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Sunday, 30 April 2006 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Okay then, in a nutshell…the Doctor meets an old companion resulting in much “you left me you cad” dialogue, all of which takes place in a school to get the kids interested, while a bunch of bat creatures try to take over the universe with super-enhanced chip-oil. Add to that a robot dog with a laser in its nose, and I’d be hard pressed to find a less enticing prospect for an episode. Actually School Reunion is okay, but rather than falling short of greatness like some other episodes do, “okay” is all this episode can ever hope to achieve. With Toby Whithouse not being a fan of the original series, it becomes a worrying sign of the way the series could go if more writers came along taking their inspiration solely from Russell T. Davies’s blueprint.

I write my reviews by going chronologically through the episode and highlighting anything interesting on the way; the first notable element is Anthony Stewart Head as Mr Finch, who immediately sees his character for what it is. Whether or not having the monsters led by a campy supervillain (apparently an “ironic” one, not that that necessarily makes a difference) detracts from their credibility, Head plays the role the only way that could possibly work: by hamming it up. It’s done with a lot of skill though, making it seem genuinely ironic (and therefore clever) rather than an attempt at it (and therefore smug). With every scene he’s in geared up to cater for his character’s cartoonish quality (“nearly time for lunch…”) he says in the pre-titles sequence, there really isn’t any other option.

Some of the Doctor’s lines are terrible (“physics, physics, physics, physics, physics, physics, physics, physics, etc”) and combined with David Tennant’s performance, which is growing increasingly irritating by this stage, the character becomes cringe-inducing. The creepy little kid with alien knowledge is contrastingly effective, and it speaks volumes when the series’s lead actor is outperformed by a twelve-year-old.

Having the episode start with the Doctor and Rose already two days into their investigations is a good use of the forty-five minute format, and throughout its length the pacing feels much more natural than with many other episodes. It isn’t structural problems that beset School Reunion. The problem is with the characters largely, and the Doctor’s line of “happy-slapping hoodies with ringtones” (or something like that) is unbearably self-conscious, the kind of pop culture reference that really needs toning down – especially with all the “eh? Eh?” stuff he gives it afterwards. Such relentless referencing of 2006 going to look so silly in years to come, you mark my words: how much would people laugh at the Jon Pertwee years if he went round with the latest Mud LP under his arm going on about greebos with flares and lapels, on space-hoppers? It’s followed by a tense scene where one of the Krillitanes gets burned by the oil – it’s only when they start cooking chips in it that it loses its allure as a science-fiction device.

It’s great to see Elisabeth Sladen again as she is a really wonderful actress and my favourite original series companion, but she shows up a flaw in the episode’s characterisation very early on: the Doctor (a complete stranger at this stage) only has to mention “John Smith” and suddenly she’s off down memory lane like somebody has flicked a switch.

Perhaps it seems odd because Sladen plays it so straight, while Anthony Stewart Ham, the Doctor’s wackiness and Mickey’s “where’s the Maths department” routine owe more of a debt to season 24. Sarah’s first sight of the TARDIS is possibly the episode’s best scene: it’s manipulative, like all the rest, but it gets away with it for being reasonably well-written and well directed by James Hawes (who still disappoints after the tour de force that was The Empty Child), although as usual Murray Gold overdoes the music. His scores for the new series are much easier on the ears than many early scores, but they can’t hope to just fade into the background, and nothing removes mystery more than having that ubiquitous “oooooooOOOOOOOOooooo” singing come floating out of nowhere whenever anything remotely enigmatic happens.

There’s yet another moment of self-referential metafiction, when Sarah responds with “okay, now I can believe it’s you” when she hears a scream. I tuned in to watch Doctor Who, not a programme about Doctor Who!

The vacuum-packed rats are a slight improvement in terms of imagery, and these little touches are what rescue the episode to an extent.

K9 makes for a large prod at my fanboy-nature but he was never my favourite original series creation.

