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Sunday, 30 April 2006 - Reviewed by A.D. Morrison

Before my review proper of the latest episode, I’d just like to take this opportunity to say that after a second viewing of Tooth and Claw, I think I might have been a little bit stingy in my rating (6/10); it is one of the only RTD episodes which stands up to re-visiting (bar perhaps The Long Game, Boom Town and Parting of the Ways), but for its vast improvement on all his former efforts, indeed for the fact that it stands head and shoulders overall of them, and is a generally well-conceived and directed story with a script and atmosphere likely to endure, it deserves a more impressive 8/10 in my books (and that’s a rating in the classic series sense; it ranks alongside Father’s Day, Dalek, The Unquiet Dead and parts of The Empty Child as a virtual classic in the old vein, and I sincerely hope is a pointer to the shape of things to come).

Comparatively I felt that School Reunion was something of a come down from the gothic heights of the Victorian highlands story. However, it is still an episode far superior to the callow New Earth and the one-dimensional Christmas Invasion.

Essentially School Reunion has many of the traditional ingredients of classic Who, the most notable being its extra-terrestrial subversion of a mundane, familiar setting, in this case being a comprehensive school in contemporary England. It’s a far cry from the public school Boys Own Paper-style scenario of Mawdryn Undead (another big nostalgia story with the Brigadier’s return after a seven year absence), in which the then-Doctor Peter Davison indulged his school prefect-style persona; it is on the other hand not a far cry from the shenanigans of Remembrance of the Daleks, also set in a state school and involving juveniles taken over by alien technology, and as with McCoy’s story, shares a similarly implausible tempo and comic strip pace, equally laced with palpable nostalgia and continuity. School Reunion has the excuse of being limited to only 45 minutes and considering this, it works reasonably well, at least, on all surface levels.

Sarah Jane’s return aside (for the moment), the storyline is very traditional Who, and in that sense is well-structured, exudes ‘background’, and has its loose ends tied up at the end by the Doctor; the computerized labours of the hypnotized school children (by far the best directed scenes in the episode, replete with a suitably distinctive score) and the purposes and nature of the Krillitanes is well-substantiated and rather tantalizing: this is a new alien race who take on the physical appearances of the races they infiltrate, which leaves the door open for limitlessly manifest returns in the future (not too unlike the plastic-manipulating Autons). What a pity then that this race is depicted as one uncannily similar in look to the Reapers of Father’s Day. They are well realized (considering its CGI again) as were the Reapers, but for me they just resembled them too much, and one wonders whether the current production team are running out of ideas for new alien races. I also felt the CGI grizzlies, filmic incidental music and school setting, replete with – portly – bespectacled pupil, was all very Harry Potter, not a good thing in my books; and I still don’t like this type of misty, American-style camera that’s used, notably inferior to Tooth and Claw’s grainer tones. The shot of the Krillitanes hanging upside down like bats in a darkened school room was a nice, vampiric touch, and well shot, but I couldn’t help being reminded of the – admittedly infinitely inferior – Tetraps of the horrific Time and the Rani; at least, it is the same principle of physiology anyway. There are also shades of Survival with the contemporary Earth setting, Mr Finch’s rather Anthony Ainley-esque vampiric performance and spates of electric guitar incidental music.

The initial scene of the Doctor posing as a Physics Teacher was a nice idea, and I suppose a fairly logical one if he needs to infiltrate a secondary school – but the comical repetition of the word ‘physics’ was a bit over-done I thought and one does sometimes feel Tennant is a repressed comedian in many ways, as these sorts of scenes feel ad-libbed a little bit from comic instinct. Nevertheless, this scene finally proved pivotal as he quizzed a pupil on highly complicated physics theory and received rapid, correct answers from a disturbingly astute young man (reminiscent of the subtly affecting children’s series of the 80s, Chocky, in which an alien possesses a young school boy, transforming him into a prodigy). This was a strongly realized emphasis for the Doctor’s undercover presence at the school. Having the companion posing undercover also was quite a good stroke and gave Ms Piper an opportunity to wear something other than the Peacock teen range.

