This story in a nutshell: Welcome back, Sarah Jane Smith!
The Tin Dog: Mickey fits in rather well at this point, although it has to be said that he is treated appallingly by both the Doctor and Rose (this would continue through the next handful of episodes). Only Sarah Jane gives him the time of day which leads to one of his best ever scenes where he realises that he is the ‘tin dog.’
‘You can tell you’re getting older when your assistants get younger.’
‘In the year 5000 this was cutting edge!’
‘And what of the Time Lords? I always thought of you as such a pompous race. Ancient, dusty Senators. So frightened of change and chaos.’
‘You act like such a radical and yet all you want to do is preserve the old order.’
‘No, the universe has to move forward. Pain and loss they define as much as happiness or love. Whether it’s a world or a relationship, everything has its time and everything ends’ – this is beautifully played by Elisabeth Sladen and has only gained more strength in the wake of her death.
‘You bad dog…’ ‘Affirmative!’
‘Goodbye, my Sarah Jane…’
‘He replaced you with a brand new model!’ ‘Affirmative!’ ‘Yeah, he does that.’
- I thought I had struck gold when I heard what the list of elements making this particular episode were. Not only were we being re-introduced to Sarah Jane but also Anthony Head was making a guest appearance as the central villain. Head is somebody I have longed to see make an appearance in Doctor Who (his turn in the Big Finish Excelis series was appallingly handled for the most part) after his work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and he acquits himself beautifully here. Mr Finch is a fine, oily bad guy who gets a terrific backstory, a marvellous visual identity (turning into a Krillitane off screen) and a scary raison d’etre (being the figurehead of a race of opportunists that cherry pick the best bits of the people they destroy). To top it all off he even gets to gobble down children! It’s a great role for Head and he proves marvellously smooth and sinister in the role. Eugene Washington makes for a creepy presence as Mr Wagner too, luring the children and teachers to their deaths. I love how Finch is still picking bits of teacher out of his teeth when he returns to his office to initiate the plan. That is one villain without table manners.
- It’s a pretty sharp script by Toby Whithouse, getting to the point about the children being hyper intelligent extremely quickly, revealing how it is done (via the chips) in the next scene and given Sarah Jane a way into the story.
- As An Unearthly Child, Invasion of the Dinosaurs and Remembrance of the Daleks prove, Doctor Who feels very at home in a school setting. There is something about the mixture of the mundane and the extraordinary that takes place there that sums up the magic of the show better than almost any other setting. I love the idea of something sinister happening behind the scenes, children slaved to computers in back rooms and having their imaginations drained and the ensuing creativity trying to crack the secrets of the universe. It touches upon Davies’ own Dark Season and works as a homage to Marc Platt’s Downtime (which also starred Elisabeth Sladen). Instead of the monsters going after something ridiculous like everlasting life or super powers they are instead trying to gain control of the building blocks of the universe. It’s an audacious concept and one well worth waiting for. If the Krillatines were successful in cracking the code they would have been able to reshape reality as we know it to their design. It’s a terrifying prospect and one that could have seen the end of the Doctor’s adventures (or rather wiping the slate so he never existed). Who knows what kind of miserable universe they would have conjured up? I'm guessing much like that of Turn Left.
- Either a large slice of the budget has been devoted to bringing the Krillitane to life or The Mill has simply gotten better at this sort of thing since the likes of the Jagrafess in series one. Either way they are stunningly realised monsters that look and sound suitably scary (I love the sudden screams they exude out of those thin mouths, dribbling with drool) and look authentic crawling along the walls of the school and silhouetted by the moon. There is something fluidic about their movement that makes them one of the most naturalistic of monsters and if my brain wasn’t hard wired to tell you they are special effects I could almost be convinced they were the real thing. They are so successful visually it baffles me that they haven’t been brought back for a second airing.
- Murray Gold is fired up by this material and provides some of his most memorable music for season two. All the scenes surrounding the Krillitanes and the cracking of the Skasis Paradigm are enhanced by his melodramatic stylings and use of a male choir and the Sarah Jane theme is beautifully done, especially during their moment in gardens outside the TARDIS.
- The fact that Sarah was whistling down a road in Aberdeen at the end of The Hand of Fear is hilarious. He got it wrong again.
