By Ross RuedigerIf ever there was any debate about the new series of Doctor Who being an extension of the classic series, tonight's installment, "School Reunion," puts an end to it. It proudly waves its geek flag, whilst near-miraculously delivering something special for the uninitiated as well. For a certain type of fan, it's the episode for which we've been patiently waiting—and kudos to the producers for planning this so early in the season.
Mickey Smith (to the Doctor): The missus and the ex. Welcome to every man's worst nightmare!
"School Reunion" features the return of ex-companion Sarah Jane Smith (the radiant Elisabeth Sladen), who traveled in the TARDIS with the 3rd & 4th Doctors (Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker). Sarah Jane made her first appearance in 1973's "The Time Warrior" and witnessed the Doctor's regeneration four stories later in '74's "Planet of the Spiders". Like Rose after her, she continued on with his new incarnation, and finally found herself literally kicked out of the TARDIS at the close of '76's "The Hand of Fear" (which hits DVD shelves on Nov. 7th, by the way). As companion exits go, Sarah's - especially given her devotion to the Time Lord - was less than dignified. "School Reunion" smartly plays on this facet of her character.
Allow me to hardcore geek out here—at the age of 13, I was in love with Sarah Jane Smith (and I'm not alone in that sentiment). She was as important to me as the Doctor himself. There are young boys watching the new series who feel the same way about Rose Tyler...and I do love Rose, but she is no Sarah Jane, and that's even taking into account character limitations of '70s Who. To finally see Sarah Jane realized to her fullest dramatic potential makes "School Reunion" a "very special episode" indeed.
The character-driven script is a welcome change of pace, and yet its simplicity is deceptive: what appears to be the A-Plot—the sinister goings-on at Deffry Vale High School, which has been infiltrated by an alien race called Krillitanes—is really the B-Plot. Aside from providing Anthony Head with some great scenery to chew as well as a bit of action, it primarily serves to reinforce the issues the Doctor, Rose and Sarah deal with throughout the story. Where freshman Who writer Toby Whithouse knocks it off the cricket field is in making it about Rose through Sarah Jane (and vice versa, to a degree). Even if the viewer doesn't know Sarah's place in Who history, one can grasp that the Doctor has had companions prior to Rose. Through both characters' hurt and anger, one can understand the feelings that would accompany the loss of such an extraordinary friendship. On the other hand, it's possible Rose mostly comes across as a territorial bitch...which she really kinda does. Since she was already heading down a bratty road in "Tooth and Claw", there is precedent and it would've been far more of a shock if not for the way she's subtly been changing.
Of course I was too busy basking in the cool waters of Elisabeth Sladen to care about Rose all that much. Back in my day (said the old fogey), Tom Baker and Lis made the perfect Doctor/companion team. She was around for the bulk of Who's "golden age"—the Philip Hinchcliffe-produced era of the series (Baker's first three seasons), considered by many, if not most, to be the crown jewel of Who's original 26 year run. Sladen's delivery and girl-next-door beauty sold the character. She brought fun to the role of the companion, but also knew when to play it serious—and "School Reunion" proves you can take the girl out of the TARDIS, but you can't take the TARDIS out of the girl. I could list every bit of sparkling dialogue and great moment Sarah has in the episode, but it would consist of every line and scene she is in. A favorite, when she speaks of K-9's disrepair, is the relatively simplistic "I couldn't show him to anyone"—a line that reads flat on the printed page, but Sladen imbues it with a strong dose of Sarah Jane, and plays it as only she could. (Sladen's performance was so well received, that she's getting a new spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures, set for early next year.)
When it was announced that the tin dog would also return, I groaned. K-9 was introduced as sort of a response to R2-D2. He was a fun gimmick, but arguably partly to blame for the camping up of the latter half of the Tom Baker era. Nevertheless, he remained a fan favorite and was beloved by the kids. Oddly, Sarah and K-9's eras didn't overlap; the K-9 (Mark III) seen in "School Reunion" was a gift from the Doctor to Sarah - long after they'd parted company - in a one-episode spin-off called K-9 and Company. Together they made one other appearance in the 1983 20th Anniversary special "The Five Doctors", a story that here appears to have been wisely retconned out of existence (Sladen played Sarah in that story...but if it doesn't talk, walk or dress like Sarah Jane, then it isn't Sarah Jane). When K-9 sacrifices himself at the end of "Reunion", I found myself tearing up - and writing that gets me to tear up over K-9 must be doing something right. K-9 brings me to the other "tin dog" of the story—Mickey, who really gets to show some stuff here, and as a result his joining of the TARDIS crew is justified and maybe even necessary. Noel Clarke's effusive delivery of "Though I have prepared a little 'I was right' dance which I can show you later" has been a long time coming.
The story isn't without glitches - mostly stuff that's quickly glossed over in order to keep the story moving. Why would Sarah Jane cart K-9 around in the back of her car if he isn't even working? The Krillitane oil comes in awfully Deus Ex Machina handy—deadly to the Krillitanes and yet it makes humans smarter? Before Mickey drives through the school's front doors, K-9's missing his side panel; in the next scene it magically reappears. And how did the Doctor build K-9 Mark IV so quickly?
Speaking of the Doctor, how did I manage to get this far without saying much of anything about David Tennant? He at last gets his Doctorish day in the sun. From the moment he enters the classroom with "Good morning class! Are we sitting comfortably?" and issues an insanely wide grin, we know we're in for a different kind of ride. When he plays that first scene with Sladen—and she doesn't even know who he is—his admiration for her is priceless, and he beams when he walks out into the hallway afterwards. Is it the Doctor seeing Sarah Jane for the first time in years, or is it Tennant finally realizing that he is the Doctor as he's playing a scene against the actress whom he grew up watching on TV? I honestly believe it's some of both. He doesn't have a wasted moment; he's by turns funny, tender, heart-broken and finally deadly serious in his dealings with Head's Mr. Finch. His scenes with Sladen soar, and with Rose, the scene where he speaks of watching humans wither and die is a defining moment; never before has the Doctor said so much on this subject. It forces us to reevaluate his relationship to humanity and hints at his complex love for this species he views as physically frail and transitory.
Yes, "School Reunion" marks the real beginning of Season Two.
NEXT WEEK: Clockwork robots, a visit to the Palace of Versailles and the Doctor engaging in some serious lip lock in "The Girl in the Fireplace." (Note to readers: Were I forced to recommend a single episode from Season Two, it would be "Fireplace".)
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: "City of Death", co-written by Douglas Adams and starring Tom Baker, Lalla Ward and John Cleese (in a cameo).
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based critic and columnist, a contributor to The House Next Door, and publisher of The Rued Morgue. For more writing about the series, see "Dr. Who" in the sidebar at right.