“School Reunion” is something of an unprecedented Classic Who reunion. When Doctor Who returned to television in 2005, with Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper leading it, it blindsided Britain and was an unexpected hit. But for a long while, people weren’t really sure if it was supposed to be a reboot or an actual continuation of the classic series, especially since the Doctor now had an edgy backstory about the time lords being nuked off-screen at some point. In “School Reunion”, the show fully anchors its connection to its previous incarnation and confirms that NuWho and Classic Who are meant to be set in the continuity. In this installment, the Doctor reunites with Sarah Jane Smith, a long-running, fan favorite companion from the classic series, and the pair reminiscence about the time the Doctor left her in Abordeen.
“School Reunion” also marks the writing debut of Toby Whithouse, a guest writer who would turn in a good many scripts for Doctor Who over the years, as well as spearhead his own supernatural series, “Being Human”, eventually. From what I recall, “Being Human” was a really good, charismatic show, while his writing style tends to have more mixed results on Doctor Who. His batting average isn’t as inconsistent as Mark Gatiss’s or Gareth Roberts’, but his dialogue for the show tends to be quite dry and is usually elevated by the actors’ quality performances. Looking back, I think he wrote a lot of his best episodes for the Eleventh Doctor, like “The God Complex” and “A Town Called Mercy“, while he turned in his worst script for the Twelfth Doctor, “The Lie Of The Land”. His first story, “School Reunion”, feels like a good, sentimental episode, if not an especially memorable one. I like Sarah Jane’s return and the scenes she shares with the Doctor, while the rest of the episode’s plot lands around the average range.
For the last couple of episodes, the Tenth Doctor has been filled with youthful exuberance about his new regeneration, enjoying having a fresh start. It’s almost been easy to forget that the Doctor is already nine hundred years old, but “School Reunion” is one of those episodes where the mask drops and he lets a lot of his true age show underneath David Tennant’s perky looks. He never sits still for more than a day, and he purposely never looks back once he closes a chapter in his life. As a time lord, the Doctor is pretty close to being immortal, while humans have a good hundred years in them at most. Once he drops his friends off at home for good, he lets them get on with their lives – he doesn’t write, he doesn’t visit, he doesn’t offer to take them on any more adventures, because he doesn’t want to experience them growing old and dying like mayflies. In that regard, from an understandable place of pain, he’s actually a pretty poor friend, which Rose, Sarah Jane, and the episode itself calls him out on.
The large number of friends the Doctor has cycled through over the years has been a core part of the series since its beginning (Doctor Who has a massive rotating cast), so it’s nice to see “School Reunion” acknowledge that. There’s also an interesting scene where Mr. Finch offers the Doctor your usual villainous spiel about how they should team up, so they can reshape reality together and become gods, and the Doctor actually seems way more tempted by his proposal than he ought to be. One of the Tenth Doctor’s primary character flaws is that he has a god complex, and this is our first glimpse of it. As the last time lord in existence, some part of him is always tempted to buck the natural order and ignore the limitations of what he can do, reshape the crueler parts of the cosmos and his own history. The Tenth Doctor has the potential in him to fall to the dark side from his own temptations: so keep that in mind for future episodes like “The Waters Of Mars” and “The End Of Time“.
Elisabeth Sladen reprises her role as Sarah Jane Smith in this episode, an old long-running companion from the classic series, accompanied by her plucky (and surprisingly cute) robot dog, K9. The Doctor and Sarah Jane have some unfinished business to discuss, namely how they parted ways. The Doctor changed her life, he showed her amazing things and an entirely different way of living, and then he dropped her back home with little fanfare and cut off contact for decades, so she’s been feeling a bit restless after all this time. With Rose and Sarah Jane, “School Reunion” is mostly an episode about the companions, the role they play in the franchise, and the lives they could have after their tenure is over. Because it’s an interesting conundrum for the series to contemplate. After spending some of the best years of their lives as thrill-seeking daredevils every week, how could someone actually adjust to ordinary, everyday life on Earth again?