It’s ironic but in many ways I think Tennant’s Doctor looks like an investigative journalist, particularly when donning his square glasses. I suppose this is at least a fresh interpretation of the character. And talking of journalists, well, of course it was genuinely really good to see Elizabeth Sladen reprise her role again (after a whopping 23 years), and I have to admit in a fairly convincing sense: rumours of an alien visitation at a state school is bound to lure in an investigative journalist after all (I was initially worried that she might have hit on hard times and ended up working as a dinner lady!). Sladen acts with the same grounded subtlety of her original days and plays her part convincingly and evenly, still very much the same Sarah Jane of old, albeit older and wiser. Her performance is first rate, and although she has some affecting passages of dialogue, she also manages to get through the slacker and more canonically intrusive sections of script in a way that makes them palatable and not seriously injurious to the legacy of her character, even if these elements on paper threaten as much.

Toby Whithouse said in the Radio Times this week when talking of how he approached writing for the programme and the central, traditionally asexual character: ‘You always have to reduce it to a human level, and that situation for the Doctor, it’s the current girlfriend meeting the ex-wife. Once you start thinking like that, it becomes easier to write’. Well now, this is very telling. Surely to write for Who is a challenge a writer should embrace? Instead Mr Whithouse clearly admits that he’d rather take the easier option, completely ignore the series’ stylistic cannon of the sexually indifferent alien wanderer, rip up the foundations laid painstakingly before him for 26 years and rapidly and clumsily inject some terrestrial testosterone into the Timelord in order to slot his script into the mould of his usual projects such as the deplorably crass soap No Angels (which has about as much to do with nursing as The Royal). I know it is RTD who has allowed this sexualisation (or ‘sexing up’) of the central alien character and his human companion, but in this episode particularly Whithouse distils this recurring solecism at potential detriment to the enduring uniqueness of the programme. It’s tantamount to implying that Sherlock Holmes slept with Dr Watson (and bar Billy Wilder’s funny but rather pointless The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, consciously intended as a pastiche and not part of the cannon, this was never pursued in any other interpretation of that literary format).

Firstly, why does Whithouse assume one has to reduce Who to a human level when the the central character is an alien? This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and suggests he is a writer lacking imagination, who cannot stretch beyond the format of his usual projects. Why on earth then was he commissioned at all? Well, who knows? Suffice to say the – arguably inevitable – juxtaposition of the old fatherly Doctor and daughterly assistant mould of old into something of an ex-boyfriend and ex-girlfriend scenario is the one really jarring – and sadly pivotal – element to this otherwise reasonably good episode.

Of course it’s perfectly understandable that a young girl whisked off in the Tardis by a charismatic Timelord might have in some sense become ‘infatuated’ with her cerebral knight in shining armour, but this ‘attraction’ was always previously portrayed in a purely platonic way, as if the companion idolised the Doctor on an intellectual and moral level. This is understandable and not necessarily in contradiction of the style of the original series. Where it does begin to get a bit worrying is when somehow the Doctor himself seems to be reciprocating this sentiment in the context continually referred to throughout this episode as ‘a relationship’. Well maybe it is a relationship of sorts, but what’s wrong with just ‘friendship’? Why the obsession with intensifying these semantics to imply something more romantic than platonic?