- The Rose/Sarah monster bitch off is one of the funniest things that the New Series has ever presented. It’s a glorious walk through some of the more memorable nasties that they have both encountered, exquisitely played by Sladen and Piper and every geeks dream come true. Two beautiful women arguing over who has met the more monstrous aliens. It makes me laugh every time. ‘The Loch Ness Monster!’ ‘Seriously?’ It’s the turning point in their relationship too and it’s great to see the pair laughing together and comparing the Doctor’s foibles (much to his annoyance). Suddenly this pairing works.
- Who hasn’t wanted to smash through their school in a car? This scene must have been relished by the children watching and even I, years after my time in education, punched the air as Mickey came crashing through the main doors.
- I cannot tell you the delight I experience every time I watch the sequence where K.9 appears to save his friends who are being menaced by the Krillatines in the lunch hall. Just the sound of that nose blaster makes my heart sing. There’s something in-built in me that just loves K.9 to pieces so when it looks like this might be his curtain call I was on the verge of reaching for the tissues on my first viewing. The thought of no more adventures with this daft tin dog broke my heart and the exchange between him and the Doctor before he blasts the oil is played for maximum effect. Sarah’s horrified reaction to his sacrifice adds much to the effect too, as usual she manages to make even the most ridiculous of things credible and, in this case, heartbreaking.
- The last scene between the Doctor and Sarah is one of my favourites in the entire run of Doctor Who, from the classic series right the way through to its latest incarnation. The gamut of emotions it takes me through each time I watch it (even on first transmission I was blubbing like a baby but it is even more affecting since we have lost Sladen) is extraordinary. It is a fitting goodbye scene for the best of friends, a reminder that the Doctor doesn’t forget his mates and an affirmation that Sarah was the most special of companions. If the hug doesn’t set me off (it usually does) then the sight of Sarah walking away from the TARDIS for the last time alone usually does and if all else fails the triumphant return of K.9 and how they walk off into the sunset together to start a new life finishes me off. Had this been Sarah’s last appearance in Doctor Who, it would have been the perfect way to see her off. Fortunately the show still had a number of uses for her yet.
- I remain deeply unconvinced about the whole Krillitane oil being their downfall. It strikes me as an easy get out clause which is introduced early to try and convince the audience that it is a clever plot device when it is pulled out at the end. It is just as simplistic and obvious as Hexachromite gas was in Warriors of the Deep. There are a fair few cop solutions of this nature during Davies' time.
- Picking child actors is a lottery. With Kenny, Milo and Melissa the production team drew the short straw. Fortunately the episode doesn’t rest on their performance and they barely feature. Fear Her wasn’t half as lucky. Mind you the cockney dinner lady is hardly a great success either. I can get behind the excitement of the school being blown up (it’s every kids fantasy, surely?) but not the hero worship for the fat kid at the end. Like that would ever happen.
Result: With the Doctor investigating a supernatural mystery with an attractive cast of characters, the school setting, witty dialogue and the presence of Anthony Head, Russell T Davies has finally managed to meld Doctor Who and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the way he has mooted ever since the show was brought back. It is just as engaging as Joss Whedon’s opus too, and has the feel of a really good episode that could have sprung from one of the first three seasons. However with the return of Sarah Jane, School Reunion is much more than just a homage to another show, it is a terrific character drama in its own right. It is a furiously paced mystery with some memorable set pieces and a satisfying resolution that is tied into the theme of loss that the series (since the absence of the Time Lords) is exploring. I’m amazed at how much they managed to pack into this one episode without any of it feeling overly rushed; the Doctor gets a number of great moments (his face off with Finch and his temptation at bringing back the Time Lords), Mickey gets to prove his worth once again, there is space for a fabulously oily villain and scenes of icky monsters tearing about the school threatening to snack down on the children. At the heart of the episode though is Elisabeth Sladen’s triumphant return to the series and she sets my heart fluttering whenever she appears. Sarah is still feisty, nosy, nervous and brave - it feels like she has never been away and I love the way she so effortlessly shows the newbies how it should be done. She’s scared when she needs to be, asks the right questions, queries the Doctor’s motives only when absolutely necessary and remains as resourceful as ever. I would have killed for a season with the tenth Doctor and Sarah Jane but I take some comfort in the fact that their paths would cross three times more in the course of the two series. Sladen’s efforts here are rewarded tenfold by the advent of The Sarah Jane Adventures and for that alone I will always be thankful for this episode. Aside from the alienation of Rose, School Reunion ticks most of my boxes and whilst it isn’t perfect (too many irritating kid actors for a start) it does have an awful lot going for it and enough fan pleasing elements to have me punching the air, beaming like a lunatic and blubbing like a baby: 9/10