The idea of what life would be like after spending years with the Doctor is one NuWho would explore several times over. Nearly all the Moffat era companions have arcs that end with them outgrowing the Doctor and embarking on their own – whether it’s Amy saying goodbye to her childhood friend so she could live a full, domestic life with Rory, or Clara striking out on her own to take the Doctor’s teachings out into the world as her own heroine, or Bill venturing off on her own adventure with Heather, after a whole season of enlightenment and hard experiences with the Doctor had strengthened her will. Throughout the events of “School Reunion”, Sarah Jane realizes the importance of moving on with her life and finally receives the closure she needed to live fully in the present, making a heartwarming and poignant departure at the end with K9 that’s a lot more bittersweet now that Ms. Sladen has passed on (in the years following, Sarah Jane even received her own spin-off show).
In “School Reunion”, Rose Tyler’s world is thoroughly rocked when she meets Sarah Jane Smith, a woman from the Doctor’s past. Rose and Sarah Jane spend most of the episode trading catty barbs and cheap shots out of mutual jealousy, before they eventually bury the hatchet and start to become friends. Truthfully, Rose feels hurt and insecure by the knowledge that she’s just one notch in a long line of companions, and she wonders if it makes her connection to the Doctor feel less special and meaningful, since she’s just started to accept that she’s in love with him. “School Reunion” basically exists to prepare the audience for what’s coming in the Series 2 finale. For any viewers who started watching with the revival, Rose is one of the biggest characters in the series, but she’s far from being the first companion, and Billie Piper won’t be around forever. In fact, she only has ten more episodes under her belt before she bows out, bringing an end to the Tenth Doctor and Rose’s time together as a couple.
Meanwhile, Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke) continues to develop nicely as a side character. After being burned several times in Series 1, Mickey really enjoys the Doctor and Rose’s lovers’ spat in this episode, and I’m right there with him. At this point, Mickey is starting to come into his own as a sidekick who can be brave and helpful when he needs to be, and he’s trying to live down his increasingly inaccurate reputation as ‘Mickey as the idiot’. As the man back home, he’s been feeling aimless and bored for a while now. He wasn’t ready to see the universe last season, when Rose offered it to him, but he’s ready now, to try to find his purpose in life. He still won’t find it being an awkward third wheel in the TARDIS, between his ex-girlfriend and her new beau, but he’s made a good step forward.
Easily the weakest aspect of “School Reunion” is the subplot devoted to the villains, the Krillatine. The Krillatine are a chimera race of conquerors and invaders who (currently) resemble giant bats. Anthony Head portrays their leader, Mr. Finch, and he is rather unsettling. Mainly because any “Buffy” fans will notice Anthony plays the headmaster exactly like what a twisted, evil version of Giles would probably be like (and Rupert already had his share of shady moments on that show): he’s calm and reserved with a false geniality that belies malice and utter contempt for everyone around him. The Krillatine actors incorporate stiff, animal-like movements into their performances, even before the reveal, and I find it absolutely hilarious how Anthony Head just goes wild with his expressions in the last act, screeching like a banshee as Mr. Finch becomes more and more unhinged.
The reason I singled out the Krillatines as the weakest link in this episode isn’t just because the CGI for their bat forms is really bad, but because their master plan kind of boggles the mind. The villains in the previous episodes have been delightfully absurd (like a talking skin flap, some cat nuns, a social-climbing werewolf and some werewolf worshiping monks), but somehow it’s the Krillatines who threaten my suspension of disbelief. Basically, they’ve hijacked a grade school and have made the kids super intelligent so they can utilize their collective knowledge and solve an equation that will (somehow) allow them to warp reality and become gods. Both the Doctor and the episode take this plan completely seriously as a threat to all life. I have to say, between Rose looking into the time vortex and getting her goddess on a few episodes ago, and the Krillatine’s rather simple plot, becoming a god in the Doctor Who universe is surprisingly easy.
