[Review written for Gallifrey One: Spring 2006]
School Reunion is the episode every fan has been waiting for. The fans have sat back patiently (well, as patiently as any fan can sit) while the story of the Doctor has slowly unfolded for the new viewers, and now we have an episode which very much indulges the old school in a slice of nostalgia. If you thought the Daleks were a whiff of Doctor Who’s past glory, then prepare for a full blown taste of retro sensations!
Sarah Jane Smith, the fan favourite companion of yesterday returns along with possibly the oddest TARDIS traveller the Doctor has ever had: K-9. Yes the robot dog is back and this time, he’s actually rather good.
They story premise is fairly simple: While investigating one of Mickey’s UFO sightings at a nearby school, the Doctor and Rose encounter a malevolent Headteacher, bats aplenty and a lady who will bring emotional turmoil to the Doctor and his current companion.
The episode starts with a child being eaten. Even on modern television, this is a rare sight and makes for a good opener. The story is a little reminiscent of Virgin’s New Adventures; in so far as we are dropped right into the centre of the story - in this case, with the Doctor already at the school and teaching a class. This certainly makes for a refreshing and intriguing opener.
Anthony Steward Head is wonderful as the Headmaster, Mr Finch. Fondly remembered for his slightly eccentric school Librarian in “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”, Head returns to education with an entirely wicked persona. If anyone should play The Master in Doctor Who, it should be Head. His presence is commanding and an asset to the story, particularly a tale already dominated by the show’s guest stars.
This story works in everyone’s favour, especially Tennant. Both “New Earth” and “Tooth And Claw” demanded the Doctor’s role to be slightly less central, simple for the requirements of both stories. This is very much the Doctor’s tale, both in the emotive drama and the action based plot. Tennant rolls off a wonderful performance as a school teacher, moving onto a spellbinding reunion with Sarah Jane and then an implosive encounter with the Head. The scene with Head and Tennant working a stand-off at the school swimming pool is a gravity-well of tension. The two actors play off each other so well in this scene.
The script has some lovely touches and to know surprise, much of the strength of episode comes from it’s script. The reunion with Sarah Jane is written with the perfect balance of word to action, indeed the very essence of any great scene. The writer knows when to insert dialogue and when to simply let the actions speak for themselves. The scene is written with just enough bite that the moment becomes touching rather than saccharine.
Where School Reunion truly excels is in it’s examination of the Doctor and his companions. Just how do these exciting journeys in time affect the TARDIS crew and more importantly, what’s left when they part company?
It seems fitting Sarah Jane is the companion to ask these question since she was indeed kicked out of the TARDIS and back into reality. Where do you go when you come back from a trip of a lifetime? This is a theme never explored in Doctor Who although it was briefly touched upon by Rose in “Parting Of The Ways”.
This inability to reintegrate into society has always been a problem for those who have lived in unusual and often deadly circumstances. Those who return from war suffer similar disassociation; no one else can understand or appreciate the journey one has taken and with no real connection to that life, one is left feeling stranded. How many companions of the Doctor may suffer from such disassociation? It’s a chilling thought.
The other question posed is why the Doctor doesn’t go back to his old companions? His answer is a rationale one and delivered by Tennant with such conviction. What man wants to watch his friends die?
The tension and jealousy between Sarah Jane and Rose is an interesting one. Certainly “School Reunion” brings out a side of Sarah Jane we’ve not seen before. Again it makes one wonder how many other companions are caught so firmly by the Doctor’s charisma? How many have been so overwhelmed by his character and actions that no one else dare compare? There is an interesting beat between Rose and the Doctor in “School Reunion” which does show how Rose’s feelings are very entrenched in human love while the Doctor’s are not. She thinks there is “something” there which he doesn’t seem to connect with. The question of how Rose views her relationship with the Doctor still isn’t really clear, or if Sarah Jane’s was or is the same. This ambiguity seems to suit the dynamic. The Doctor is literally out of this world, so perhaps that means any close friendship with the Doctor takes on a dynamic different to any other male/female bond.
Piper and Sladen have some excellent chemistry, in fact the whole cast shines. Mickey’s request to join the crew in the last moments is very welcome, which if we compare the reaction to his existence in “Aliens Of London” last year, we can see the character and audience’s empathy for Mickey has come away.
So that leaves us with our and every man’s best friend: K-9. His role was a little less intrusive than I expected - especially as Doctor Who has a very child orientated mandate. I - for the first time since I myself was a child - loved his presence here. It’s not overstated, he isn’t silly and his role plays relevance to the plot and the emotional drama. Mickey and Rose’s reaction to this odd machine serves as a perfect bridge for new viewers and I wouldn’t mind seeing the mutt again.
With a lovely musical score, some very solid cast direction and a great pace, this is an awesome episode.
Down points? All episodes have them. Mr Finch’s Krillitane hoard were rather too reminiscent of the Reapers from “Father’s Day” and that did take a lot away from their presence. Their head shape was a little too comic caricature and seemed more fitting in comic book than a TV show - certainly didn’t make them feel very real or scary. Nevertheless, the actual animation and fusion between film and CG was good enough not to really question their existence. The only other dodgy effect in the whole show was the open TARDIS at the end. The interior console backdrop, looked like just that, a backdrop. You could even see the floor space before the hanging image. Perhaps this patchy bit of prop work was intended to add to the nostalgia factor.
Other than that, the story worked, the characters worked and the show.. worked. I can honestly say this is one school reunion all the fans will want to be a part of.
Episode 4? Come on, I challenge you to top this.