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Doctor Who – School Reunion (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

School Reunion originally aired in 2006.

You can tell you’re getting older. Your assistants are getting younger.

– Sarah Jane to the Doctor

Coming at the start of the revived show’s second season, School Reunion changed the way that the show related to its long and complex history, explicitly confirming what had been implied at least as early as Dalek and Aliens of London, that this was indeed the same Doctor who had had all of those adventures for all those years on British television. Bringing back the iconic pepper pots was one thing, as was name-dropping the paramilitary outfit from early in the original show’s run.

However, bringing back the most fondly remembered companion of the classic television show and affirming that she had travelled with this man for several years provides a firm anchor to the past. Looking back now, it’s hard to appreciate how dramatic a shift this was, and just what it represented. However, it’s hard to imagine that Doctor Who could get to the point where the Doctor could recruit a Silurian detective and her Sontaran butler in Victorian England without School Reunion.

It changed the game.

(Anthony Stewart) Head master...

(Anthony Stewart) Head master…

And yet, despite that, I will confess that I am not overly fond of School Reunion. In a way, it’s an expression of my problems with a lot of the show’s second season – a period of which I am not especially fond, but where my opinion seems to be the minority. Don’t get me wrong, here. I can see what it is doing, I appreciate the work that it does to connect Doctor Who to its past, but it also seems just a little bit too congratulatory and a little bit too self-satisfied.

In a way, School Reunion takes all the tropes and storytelling techniques that Russell T. Davies brought to Doctor Who and turns them up to eleven. Even Murray Gold’s score is more oppressive and overwhelming than it has been before. This is big and bombastic stuff, playing out intimate soap opera dynamics as if the fate of the universe depended on them. I am a big fan of Davies’ approach to Doctor Who. I’ll admit that the show owes a massive debt to him, and I look back on his time in charge with a fondness.

Somebody's happy to have Sarah Jane back...

Somebody’s happy to have Sarah Jane back…

However, School Reunion just pushes all those storytelling quirks until it’s simply “too much.” Which is, admittedly, a very arbitrary measure. I suppose a lot of this (and my problems with the second season as a whole) hinge on the portrayal of Rose as a character. I like Rose. The show could not exist without Rose. It was vitally important that the show be resurrected with a companion who felt more flesh-and-blood than any of the predecessors, and that the dynamic between Rose and the Doctor be a bit more nuanced and sophisticated than many of the past relationships.

However, I find myself uncomfortable with the idea that Rose is “special.” This has nothing to do with an particular opinion one way or the other on sexuality and Doctor Who, although I understand that is a bone of contention for quite a few people – including former cast members. I don’t subscribe to the idea that the relationship between the two leads needs to be asexual. Indeed, one of my favourite TARDIS dynamics was Tom Baker’s weird surrogate family with Romana and K-9 (and later Adric). So I have no problem with there being romance in the TARDIS.

It's all upside down...

It’s all upside down…

My problem with the dynamic between Rose and the Doctor is more to do with the realities of television. Rose is a character filling a slot in a dynamic that has been – and will always be – rotating. Even since Susan left in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, companions have been coming and going. Doctors hang around longer, but the audience should never grow too attached to them. The Tenth Planet proved that they too were expendable.

Christopher Eccleston left at the end of the first year. The audience knows Rose can’t be around forever. So spending thirteen weeks listening to her prattle on about it just reinforces the idea that she’s going to be gone soon, which makes it even harder to invest in her complaints. “I thought you and me were…,” she begins, trailing off. It makes her seem incredibly stupid and shortsighted, and it undermines the independence that I liked so much about Rose in the first season. There she was the big bad wolf. In the second season, she’s reduced to a love-sick puppy.

Stewart-ing the children to a bright future...

Stewart-ing the children to a bright future…

Not only does this undermine Rose as a character, it also makes the Doctor seem a great deal less sympathetic. “Is that what you’re going to do to me?” Rose asks him directly at one point. He replies, “No. Not to you.” There are two options here. He might believe that. If he does, he seems just as much of a blind fool as she is – particularly since he has so much more life experience. Alternatively, he doesn’t, in which case he seems like a cynical liar telling her what she wants to hear.

Davies and Tennant always portrayed the Tenth Doctor as emotionally compromised, and incapable of dealing with the realities of interpersonal relationships. It worked quite well when Davies was willing to call him out on it. The third season presents a toxic relationship between the Doctor and the companion, but it feels somewhat justified because Martha actually calls him out on it and kicks him to the curb. The problem with the relationship between the Tenth Doctor and Rose is that the show never presents it as anything other than true love in time and space.

"This is a spin-off waiting to happen!"

“This is a spin-off waiting to happen!”

School Reunion just turns up the soap opera background noise on the revived dynamic. When Sarah Jane Smith arrives, it’s portrayed as – to quote Mickey – “the missus and the ex … every man’s worst nightmare.” The two immediately start ripping chunks out of each other in the most passive-aggressive manner possible

Does anyone notice anything strange about this? Rats in school?

