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May 01, 2006

Boys Don't Cry

School Reunion is a pretty rubbish Doctor Who story. It is, however, also a great episode of Doctor Who.


It’s a rubbish story because… Well, come on. Oh, it’s the oil all of a sudden! They’re actually allergic to it! Oh, they’re trying to crack the daft-sounding sci-fi equation thing, oh no! Oh look, the ugly fat kid has set off the fire alarm and managed to save everybody! Aw, the cute tin dog is going to trundle in with his laser beam and save the day too.


It’s Children’s BBC territory, and compared to Tooth and Claw, the plot of which seemed to flow naturally and easily – or even to New Earth – it appeared distinctly amateurish in new series terms, and Toby Whithouse is going to have to buck his ideas up if he gets the chance to write for the show again, when he is unprotected by being able to use two of its icons to cover the damage. Let’s hope his forthcoming episode of Torchwood – the organisation which got another throwaway mention here – allows him to flex his plotting muscles a little more effectively.


Perhaps the CBBC feel was added to by the school setting, which given the use of computers to control the students particularly evoked memories of his 1991 CBBC serial Dark Season. Not that that’s a bad thing, as a bit of nostalgia and evocation of other productions has never hurt the series, and the school setting probably also worked well for the current child and teenage audience, who would have enjoyed the identification factor of seeing the Doctor at work in a school just like theirs. Mind you, that’s no excuse for “Kenny blew up the school!” Yeuch.


However, I am being picky and pedantic, I know, because when it comes down to it School Reunion was no more about the Krillitane plot to crack the thingamajig paradigm than Rose was about the third invasion of Earth by the Nestene Consciousness. Like Rose, this was a vehicle for bringing a companion aboard, albeit only for one episode, but unlike the new series debut she wasn’t somebody new being introduced to both the Doctor and the audience.


This was the return of Sarah Jane Smith. Hurrah!


We all knew it was coming, of course. We’d seen the previews and the press features and the magazine articles. We’d seen various clips in the trailers and support shows, but still, that scene where the Doctor was introduced to Sarah in the staff room, and the look on his face as he recognises her… It was magical. Tennant’s portrayal of the Doctor’s delight as he speaks to Sarah – “Good for you, Sarah Jane Smith!” – is utterly infectious, and this is why it’s a great episode of Doctor Who.


Toby Whithouse has been very keen to point out in just about every interview he’s done about the series that unlike most of the other writers working on the show, he’s not a huge fan of the original Doctor Who. He thinks that this helped when he was given the Sarah – K9 episode, as he was less intimidated by having to write for the icons of the series. Now firstly, I think this is bollocks – Shearman managed to write for the Daleks without collapsing into a puddle on the floor, and everyone else has managed to pen effective episodes featuring the Doctor, the TARDIS etc without having nervous breakdowns at the sheer excitement of it all.


Secondly, it seems odd because there are so many little fanboy touches, “kisses to the past” as our old friend Philip Segal used to call them, that it seems impossible to believe Russell T Davies didn’t have a hand in penning many of the scenes featuring the Doctor and Sarah. It’s insulting, I know, to suggest that any of the good bits in the guest writers’ episodes were written by the showrunner, but it does seem that last year the only scripts Davies left pretty much untouched were Moffat’s episodes, and Elisabeth Sladen herself has said in interviews that Davies “sprinkled his gold dust” across the episode.


But whoever wrote the thing, which is pretty unimportant at the end of the day when you simply have to consider what ended up on screen, did a bloody good job with Sarah’s scenes. Nearly all of them bring a lump to the throat in some way or another – “I thought you’d died!” “Did I do something wrong?” “Say goodbye this time…” It’s pretty damn affecting stuff, and not the kind of emotional punch you usually expect from an episode of Doctor Who, even in the new series. The ending, as Sarah turns down another spin in the TARDIS and gets a final farewell hug from the Doctor before trundling off with her new K9 was just… Aw!


I don’t know how much all of this would have registered with new fans, although on Saturday evening I did by chance watch the episode for a second time in the company of some other people, one of whom was a woman who said she’d never seen any of the classic series and thus didn’t know who Sarah was. She seemed to find it pretty moving, so it does perhaps work on that level for new viewers as well as old, which has to be commended as there must have been a worry that this episode would do nothing for purely new series followers.


