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Sunday, 30 April 2006 - Reviewed by Billy Higgins

Sifting through the line-up for Series 2 before it began, two stories stood out for me as likely high spots – the impending Cybermen two-parter and School Reunion, and I was really excited about seeing both. The problem with such great expectations – in my experience anyway – is that the event itself rarely lives up to the anticipation. However, there are always exceptions and, I’m happy to report, School Reunion was one great exception!

There were so many memorable moments crammed into 45 minutes, it’s difficult to know where to start. How about the beginning, that’s a very good place to start . . .

As I noted in a previous review, “New Who” (for want of a better expression) doesn’t mess around with foreplay – and, in School Reunion, this was never better illustrated. Before the opening titles have rolled, we find ourselves in a school, have encountered a wonderfully-malevolent headteacher played by Anthony Head, of whom more superlatives – though I won’t have nearly enough – later. Plus we’ve witnessed a schoolgirl meeting with an audibly-horrible end. And a bespectacled Doctor already on the scene as a teacher.

Another promising start, and the episode built on that encouraging opening. Rose’s appearance as a reluctant dinnerlady (Billie Piper does “sulky” particularly well!) and the suggestion that there were strange goings-on in the school (and in the chips) would certainly have grabbed any floating viewers’ attention.

And then there was a trio of reunions in the school (incidentally, although this was an obvious episode title, it was no less a brilliant one). Mickey Smith was back – OK, he’d only been away for a couple of episodes, so we’d barely had time to miss him. But it had been considerably longer away for Miss Sarah Jane Smith and K9 – although you’d never have guessed, so smoothly did they fit into their roles.

Sarah’s story – of what happens to a companion post-TARDIS – was a fascinating subtext to the main tale of schoolkids being cultivated by a shape-shifting alien race for lunch – and for control of Creation! With a new “dream team” of Doctor, K9, Mickey, Rose and Sarah, there was no doubt they were going to be a match for the Krillitanes and, of course, they were. There was something in the chips – the oil – and that, together with a sacrificial robot dog, made it another successful episode for the good guys!

So that was School Reunion in a nutshell – but just why was it so good?

Firstly, the setting. Perhaps because the very first episode of the original series in 1963 began in a school, the series is synonymous with the classroom? Whatever, it all tied into the theme of reunions – and it just “felt” so right.

As did the return of Sarah Jane Smith. She may have “got old”, but nothing like 30 years older – Lis Sladen still looks terrific, those wide eyes and trademark lip quiver which are SO Sarah Jane were still there, and the script contained everything fans could have hoped for – and more.

The tension between Sarah and Rose (La Piper does jealousy really well, as we saw in Boom Town and The Parting Of The Ways) is something which wouldn’t have been expanded upon too much in years gone by, but this sort of emotional byplay is an important ingredient of 21st-century Doctor Who.

“The missus and the ex” were essentially fighting over who loved The Doctor – and who The Doctor loved – more. Their “my monsters were bigger than your monsters” scene was superb, but it was pleasing that they found common ground by the end, and wouldn’t it have been fun if Sarah had stayed aboard the TARDIS?

The scenes between Sarah and The Doctor were Father’s Day-esque in their intensity. Sarah’s bitterness at being so unceremoniously dumped was evident – and it was nice to see David Tennant run through a range of emotions, including his desperate loneliness, which linked him to his predecessor more than in previous episodes.

There may have been a pedantic continuity issue with the old series – Sarah did meet several Doctors in The Five Doctors and did, in theory, get a chance to vent her emotions then. But I prefer to explain that away by suggesting that her memory of that adventure was wiped when she was returned to her time stream. Russell T Davies obviously likes his continuity, though – Sarah’s line about “the spaceship flying overhead at Christmas” was a nice touch.

And, this time, Sarah did get her “closure” at the end of the episode – a really emotional goodbye and hug - and a new, shiny, pet robot dog!

It was fun to see K9 again, too – complete with rust, which was an amusing twist, as was Rose and Mickey’s dismissal of him as rather low-tech. He does seem rather low-tech compared to the The Mill’s creations – what would they have made of K9 from scratch? - but he did save the Universe, so there! And, of course, it was no great shock that The Doctor was able to produce a Mark 4 (albeit very quickly!).

Great as everyone else in the cast was, maybe just top of the class was Anthony Head as Mr Finch. If there is such a thing as quiet malevolence, he delivered it superbly. A wonderful two-hander between Finch and The Doctor over the swimming pool was a high-scoring draw between the two protagonists. Perhaps the most-terrifying thing about Finch wasn’t so much that he had designs on shaping the Universe in his image, it was that he would nonchalantly eat you for lunch afterwards!

The Krillitanes themselves were Reaper-like in appearance, but equally effective. Obviously, they couldn’t be shown to be devouring small children – but the clear inference was enough to earn them a high fear-factor rating. Yet another visual-effects triumph.

And then there was Mickey Smith. A character who has grown enormously in stature since his introduction in Rose. Then, he was basically a one-dimensional wimp who was little more than a bit-part player – now, after improving steadily throughout last season, we have a rounded character full of humour and plenty of depth. If not quite an all-action superhero in his own right, Mickey’s certainly a welcome addition to the TARDIS crew. It’s an added dimension which can only increase the fun . . .

Noel Clarke actually had the pick of the one-liners here, which was quite an achievement in a sparkling script peppered with sharp, witty dialogue (as one might expect of Toby Whithouse, the principal writer of the excellent No Angels) and he delivered them with aplomb.

The gleeful observation to The Doctor about “the missus and the ex” is likely to go down in Doctor Who folklore, but his witty aside to Rose about “watching the chips” when comparing her to Sarah was a laugh-out-loud moment. Mickey’s realisation that “I’m the tin dog” also brought a hearty chuckle.

And who’d have thought it would be The Doctor rather than Rose who was the happier to have Mickey join the crew? Another nice twist. After meeting Sarah, Rose now has extra insecurities about what her relationship with The Doctor is, and this can only make for more tensions as the series progresses.

Great story, wonderful script (what a Doctor Who debut from Whitehouse), terrific performances from the cast, stunning visual effects and, for me, the best score Murray Gold has delivered – I often wish background music was just that, rather than an in-yer-ears full operatic performance. However, the music here just accentuated the script perfectly.

Series 2 may have started slowly with New Earth, but it gathered pace with Tooth and Claw, and is now into full stride with School Reunion. Hard to believe it gets much better than this, but what a treat if it does.