Well, obviously they use them in Biology lessons. They dissect them. Or maybe you haven’t reached that bit yet. How old are you?

Excuse me, no one dissects rats in school anymore. They haven’t done that for years. Where are you from, the dark ages?

And it goes on like that, culminating in a row over who has seen the most impressive things while touring all of time and space. It’s nice to know that the wonders of the galaxy can be used as a stick by which former companions measure each other.

Does not compute...

Does not compute…

To be fair, portraying a former companion as an ex-lover makes sense. The revived Doctor Who has tried to bring a bit more depth and complexity to the relationship between the Doctor and his companion. I do like a lot of what School Reunion tries to do. In particular, I appreciate the attempt to retroactively add depth and nuance to something the original show just sort of glossed over. With companions leaving regularly, there was never a sense that any of those departures had consequence. Even the death of Adric in Earthshock or Romana’s departure in Warrior’s Gate were only fleetingly mentioned in the following episode.

Here, there’s an attempt to wonder what happens afterwards. It was something the classic show never really dealt with, even when the Brigadier popped up as school teacher in Mawdryn Undead because they couldn’t get William Russell back and didn’t want to tweak the script too much. “You know what the most difficult thing was?” Sarah Jane asks. “Coping with what happens next, or with what doesn’t happen next. You took me to the furthest reaches of the galaxy, you showed me supernovas, intergalactic battles, and then you just dropped me back on Earth. How could anything compare to that?”

On the prowl...

On the prowl…

And School Reunion hits on something that I really like about Davies’ vision of Doctor Who. It turns out the the beauty of travelling with the Doctor doesn’t end the moment you leave the TARDIS for what might be the last time. Travelling with the Doctor changes people. As Rose argued in The Parting of the Ways, it shows you a better way. So there’s a reason the Doctor is so proud of Sarah Jane Smith, the investigative reporter. “Good for you. Oh, good for you, Sarah Jane Smith.” As he reassures her later on, “Look at you, you’re investigating. You found that school. You’re doing what we always did.”

Of course, there’s a selfish reason for all this. Rose will be departing the show at the end of the season, and the show is clearly trying to prepare her (and the audience) for the experience. It feels very weird that the Doctor’s regeneration didn’t need this sort of delicate audience preparation, but the departure of Rose does. It’s almost as if Davies feels the need to peer around the screen and declare, “See kids… Rose’ll be okay!”

A man and his (tin) dog...

A man and his (tin) dog…

So Sarah Jane’s separation trauma from the Doctor is played out. “I thought you’d died,” she tells him. “I waited for you and you didn’t come back, and I thought you must have died.” She points out that companions don’t always get ideal farewells or proper closure. “It wasn’t Croydon. Where you dropped me off, that wasn’t Croydon.” It’s a nice move, acknowledging that Rose’s departure won’t be anything new, but it just makes the contrivances the show goes through in order to satisfy her seem all the more unnecessary. Sarah Jane did just fine, and she didn’t get a replacement Doctor, a cushy job, a successful father and all manner of other wish fulfilment.

It is nice, though, that School Reunion does follow through on the logic of the Doctor and companion relationship, and offers an explanation for why the Doctor is so fond of loving and leaving. “I don’t age,” he confesses to Rose. “I regenerate. But humans decay. You wither and you die. Imagine watching that happen to someone who you…”  He clarifies, bluntly, “You can spend the rest of your life with me, but I can’t spend the rest of mine with you.”

Somebody's about to get chooled...

Somebody’s about to get chooled…

This is good stuff, but the fact that all of this is playing out for Rose’s benefit feels a little bit much. The nature of the show is that the companion is meant to be a rotating position (as is the Doctor). Watching School Reunion, as the show prepares for the first companion departure trauma, the though of going through this sort of angst and melodrama every time a companion decides to depart is just a bit too much. The departures in the original show were too clean and too easy, but this is just overwrought.

At the same time, it is nice to see the show becoming more comfortable with its past. After the way the show treated the Cybermen as inherently ridiculous in Dalek, it’s nice to see K-9 make an appearance relatively intact. The show is completely and utterly unashamed of the dog’s retro appearance. “Why does he look so disco?” Rose asks, prompting the Doctor to get defensive, “Oi! Listen, in the year five thousand, this was cutting edge.”

The Professor!

The Professor!

It’s hard to imagine School Reunion working without Tennant’s sheer fannish enthusiasm. Eccleston could do manic joy, but you get the sense that David Tennant is giddy filming scenes with Elisabeth Sladen and the K-9 prop. Indeed, these guest stars are treated almost like royalty, celebrated and lauded. Despite the success of the revival, it hasn’t lost sight of its roots. Rather tellingly, the Doctor is more excited that K-9 remembers him than K-9 is to be reunited with the Doctor. “He recognises me!” the Doctor declares, taking some pride in the fact he hasn’t changed too much. One assumes those working behind the scenes feel the same way.

