Wednesday, 26 March 2014

School Reunion written by Toby Whithouse and directed by James Hawes

This story in a nutshell: Welcome back, Sarah Jane Smith!

Mockney Dude: This is David Tennant’s early period so he is still coming to terms with the part and looks like an enthusiastic youngster. What really helps sell him as the Doctor is Tennant’s own natural hero worship of Elisabeth Sladen bleeding into the show. When the Doctor is this excited to be reunited with an old companion, so is the audience and even if the new audience that came to the show since its revival don’t know who Sarah Jane is they can see through his reaction that it is clearly someone special. For a moment he is happy to get lost in the past and remember all the good times he had with her and can be seen walking the corridors with a lovely dopey grin on his face. He’s precisely the sort of attractive, dynamic and refreshing supply teacher that we used to get back when I was at school. They always seemed so much cooler than the old stuff shirts that we were usually stuck with. There’s something wrong about the fact that the Doctor moves on because he can’t bear to see the people he loves wither and die. It would be a hard thing to witness but I can’t imagine the Doctor I know and love turning his back on somebody because he can’t face the fact that one day they will be gone. He’s not that much of a coward and surely that would mean that he would never travel with anybody because we’re all going to die eventually (or is it the eventually that is the key to the whole thing?). Much better is the Doctor’s face off with Mr Finch which shows for the first time that David Tennant can bring some real menace to the role. He’s been frantically energetic throughout New Earth and Tooth and Claw but now he gets the chance to bring it down several notches and plays that lonely avenger that was at the heart of his best performances. The Doctor proves himself as a flawed individual once again by falling for Finch’s sales pitch and the chance to save the Time Lords. As usual it is down to Sarah (think of Genesis of the Daleks and Pyramids of Mars) to provide the humane perspective and to remind him that he cannot play God otherwise he would be as bad as the people he fights. As the Doctor mentions in School Reunion, I rather like the idea of him having a little posse too. By the end of this episode it is remarkable how will the Doctor, Rose and the two Smith's all fit together. 

Investigative Journalist: What a triumphant return to the show for Elisabeth Sladen. It is a reunion so successful that it spawned an entire spin off series that lasted five years, which gained popularity in spades and was only brought to a conclusion due to Sladen’s tragic early death. I’ve heard people applaud the show for bringing back such a nostalgic element and doing it so successfully (after the Daleks, Sarah Jane is the biggest link between the classic series and the latest incarnation, successfully bridging the gap between the two and making it smaller) and others bemoan that it re-introduces the character in a way that perverts everything that was good about her in the first place. I am very much in the former category and don’t think that Sladen would have been interested in the role had they represented her character erroneously (listen to her in interviews, she is clearly an actress of great integrity). The implication that seems to stick in peoples craw is that that Sarah was in love with the Doctor which I personally don’t see pushed to the fore with any great passion besides a few fun throwaway references (the ‘guy’ she met once, ‘the missus and the ex’) although it’s one of the few times that I could actually get behind the idea in the classic series because there was such a strong, unspoken chemistry between Sarah and both of her on screen Doctors (and note that, unlike Jo before her and Leela after her, there was never a hint that Sarah having fallen for anybody else during the course of her travels). Go check out her reaction to the Doctor’s ‘deaths’ in Monster of Peladon, Planet of the Spiders and Pyramids of Mars…there is clearly something a bit more complex than the norm going on between these characters. As far as I am concerned Sarah Jane met this amazing man who took her for a whirlwind spin around the galaxy and she was besotted with him (I don’t actually think it was love but a very powerful friendship) and when she returned to Earth (naturally) nobody else could quite match up. That makes sense to me. That’s how I would feel if I were chosen by the Doctor. Once again, Sarah Jane is my identification figure. Her return to the fold as an investigative journalist looking into the unexplained is exactly how we met the character in The Time Warrior and it feels as though we have come full circle. She’s funny, silly, a bit pathetic in places (but then she always could be, that was part of her charm), serious when she needs to be, still asks all the right the questions and is firmly grounded with one foot in reality. All the things that made Sarah so special back in the day. I desperately wanted her to leap in the TARDIS at the end and toss Rose and Mickey out of the doors but then we would have been denied four and half awesome years of the Sarah Jane Adventures. For what could have been a coda to her adventures with the Doctor, this is just about perfect and says all the things that went unspoken in The Hand of Fear.