I do have to say though that the one aspect of Sarah’s return I didn’t think fired on all cylinders was her initially antagonistic relationship with Rose. It seemed a bit forced, especially the shouting match of monsters they’d encountered which had looked so good in the BBCi three-minute preview, and their making up all seemed a bit rapid, although the sheer speed at which everything went by was a factor across the episode. You also have to wonder why Rose was so keen to offer Sarah a place back aboard the TARDIS at the end of the episode, but seemed a bit pissed off when Mickey finally decided to join up.


Sarah wasn’t the only character returning though, as we also got the reappearance of K9. I’m not a massive fan of the silly tin dog, although then again I don’t despise the creature as others do either. I’m fairly ambivalent towards him, although I will accept he got some nice moments in his brief appearances in the episode, and his final – or not so final, depending on how you look at it – sacrifice to destroy the Krillitane was nicely handled and doubtless spilled some tears amongst the younger viewers.


You have to feel a bit sorry for Anthony Head as Mr Finch, as in any other week he’d be the major guest star of the episode, but here he and his character rather got buried under the return of Sladen as Sarah Jane. He was perfectly fine as the smooth villain, and his scenes with Tennant were very good, but on the whole he was pretty much overshadowed by everything else that was going on. Tennant himself was on sparkling form in most of the episode, with only his embarrassing “correct-a-mundo” scene in the classroom bringing the Doctor’s character down a notch this week for me. He more than made up for it though both with his scenes with Sarah, and with his explanation to Rose of why he had to leave his companions behind, because they age and die and he just regenerates. It’s an issue we’ve not seen the show confront before, and Tennant delivered the lines excellently.


You wouldn’t want them to sacrifice plot and other supporting characters purely to bring back old series elements every week, but as a one-off emotional and nostalgic punch it worked very well indeed, and I certainly wouldn’t lose this episode from the run for anything. It’s so sad to finally say goodbye to Sarah Jane Smith from the Doctor’s life, but nice that he finally got to fulfil that long-ago made promise of “until we meet again.” Wonderful stuff.


But no, I didn’t cry. That would be silly. This is, at the end of the day, only Doctor Who, and it’s not that type of series.

Comments

I thought that kid was great: once he realises he's got allies he becomes a proactive, thinking member of the team for a brief barely acknoweged second.

I probably agree with most of your criticisms, Paul. But for once it seemed to work.

Add to my list of technical gripes from my own review the one I think we're missing: self-contained 45-minute episodes. Too much going on, too fast.

Paul T: yes maybe the fat kid was representative of Doctor Who fans in the 70s - intelligent, nerdy, completely rubbish at sports, dreaming of the day when they will one day do something that makes them the school hero... And then doubtless be forgotten a moment later.
Or was that just me?

"You also have to wonder why Rose was so keen to offer Sarah a place back aboard the TARDIS at the end of the episode, but seemed a bit pissed off when Mickey finally decided to join up."

Cause she probably wants to keep Mickey at home, alone and desperate.

Also, Sarah doesn't pose as much of a threat getting between her and The Doctor as she must've first thought.

Plus she's an enormous source of information and gossip. Gossip outranks rivalry. Aside from that I have no deeper insight than the feeling of dread I feel if at the very thought of girlfriend and ex girlfriends ever met... The same dynamic would apply to both situations I guess.

Rose can hardly flirt with the Doctor is Mickey's around either.

Oh man. I *loved* this episode. But I notice reviews tend to break down to either Character over Plot *or* Plot over Character. Those who prefer plot seemed to really dig last week's Tooth & Claw. The plot-is-secondary folk preferred New Earth and now School Reunion, because of the beautiful way the characters were drawn.

I also suspect this is somewhat sex-linked, which is why I titled my liveblog the way I did.

when the doctor hugged sjs and said my sarah-jane i felt very emotional. then yesterday i went to a scifi fair in milton keynes and met elizabeth sladen (very nice lady) tony head and john leeson which made my day.

I think you summed up my feelings about this episode perfectly, Paul. If you take away SJS and K9 it's a complete and utter mess. The number of nitpicks I've got even outnumber New Earth! For instance, is the Head a bat or not? One minute he says he isn't, the next he's pausing on the staircase to "change" (well, that's how it looked to me). And as for the oil and the revelation that Logopolis is no longer the silliest episode to feature godlike equations - words fail me...

This one doesn't improve with extra viewings...

BUT I'm willing to forgive anything given 2 wonderful (perfect, even) moments that I'll try to concentrate on in my fortcoming review.

Trouble is I've done my back in standing in the freezing cold watching the Pet Shop Boys doing 'Battleship Potemkin' and I've done my back in good and proper. Just typing this is almost killing me...

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