The Krillitane are very much in the background here, but they provide a fitting thematic opponent. “They’re a composite race,” the Doctor exposits. “Just like your culture is a mixture of traditions from all sorts of countries, people you’ve invaded or have been invaded by. You’ve got bits of Viking, bits of France, bits of whatever. The Krillitanes are the same. An amalgam of the races they’ve conquered. But they take physical aspects as well. They cherry pick the best bits from the people they destroy. That’s why I didn’t recognise them. The last time I saw Krillitanes, they looked just like us except they had really long necks.”

Fly by night...

Fly by night…

Like Doctor Who itself, the Krillitane have evolved. They’ve radically changed their own appearance to keep with the times. Much like Davies had to overhaul Doctor Who to make it work for a modern audience, and appeal to modern sensibilities. Of course, the Krillitane have changed too much. They’ve deviated too far from their origin. “They’ve changed their physiology so often, even their own oil is toxic to them.”

In a way, School Reunion feels like an attempt to prove that this is not the case with Doctor Who, that the show has not moved so far forward that elements of its past identity have become toxic. If you can introduce Sarah Jane and K-9, I suspect you are fine. School Reunion paved the way for the show to more actively engage with its own past. I don’t think the master could have shown up in the third season were it not for the success of this story.

Anthony Stewart Head reaction shot #103...

Anthony Stewart Head reaction shot #103…

Anthony Head is great here. Even his casting seems to be toying with the past. Crediting him as “Head Master” on Doctor Who must have raised all manner of eyebrows and expectations that a third party might be rejoining the show. Head’s presence also serves as a shout-out to Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, which was a massive influence on how Davies approached fantasy in the revived Doctor Who, combining with personal drama and real-world dynamics.

Head has great fun skulking around. There’s a reason that so many of the screenshots here amount to little more than Head making a weird facial expression. It’s almost a shame that he didn’t land a meatier or more substantial role. (Imagine him as the “(non-Head) Master” or even the Doctor.) Still, it’s a lovely performance in an episode with some fairly under-developed villains. Allowing Head to deliver fairly standard bad guy dialogue in a menacing fashion adds a lot.

Deepening the gene pool...

Deepening the gene pool…

School Reunion stays true to the outlook of the Davies era. While it’s hardly biting social commentary, it’s no coincidence that the school serving as a front for the Krillatine is a posh upper-crust establishment more focused on churning out high schools than providing an education. “I mean, maybe you’re working the children a little bit too hard now and then, but I think good results, they’re more important than anything,” Sarah Jane lies at one point. Later on, the Doctor discovers the Krillatine are exploiting not only the children’s brains, but their souls.

Davies’ Doctor Who was never subtle about its politics, but School Reunion is rather on the nose. At the same time, the script is sharp enough to admit a bit of a conflict with Davies’ take on the character. He is a crusader for social justice, and one who refuses to let abuse stand, but he’s also a character who defends the status quo. “You act like such a radical,” Finch observes, “and yet all you want to do is preserve the old order?”

Green energy...

Green energy…

To be fair, this has been an internal conflict for the character for quite some time. It has been bubbling since the Jon Pertwee era, at the latest. The Doctor talks a good game about being a rebel and a radical, but he is quite unwilling to shake things up that much. Like Bad Wolf, it’s a well-observed criticism of the character – demonstrating that Davies and his writers understood the inherent inconsistencies of the character. While School Reunion doesn’t offer a solution, acknowledging the issue is a step in the right direction.

There’s also a bit of a lingering sense that the writing team are still trying to get to grips with David Tennant as the Doctor. Tenant himself established his take on the role incredibly quickly, and the staff soon started playing to his strengths. However, there’s a strange call-back to his weird “no second chances” bit in The Christmas Invasion, as he warns Finch, “I’m so old now. I used to have so much mercy. You get one warning. That was it.”

Things come to an (Anthony Stewart) Head...

Things come to an (Anthony Stewart) Head…

It’s a threat which really doesn’t suit Tennant’s take on the character. In fact, quite the opposite. Tennant is very good at playing the Doctor as a man who is very good a begging opponents not to force his hand – the “as many chances as you need so I don’t have to commit genocide again” kind of Doctor. This is the last time that his “harsh, no nonsense” approach to the Tenth Doctor comes up, and it’s remarkable that this represents the extent of the character’s teething problems. Well, if you exclude the whole “Rose” thing.

School Reunion is an episode I appreciate more than I enjoy. I like what it does, but I don’t necessarily like how it does it.

One Response

  1. I kind of wish we’d seen K-9 again…
    Although I do agree with you that there’s not really a massive problem with romance in the Tardis, I am getting a bit bored of companion and Doctor falling in love. Or companion falling in love, at least. I can understand it, but I’d like to see something new. I’d love to see an older doctor after Matt Smith, partly because it would change the dynamic between the Doctor and companion. Speaking of which, you thought of doing a blog post of predictions for the next Doctor? 😛

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