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Sunday, 30 April 2006 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

‘School Reunion’ was one of the most highly anticipated episodes of Series Two, featuring as it does the return of Sarah Jane Smith, one of the most popular Doctor Who companions of all time, and children’s’ favourite K9. In fact, despite appearances thus far in the new Doctor Who by Autons, UNIT and Daleks, as well as references to Time Lords, ‘School Reunion’ is the first episode that heavily references the classic series, with blatant references to a handful of specific stories. At the same time, it tries to place Sarah Jane and K9 within the context of the new series, and the end result is a bit… odd.

‘School Reunion’ focuses primarily on the character interaction between the Doctor’s companions, which I’ll come to shortly, but does so against the backdrop of a plot that can best be described as functional. With the Krilitanes having invaded a school so that they can use the imagination of children to crack the “cosmic code” and thus become omnipotent, the Doctor and his friends are forced to stop them in a way that tends to involve running around corridors, and ends with a rushed ending in which the school explodes. I’ll be generous and assume that the Krilitane oil is flammable, but it feels very gratuitous. In the midst of this rather pedestrian plot, there are flashes of potential, for example the nature of the Krilitanes as a composite race, but there is not time for this to be explored, so it ends up as window dressing.

Ironically, ‘School Reunion’ marks the first time since ‘Rose’ that the series has seen the Doctor (and in this case companion) already in place and investigating events when the episode begins, which is quite novel for the series, but rather less so if you’ve read the New Adventures, especially when one notes that the Doctor has rather manipulatively arranged for the teacher he replaces to win the lottery. And because of my familiarity with Doctor Who in other media, quite a lot of the aspects of this story that might seem potentially interesting feel derivative, even though in this case it is almost certainly a coincidence, especially given writer Toby Whithouse’s apparent unfamiliarity with the series. Thus, the most interesting idea hinted at here, the Stasis Paradigm, not only riffs off the idea of Block Transfer Computation first seen in ‘Logopolis’ and developed throughout the novels (most memorably in ‘Dead Romance’), it is also reminiscent of the idea of quantum mnemonics used by Craig Hinton in his novels ‘Millennial Rites’ and ‘The Quantum Archangel’. Oh, and the children sat at their alien computers with headphones is straight out of ‘Downtime’. None of which is a) intentional, and b) of any significance at all to the vast majority of viewers, but it did rather leave me feeling that I’d seen (or read) most of this before. Having said of all of that, I did like the amusingly silliness of all of that alien technology being plugged into a single overloaded electrical socket.

As for the monsters, the Krilitanes look far more effective than they did in the trailer at the end of ‘Tooth and Claw’ (c.f. the Werewolf), although the goofy teeth are perhaps a mistake. It is Anthony Stewart Head however who almost steals the show, with a slightly over-the-top performance as Mr. Finch that is never anything other than hugely watchable. Rumours abounded at one point that Head was to play the Master, and here he more or less does exactly that; he’s a gloating, well-dressed megalomaniac who gets to face off against the Doctor, and long time fans might note that if one imagines him as the Doctor’s old nemesis, Finch’s offer to share ultimate power with the Doctor isn’t a million miles away from the Master’s similar offer in Episode Six of ‘Colony in Space’.

The main focus of ‘School Reunion’ however is the return of Sarah Jane, but she reappears here as a part of an agenda. This isn’t just a happy reunion in which an old friend contacts the Doctor for tea and help, Sarah instead is used as a means of putting Rose’s relationship with the Doctor into perspective. The script does this by making Rose realize, for the first time, that she is just the latest in a long line of mostly female companions, but in order to do this it has to put Sarah and Rose on a level playing field. And the way in which it does this is… divisive. One of the most annoying aspects of the new Doctor Who, for me at least, is that Russell T. Davies has redefined the role of companion as that of a groupie; despite occasional concerns by some fans, there has not, as yet, been any “hanky-panky in the TARDIS”, and on the whole Rose’s seeming infatuation, rather than simple friendship, with the Doctor is unrequited. In order to rattle Rose’s assumptions about their relationship, the production team thus choose to retool Sarah Jane’s relationship with the Doctor (which for anyone who isn’t familiar with the classic series was usually defined as “best friends”) and the result veers widely between just about acceptable to cheapening the past.

It’s worth noting that despite the general impression that some fans have taken away from ‘School Reunion’, the episode opens with Sarah Jane investigating the school of her own accord with the sort of independence and competence exhibited by the older Sarah familiar to some fans from the Big Finish Sarah Jane Smith audio series and the novel ‘Bullet Time’. She tells Finch, “I can see everything Mr. Finch, quite clearly”, and when she’s fondly recalling her old friend “John Smith”, she gives the impression that she hasn’t thought of him in some time. It’s only when the sight of the TARDIS visibly shocks her that the script starts to try and hint that she has been pining for a lost lover for thirty years. And it does this purely for Rose’s benefit, creating a teeth-grinding situation best summed up by Mickey’s line, “The missus and the ex!” Rose is visibly shaken by the existence of Sarah, touchily snapping, “I’m not his assistant!” and telling him, “I thought you and me were… I obviously got it wrong.” This I can accept, as Rose’s infatuation with the Doctor is one of her characteristics, in much the same way that it was one of Sam’s in the Eighth Doctor novel range. Equally, I can cope with Sarah’s difficulty in coping with adjusting to her old life back on Earth after the Doctor, which is summed up nicely when she asks, “How could anything compare to that?” and there is a touching moment at the end when she tells him, “I haven’t ever thanked you for that time.” What did irritate me however is lines such as, “I know how intense a relationship with the Doctor can be”, “you never came back for me, just dumped me”, “some things are worth getting your heart broken for” and “you were my life”. Worst of all is the ghastly grandchildren exchange, which suggests that she’s spent a lonely three decades shunning other men because she’s yearning hopelessly for Time Lord cock. This might sound a tad blunt, but frankly I’d rather the Doctor weren’t effectively reduced to some lecherous old bastard who seduces young women and then swiftly replaces them when they either get tired of travelling with him or he dumps them somewhere. It makes him, I submit, seedy.