James Hawes once again steps up to direct “School Reunion” (he’s been a busy boy this season, hasn’t he?), improving upon his work on “The Christmas Invasion“. He does a fine job injecting some life into the proceedings with some shots I really enjoy, like the drawn out tracking shot of Ten standing behind Sarah Jane in the hallway, waiting for her to notice him, or the off-kilter dutch angles of Ten and Mr. Finch locking eyes in the stairwell, or the one-and-done pan down where the Krillatine bats fly down a staircase and their human forms emerge out of the other end. “School Reunion” is not one of Doctor Who’s better days when it comes to the series’ CGI. Some of the special effects in this episode look fine, and some of them rank alongside the carnivorous wheelie bin and the Nestene Consciousness in “Rose” when it comes to being incredibly dodgy. In particular, there’s this one shot of Mr. Finch and one of his Krillatine brothers standing on the school roof at night, spying on the Doctor, except the green screen proportions are way off for some reasons and it looks hilariously fake, but the episode keeps cutting back to it, making me chuckle every time.
“School Reunion” boasts one of Murray Gold’s better scores for Series 2, which makes me sad that all of it is unreleased. Series 1 and Series 2 really should have received their own soundtrack releases, instead of being lumped together on one album. Standout tracks included the ominous choir music that’s used throughout the entire climax, during the students’ ‘study session’, and the instrumental variation of “Song For Ten” (the peppy, beach holiday song from “The Christmas Invasion” that fits the Tenth Doctor’s jubilant personality very well) during Ten and Sarah Jane’s final heartfelt goodbye.
“School Reunion” has its faults, mostly when it comes to the villains, but as a proud celebration of the show’s past and a proper send-off for Sarah Jane Smith and K-9, this episode is a fun and heartwarming addition to the NuWho canon.
* Russell T. Davies freely admits that “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” was a large influence in how he structured his era of Doctor Who, so Anthony Stewart Head’s guest appearance in “School Reunion” was an excellent opportunity for him to pay homage to that series.
* “I thought there’d be happy slapping hoodies. Happy slapping hoodies with ASBOs. Happy slapping hoodies with ASBOs and ringtones!”
* “What are you doing?” “Calling an ambulance!” “No need. She’s quite all right” “WAAUUUUGGGHHHHH!!!” “It’s fine. She does that” Very convincing lie there, lady.
* “This isn’t your classroom, Kenny. Now run along!”
* Kenny barely speaks a word in this episode. For the longest time, I actually thought this kid was mute.
* “All right, team. Oh, I hate people who say ‘team’. Er, gang. Er, comrades. Ugh, anyway!”
* The verbal sparring in the Rose vs Sarah Jane match is brutal, and I love it.
* “Ho, ho, mate. The missus and the ex. Welcome to every man’s worst nightmare!”
* “You see, what’s impressive is that it’s been nearly an hour since we met her and I still haven’t said I told you so. Although, I have prepared a little ‘I was right’ dance that I can show you later. All this time you’ve been giving it, he’s different, when the truth is, he’s just like any other bloke” “You don’t know what you’re talking about” “Maybe not. But if I were you I’d go easy on the chips” Hot damn, Mickey.
* “What about you? Where do you fit in the picture?” “Me? I’m their Man in Havana. I’m the technical support. I’m. Oh, my God. I’m the tin dog” That’s rough, buddy.
* “I don’t age. I regenerate. But humans decay. You wither and you die. Imagine watching that happen to someone who you-” “What, Doctor?” “You can spend the rest of your life with me, but I can’t spend the rest of mine with you. I have to live on. Alone. That’s the curse of the Time Lords”.
* “Fascinating. Your people were peaceful to the point of indolence. You seem to be something new. Would you declare war on us, Doctor?” “I’m so old now. I used to have so much mercy. You get one warning. That was it” Another appearance of edgy Ten.
* “Ugh, forget the shooty dog thing!”.
* “Oh my God. Kenny blew up the school! It was Kenny!” “Yeah! Kenny! Kenny! Kenny! Kenny!” Something tells me Kenny won’t enjoy his new reputation as an arsonist when the law gets involved eventually. The Doctor does love leaving other people to clean up his mess.
* It’s kind of fascinating to see how much Rose’s character has changed in just one season. Rose was the one who wanted Mickey to come along in “World War Three“, but ever since she and the Doctor had a relationship upgrade in “The Parting Of Ways“, she’s been feeling a lot more possessive of her time with the Doctor. She wraps her head around her ex-boyfriend hanging around all the time, cramping her and the Doctor’s style, and all she can think is ‘ugh’.
* Elisabeth Sladen passed away in April 2011; may she rest in peace.