Doctor Who

Saturday, April 29, 2006 by

Throughout the land, grown men are crying. This isn’t because of some major sporting event, the death of a cherished footballer or because the Queen is 80. It’s because of the sacrifice made by a robot dog and the return of Sarah Jane Smith to Doctor Who.

If there was one episode fanboys of old were looking forward to in the latest series of the BBC’s top-rated drama, it was “School Reunion”. Forget the return of the Cybermen. Forget the return of Graeme Harper, the best director the show has even seen. What everyone wanted to see was how everyone’s favourite Doctor Who companions from the ’70s would fare in the new series, and how reverently they’d be treated. With all those expectations loaded onto its back, it’s amazing that “School Reunion” just about did the job expected of it and with more depth than anyone could have expected.

As with all post-Buffy Who, there was an A-plot and a B-plot to “School Reunion”. The surprise is that the A-plot, normally reserved for the poorly CGI-ed monster of the week, was handed over to the Doctor and his companions’ emotional tussling.

Instead, it was the B-plot that had to deal with the shape-changing, flying bat things that wanted to rule the universe by solving an equation, a plot lifted either from modern particle physics’ attempts to develop a grand unified field theory or from some old Superman comics – it’s unclear which. To solve the equation, the bat things take over a school, install Anthony Stewart Head as the headmaster, then pump up the brainpower of the pupils by lacing their chips with an alien oil. So maybe not Superman but The Demon Headmaster then. Anyway, so far, so ridiculous.

Meanwhile, back in the adult A-plot, ace investigative reporter Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) was unceremoniously dumped back on Earth after happy years of companionhood with that wanderer in time and space known as the Doctor. 30 years later, spotting spaceships in the sky near a school of apparent geniuses, she decides to investigate, towing along her parting gift from the Doctor, a broken-down robot dog called K9. Mid-investigation, she comes across a mysterious stranger who appears to have stored an old-fashioned blue police box in the school gym …

For a script written by one of the least fanboyish of the current crop of writers, “School Reunion” is staggering in its concessions to the old series. While long-time fans Russell T Davies, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have been doing their level best to avoid all continuity references, self-confessed Doctor Who ignoramus Toby Whithouse manages to sneak in references to just about every bit of K9 and Sarah Jane trivia imaginable. It’s a gamble, given how few of the current audience would have had even the faintest idea about who Sarah Jane and K9 were before the episode, but the script just about manages to explain everything necessary for the neophyte to cope with the backstory. It helps, of course, that the Beeb has been priming every well-behaved middle class kid with the necessary knowledge through guest appearances by Elisabeth Sladen and K9 on Blue Peter.

The meeting of old and new companions gives a chance for their stories and the Doctor’s to be explored, resulting in a surprisingly melancholy script. Nothing is given enormous depth, because there are bat-things to fight and only 45 minutes to do it in, but the plights of Rose and Sarah Jane, women who both travelled with a man who never ages, get examined in a way that’s never really been dealt with on the show before. The younger companion realises she’s not the first and probably won’t be the last woman who will ever share a TARDIS with the Doctor; the older companion realises that while she may have been special to the Doctor once, he’s moved on and barely mentions her.

This musing on the Doctor’s need for an endless stream of female companions, all of whom eventually must grow old and die, also gives David Tennant a chance to show his acting range in areas other than Prozac-quality cheeriness and anger. As if he hasn’t already done so in all his previous episodes, once again he effortlessly proves he’s a far better actor than the previous Doctor Who messiah, Christopher Eccleston.

Of the rest of cast and characters, Anthony Stewart Head is mostly wasted and bar a couple of homoerotic interactions with Tennant, is only really given opportunities to chew the scenery instead. Noel Clarke manages to get a handle on this “acting” thing at last and finally gets full TARDIS privileges. K9, complete with his original voice care of John Leeson, is used mostly as an object of fun; but it’s the “shooty dog thing” that eventually saves the day with a noble act of self-sacrifice that only the most heartless of viewers would have been unmoved by.

As Sarah Jane and the renovated K9 mark IV head off into the sunset again, finally having got the goodbyes they both deserved, a new generation of kids has been taught the nature of loss, death, age and mortality. It’s a brave children’s show that can do that. True, the plotting and effects are as ropey as last series, but the production team seem to have finally worked out the right balance between humour and gravitas, escapism and realism, sentimentality and banality.

Shed your tears for old Who because new Who is here and has finally found its way.


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