What is most annoying though is not so much the obvious torch-carrying of Sarah for the most memorable man in her life, but the now palpably romantic attachment that Rose has for the Doctor. Whithouse has managed to go even further than RTD in showing quite clearly that Rose is in love with the Doctor, not to mention fancies him. How else can one interpret her blatant jealousy regarding Sarah’s former ‘relationship’ with him and the fact that she is just one in a long line of ‘companions’ – cue such crass soap-opera lines such as ‘why didn’t you mention her before?’ and ‘I thought we were…?’ The only consolation for the latter line is that it prompts the Doctor to, albeit ambiguously, explode into an almost McCoy-esque tirade of existential isolationism, by far the best piece of script in the episode, with brutal lines such as ‘you will wither and you will die…’ For this speech alone I genuinely applaud Whithouse for re-emphasizing the solitary, unattached nature of the Doctor, ironic in that for the most of the episode around this he seems to do his level best to imply the opposite. Mr Finch’s observation of the Doctor’s timeless, bereavement-afflicted existence is also very well scripted and reminds the viewer of the necessarily solipsistic element to the central character’s emotional makeup. Nevertheless, the manipulation of Sarah’s return as personifying an ex- to threaten Rose’s current ‘relationship’ with the Doctor was an easy, cop-out gimmick, but one which ultimately and thankfully Tennant and Sladen managed to somehow skirt around, providing us with a genuinely touching and platonic goodbye scene.

Talking of Anthony Head, he puts in a solid performance and delivers his lines with resonant aplomb. Even his vampiric hissing in the Krillitane scenes is passable, though slightly hammy. All said this is a convincing new enemy, at least conceptually, and the revelation about the cooking oil as a conductor is a nice, cod-scientific touch to the plot reminiscent of the neo-science of the old days.

K-9 was nicely utilised and made a heroic last stand. It was great to have John Leeson providing the voice again (remember those terrible days in Season Seventeen when K-9 sounded like he had congenital laryngitis, courtesy of a stand-in voice?). And it was nice to see Sarah reunited with K-9 Mark IV at the end. That’s just it though, it was nice. This episode certainly panders to the old fans, which is refreshing in a way amid a re-vamping which generally undermines much of the series’ history; and it is, for this very reason, seemingly necessary as well, more so than the nostalgia-loaded Season Twenty, which sat oddly with its returning companions and enemies as scripturally and conceptually it was one of the most imaginative and innovative seasons ever (Snakedance, Enlightenment and the uniquely dissected character of companion Turlough).

Inevitably in only 45 minutes, with the return of probably the two most iconic companions of the series’ history, the actual storyline will suffer. Considering the restraints imposed on this story by its heavily nostalgic ingredients, its plot does come off quite well with, as I mentioned earlier, a conceptually unusual enemy and all the loose ends neatly tied up. Quite why Micky was present however remains a quandary as he was frankly superfluous to everything. And he’s certainly no tin dog – the tin dog has more intellect for a start!

This is a fairly respectable episode, slightly ludicrous in places though thankfully any humour present is generally underplayed; one might even read in to it some element of ‘satire’ in this school’s emphasis on IT – that Blairite infatuation. It would be interesting to know if this is one of these new-fangled grant-maintained schools.

Tennant’s portrayal is strong in places, especially regarding the ‘wither and die’ speech – this is a classic moment in the series. However, I am still not completely convinced by his incarnation. He has the eccentricity, the quirkiness, the unpredictability – but I want more gravitas, of the kind epitomised by Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker. I have to say I preferred Tennant the Scot in Tooth and Claw. How ironic that inexplicably Eccleston was directed to speak in his Salford accent, which continually jarred with the role, and yet equally inexplicably, Tennant is directed to impersonate a slightly wishy-washy English accent, instead of his native Scottish. Considering Tennant has a slightly high-pitched voice, I think the more rugged, windswept injection of the rolling Scottish intonation adds gravitas to his delivery; something I wouldn’t really have thought about had it not been for the less impressive regional accent of his predecessor (an actor perfectly capable of the old RP as shown in films such as 28 Days Later and Shallow Grave, appalling thought they are as films).

The less said for Rose the better, again. Piper is obviously quite a good actress, I don’t doubt that, but her character is getting on my nerves and has been for some time. And unfortunately, I’m not convinced that Micky will compensate for this; another reasonable actor, but sadly again, a dull and rather pointless character.

School Reunion is, largely thanks to Elizabeth Sladen, a good episode, thought nothing more than good. A couple of rungs down from Tooth and Claw, it nestles at a fair 6/10 in my books. Whithouse shows some potential as a Who writer, but he needs to realise that writing for Who is not about putting the ‘human’ in, but the ‘alien’.