On the whole however, the return of Sarah Jane does work well. Even though her reaction to seeing the Doctor hinges on the assumption that she hasn’t seen the Doctor since ‘The Hand of Fear’, which ignores ‘The Five Doctors’ and also effectively ignores the evidence of K9 and Company, which establishes that the Doctor dropped K9 off after he left her behind and that she therefore must have known that he hadn’t died, at least not on Gallifrey. Such continuity issues won’t concern the vast majority of viewers, and nor should they, but given that we are talking about a script that specifies that this is K9 Mark III (and also makes specific references to ‘Pyramids of Mars’, ‘Planet of Evil’, ‘Death to the Daleks’, ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, ‘Terror of the Zygons’ and ‘The Deadly Assassin’, it does rather jar if you do notice such things. Nevertheless, Sarah gets some great moments, including her line, “You can tell you’re getting older, you’re assistants are getting younger” and her sparring with Rose over whose seen the most interesting things with the Doctor. Happily, Sarah wins on points, managing to startle Rose with “The Loch Ness Monster!” after which they stop bitching at one another, and their mutually laughter at the Doctor’s eccentricities is quite sweet, as too is Sarah’s indignation that the suburban street that we saw at the end of ‘The Hand of Fear’ was in Aberdeen. But mostly Sarah works because of Elizabeth Sladen; having reprised the role recently for Big Finish she knows full well how to step back into the character and despite my rant above, it is genuinely nice to see her again.

K9 meanwhile is present largely to appeal to the kids and nostalgic older viewers, and despite being largely knackered, it gets to save the day twice, firstly by zapping attacking Krilitanes out of the air and secondly by making the ultimate sacrifice in order to destroy the villains. It’s hard not to feel sad when he gets blown up at the end, although he does get a great last line, as Finch snarls, “You bad dog…” to which he smugly replies, “Affirmative.” Mind you, this is K9 we are talking about, and in time honoured tradition he gets to sound snooty and superior, especially when he patiently reminds Mickey “We are in a car” until the penny drops. John Leeson has also recently reprised his role (or rather, roles) for Big Finish and he too steps back into character with practiced ease. The poignancy of K9’s destruction is somewhat ruined by its replacement with K9 Mark IV, but it probably appeals to the kids. Otherwise, it just serves as an excuse for Sarah to sum up the previous forty-five with the sledgehammer subtle line, “He replaced you with a brand new model? Yeah, he does that…”

However, K9 also serves another function, as it puts Mickey’s relationship with the Doctor and Rose into perspective and he realises with horror, “Oh my god, I’m the tin dog!” This is significant because it leads to Mickey staying on board the TARDIS at the end of the episode, asking the Doctor, “Can I come? ‘Cause I’m not the tin dog, and I want to see what’s out there.” Since he’s more interesting by now than Rose this is more than welcome, especially when she looks jealous and petulant when the Doctor agrees. Whether or not Mickey’s new role as companion will prove an asset remains to be seen, but it’s a promising development.

As for David Tennant, he gets a good episode, even though he has to contend with such appalling dialogue as, “Physics. Physics, eh?”, “Correctomundo… a word I have never used before and hopefully never will again”, “Happy-slapping hoodies with ASBOs”. He actually delivers these better than might be expected. But he’s at his best when the Doctor meets Sarah again and looks utterly delightedly, babbling, “Nice to meet you! Yes, very nice. More than nice, brilliant!” and he does it again when he joyfully exclaims, “K9!” He also looks suitably haunted when he explains to Rose, “You can spend the rest of your life with me, but I can’t spend the rest of mine with you.” When Finch asks the Doctor to join him, Tennant makes him look first stunned and then extremely tempted as he whispers, “I could save everyone… I could stop the war”, and it seems to take Sarah to snap him out it. The earlier confrontation at the swimming pool is reasonably well staged, although the “If I don’t like it, then it will stop” and “I used to have so much mercy” lines smack again of the sort of “tell don’t show” more often seen in Russell T. Davies’ episodes. He also looks convincingly upset when he sadly says to K9, “Goodbye old friend” and it’s quite moving.

In the final analysis, and despite some strong criticisms, I largely enjoyed ‘School Reunion’ almost exclusively because of Sarah Jane and K9, but in spite of much of the script, not because of it. Ultimately, the end result is that the episode feels more like an important event within the wider context of something larger than a story in its own right, which is it’s definite weakness. One last thought: for those of you who took issue with Rose’s reaction to meeting Sarah Jane, just be glad it wasn’t Susan…