for a thesis is…

Discuss the use of chips in the new Doctor Who as a metaphor for social conditioning and moral passivity.

Tennant’s leverage:

Little or no TARDIS twiddling (as, for the third episode running, we are granted only one scene). But he certainly gets to grips with Ms Sladen with gusto. Lucky bugger…

(‘The Bumper Book of Made-Up Doctor Who Facts’ has this to say about ‘School Reunion’: Anthony Stewart Head modelled his performance on Anthony Hopkins’ turn as Hannibal Lecter in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’. Especially the hair gel.)

Comments

I surprised myself when I felt strangely pleased that Mickey would be going with them. I think he finally realises that he's the spare part (or tin dog) and that eggs him on.

Just watch how Rose mouths "No!" to the Doctor when Mickey asks if he can come along....

I think we ALL get some validation from the following..

Sarah Jane: "Does he still stroke bits of the TARDIS?"
Rose: "Yeah, he does. I'm like, do you two need to be alone?"

One word, Gentlemen and Ladies, LEVERAGE. And it's been acknowledged by the powers that be.

Sean - what's the deal with all this Stewart business?

I remember there used to be a younger actor who played the bloke opposite Sharon Maughan in that Gold Blend soap called Tony Head.

I guess for Equity reasons or something the guy from Little Britain had to call himself Anthony. And now we have a THIRD bloke called Anthony Stewart Head!

It's pretty damn obvious that you'll be hankering after the job of his campaign manager cometh the next elections for the tenth Doctor (or should that be twelth - do we include McGann and Cushing or not?).

Yeah he wasn't bad at all but even the fact that he's an alien would still leave him lagging well behind Jack Straw (The Demon Headmaster) and the legendary late Michael Sheard (Grange Hill) in the evil Headmaster stakes. His performance was just a little bit too Richard Hillmanesque I'm-the-bad-guy-and-I-know-it for my liking - a bit too pantomimesque.

And being unlucky enough to draw Sarah Jane Smith away in the FA Cup of New Who season Two didn't exactly allow him to shine as much as might've been the case another week, to cut him some slack.

You have to count McGann! Cushing, I doubt but what about Richard E.? That would make David Tennant the 11th...

Les - Anthony Stewart Head is his NAME (I looked it up in 'Doctor Who Magazine' just to be sure). I guess you have to be a proper fan to know these things...

Head - to make it easier for you - was actually voted most popular choice to play the new Doctor when Radio Times ran a poll for the 40th Anniversay in 2003 (shortly after it was announced that the show was coming back). For the record I think he wouldn't be a bad choice for the Doctor - certainly compared to certain previous contenders in the 'any old f**ker with an equity card' stakes (Alan Davies, anyone?) - and his role as Giles in 'Buffy' was nothing if not a dry run (for those of you who have seen little or no sci-fi/fantasy programming since, ooh, say 1975, 'Buffy' was a televisual programme which gained widespread popularity with its (Nescafe?) blend of scares, laughs and domesticity. Think RTD 'Who' with slightly less gayness, no fart jokes and more whiny American accents...

Oh, and McGann so counts - it's quality not quantity that counts at the end of the day. I shall inform him of your disturbing lack of faith in Stockton this November.

Similarly, Cushing doesn't count - seeing as he plays a human inventor called 'Doctor Who' who has cobbled together his TARDIS out of the equivlanet of the garden shed, then I think this fact is indisputable. But as for Richard E Grant...

Since he was probably my Doctor, McGann had better count. Otherwise I've wasted hundreds of pounds keeping up with his adventures.

There'll be a multiple Doctor story for the 45th Anniversary, you mark my words ...

There's a lot of elipsis round here...

RTD has pretty much said that McGann is the 8th Doctor. So yes, McGann does count. Cushing and E Can't don't. End of...

Flick, I am self-appointed president and sole member of the 'Save Our Ellipses' society, pledged to ensure that they shall never be more than three dots, and never, ever, just two - as tabloid newspapers seem to think they are.

It's a petty obsession, true, and it'll no doubt lead to a stroke, but I think some things are worth preserving...
New members always welcome! But only in threes.

I see that Christopher Eccleston has taken an interest in helping to resurrect another 1960's classic - The Prisoner no less.

Sky One are looking to make 6 episodes apparently of this classic.

Does this mean we will have to listen to Eccleston go on again how his "Number 6" is going to have a Northern accent and not once of those plummy RP ones that he so detests?

Then bugger off after 1 episode because he doesn't want to be "typecast" or such rot?

Watch this space...

Source: BBC News

"I'm a Northener, not a Number. Now f***ing do one!'

'Where the f**k am I?'

In the vilage.

'What do you want, you Southern tw*t?'

Information.

'Swivel for it'.

We want information. Informantion. Information.

'Are you deaf or what. I'm not telling nuffing!'

By hook or by crook, we shall.

'I am not a frigging number, I am an actor. And very free (at the moment)'

HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!

On seeing the local Taxi service:
"ay, nice set of wheels, diamond"

On seeing the Rover ballons:
"what tha fook is that white thing?"

On seeing the script
"Bollocks"

Wayne - He won't be able to bugger off after one episode of the new Prisoner as he won't be able to escape until the seventeenth and final episode.

Mind you, having recently visited Portmeirion I managed to find a way out after just a few hours. Don't tell the nice man on the front entrance though as he must've thought I was a maintenance worker or something...

Sean - I KNOW Stewart is his middle name (well, at least I gathered as much from your piece) but why emphasise it? Like I say, campaign manager for the next Doctor elections...

Also, note the elipses...

I thought he always used "Anthony Stewart Head" for official purposes, and "Tony Head" for more casual things...

(elipses)

...

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