Ordinarily the café scene would be one of those moments where the plot has to grind to a halt to allow for an emotional moment (a common fault of the new series), but it feels less obtrusive here; it takes place at night, when there’s a natural break in the narrative anyway, and the repairing of K9 gives it more of a sense of focus. However, all the “you were my life” moments are annoying, retconning the original series into line with the new series’s mawkish ethos.

I’m all for engaging with what happens to companions after they’ve left, but to have them miserable and pining is to remove all their dignity – not to mention spoiling Sarah’s wonderfully elegant departure at the end of The Hand Of Fear. It’s rescued by Mickey to a large degree, as Noel Clarke stakes a claim for the episode’s best actor. There’s some unusually crude exposition as the Doctor gives a mini lecture on the Krillitanes – a race that reshapes itself with parts of other species is a very nice idea, but since they’re sidelines for so much of the episode they can never be a classic monster and can only be relegated to the “could have been good with more care” bin.

The Doctor’s confrontation with Rose outside the café comes from an interesting perspective, asking the question “what do you do when he’s left you?” but it’s very badly handled with excessive “curse of the Time Lords” guff and the Doctor just breaking off his sentence before saying the word “love”. The are-they-aren’t-they aspect of the new series is one of its less mature features – who cares either way, where are the monsters?

The swimming pool scene, which surprisingly seems to have become one of the big set pieces of the entire second series, is a worthy moment in the episode; Head gets some interesting dialogue, and both performers do well with even Tennant quietening down for a moment.

By contrast, there’s more peculiar characterisation going on in the Maths lab: first of all the episode goes into complete continuity meltdown, referencing fourteen other episodes in the space of about half a minute, an excess to which John Nathan-Turner never stooped to even at his most insular. For some reason it triggers another random change in the characters as Rose and Sarah go from hating each other to being best friends in the space of a single line of dialogue.

School Reunion is an explicitly character driven episode, the series two equivalent of Father’s Day in that respect, and while that’s not necessarily a problem (I liked Father’s Day) it does mean that it’s a fairly basic requirement that the characters are convincing and you don’t get this by removing all trace of emotional development. What actually happens is that characters go from A to Z without ever passing through the rest of the alphabet, if you’ll pardon that horrendous analogy.

Okay, here’s a criticism that’s going to sound really unreasonable: the Scasis Paradigm is bad because it’s too interesting. That really sounds like I’m looking for things to criticise, but the reasoning is this: the thought of an equation that can unlock complete control of time and space is a massively compelling one. In fact, in the late 1970s an entire season was dedicated to a not-dissimilar concept. In this case though it serves merely as a platform for the characters to go on one emotional journey to another, and as such feels like a real wasted opportunity. What could be the best idea of the episode is thrown away.

However, it does lead to a great scene where the Doctor is tempted by the prospect of power…which is itself let down by Sarah suddenly changing her mind yet again, like she’s having a breakdown, and telling him in a great monologue (one of the new series’s trademark features) about the importance of change.

It’s quite fun watching K9 shoot at the Krillitanes and I suppose the simplicity of how the plot is resolves is proportional to how much prevalence that aspect of the episode had in the narrative anyway.

However, the children cheering as the school blows up puts the episode firmly in kids’-show territory. It finishes with a sugary-sweet ending scene where emotional dialogue, and the music to go with it, gets delivered by truck. I won’t dwell on it really as my opinion of this kind of thing is already well documented. One thing though: isn’t Sarah saying that she preferred the old TARDIS console room a bit of a v-sign at production designer Ed Thomas? Not that she’s wrong or anything.

School Reunion is one of those episodes that depends on my mood, and tonight I didn’t enjoy it that much. Looking at it more objectively I feel it just about squeaks an average rating, but only just. All I can say for it is that it doesn’t disappoint; where Tooth And Claw should have been a classic, School Reunion just settles into its furrow and stays there. A common complaint with many average episodes is that “it’s not as good as it could have been”; in this case I find myself thinking that it’s not as bad as it nearly is . The only thing I can’t work out is whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.