Sarah Jane comes bouncing into the story, hot on the heels of a mystery and clearly relishing the chance to sniff out a new alien menace. The difference in approach between Sladen and Piper is extraordinary; Sladen chooses to wander the school corridors terrified of the shadows and screams that echo about in the night whereas Piper walks around cocksure and unfazed by the whole thing, taking the mickey (hoho) out her boyfriend. Sladen makes the situation scary, whereas Piper makes it undaunting and causal. I know whose approach I prefer. The scene where she comes face to face with the TARDIS is one of those spine tingling moments that the new series pulls out of the bag every now and again (aided by Murray Gold’s superb score, I might add). I don’t quite understand why Sarah has forgotten the events of The Five Doctors so I can only guess that when the TARDISes were all returned to their correct time and place by Rassilon that everybody had their minds wiped of the events that had taken place. The point here seems to be that Sarah has had no contact with the Doctor since the end of The Hand of Fear. The only thing that could be more delightful than the return of Sarah is the return of K.9 too and together the two of them make a far more attractive prospect than Rose and Mickey. There is something very real about Sarah Jane’s reaction to being dropped back on Earth that speaks to me more than Rose’s jealousy in the face of the revelation that she isn’t the first person to have travelled with the Doctor. Her departure in The Hand of Fear was very sudden and jarring and to go from the life that they had together to one of gas bills and earning a crust would feel like a slap in the face. I would defy anybody to not feel the same if they were forced to leave the TARDIS against their will like that. That little breath that she takes when the Doctor offers to take her with him again says wonders. She’s been wondering all these years what the reason was for being dumped back on Earth was and now she knows it wasn’t anything to do with her. The relief is palpable. And this time she gets to say no and choose to leave of her own volition and find her own life and that just feels right. It’s even more wonderful that we get to see the life that she goes on to lead.

Chavvy Chick: Most New Series episodes have their weaknesses and School Reunion’s is Rose. It’s not even that she is horrendously characterised all of the time because throughout most of the episode she is fine but there are just a few moments when I wanted to break down the fourth wall, jump into the telly and give her a good slap around the chops with a wet fish. This should be Sarah Jane’s story but it tries to be as much about Rose and I think that was a mistake given everything else that it tries to pack in as well. The suggestion during their bitch fight seems to be that Rose could rival Sarah in the companion stakes but she doesn’t have what it takes to stand even half as tall. Jealousy is not a very attractive quality (whatever Russell T Davies might seem to think) and transforming Rose from a strong, independent woman into a seething, green eyed monster was the point where her character was irrevocably damaged as far as I was concerned. There’s a wonderful moment in the musical episode of That 70s Show where everybody is ignoring Fez and walking around saying ‘what about me me me…’ in a parody of how self interested that cast of characters can be at times. That is basically all I hear when Rose bursts out of the café and confronts the Doctor about ‘really seeing the future’ and how unimportant she is in the grand scheme of things. Somehow she always manages to bring a situation around to how it affects her more than anybody else. That might be realistic in the grand scheme of things but it isn't very attractive. The Doctor hasn’t met anybody quite this self-interested since Tegan (who was irritating for very different reasons). Just when I was starting to come round to the Rose/Sarah relationship she has a fatal reaction to Mickey’s suggestion to join them in the TARDIS. What is wrong with the woman? Doesn’t she know how to be happy for other people?

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.’

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I can’t believe its you!’ SCRRRREEEAAAMMM! ‘Okay, now I can!’
‘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.’

The Good:

  • 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.
The Bad:
  • 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.
 The Shallow Bit: Sladen looks more radiant than ever. Did she age backwards?

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


Anne said...


I'm a bif fan od DW and I follow your reviews and critics regularly. I've got the SJA DVDs recently and I'm totally hooked!
What a grat series (I must confess: I'm not a teenager, I'm past my third decade and I love to bits Sarah's gang and Sarah, does that make me a sad fan?) and it makes me feel so sad due the passing of Lis Sladen 3 years ago :'( :'( I have discovered with glee that you also review the SJA. I share your love for the series. Are you planning to review the episodes that are missing?? (I mean the ones you haven't reviewed yet)

Best regards

Joe Ford said...

I don't think that liking SJA is sad - a good story is a good story in my book regardless of what age group it is aimed at. I will definitely be finishing the reviews - like all the gaps I will get round to them all eventually! Thank you for the interest and the kind words :-)

Raquel said...

This episode brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it, specially the scene when Sarah sees the TARDIS and the final hug (goodbye my Sarah Jane)

Rose's jealousy is utterly annyoing and makes me want to poke her eyes out, but on the other hand it makes her feel like a real (if deeply flawed) human being, compare her to Clara who is a cardborard cut.

I was expecting a regeneration mention during their catfight ("I saw him regenerate"- "he regenerated because of ME")

The fat kid being applauded, I liked that. As a person who was bullied at school (not for being fat but for extreme shyness) I find that scene strangely emotive.

David Pirtle said...

As I commented on your review of the previous episode, I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment that the characterization of Rose in the second series as a clingy, jealous girlfriend rather than, as you call Sarah Jane, a besotted companion, seriously damaged her. However, It is a relatively small problem in an episode otherwise this good. It is about as successful a return as I can imagine a character getting who has been absent for decades. No wonder she landed a spinoff.