Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting SCHOOL REUNION - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting SCHOOL REUNION

It’s only on watching School Reunion with hindsight that you realize just what it is about New Who you’ve been missing up to this point.

No no, we’re not talking about the worthy and wonderful fan service of bringing back Classic companions Sarah Jane Smith and K9.

We’re talking about real, elegant, persuasive, talkative, and above all powerful personal villainy. Up to the point of School Reunion, there’s been no Michael Wisher as Davros moment of clashing philosophies between geniuses. Come to that, there’s been no Terry Molloy as Davros moment of scientific scorched earth rationalism to counter the Doctor’s always woolly, if feverishly defended, compassionate moralism. No Roger Delgado moment of equalizing banter from a thoroughly opposing point of view.

In fact, this far into New Who, the best the show has managed when it comes to personal philosophical opposition is a Dalek telling the Doctor he would make a good Dalek, and a long night in Cardiff with Blon Fel-Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen (Annette Badland), discussing the moral imperatives at play when it comes to capital punishment.

Enter, Anthony Stewart Head to change all that forever.

From the first moment he walks into show in the pre-credits sequence, Head is precise and hateful. When he understands that the nurse has sent him a pupil who has “no-one to miss you,” his tone and body language change immediately from being peremptory to being caring and oleaginous.

Come to think of it, watching School Reunion in 2023 should probably come with a trigger warning for abuse, because the gear-shift in his behaviour pattern is pinpoint accurate for many people who lure children into an undefended space to do them unspeakable harm.

We see through the headmaster’s door, the silhouette of something monstrous blooming, and the poor child screaaaaams.

What happens next is a mark of quite how seriously Russell T Davies takes the responsibility of Doctor Who.

From a purely dramatic standpoint, it would be perfectly acceptable to bleed from the scream of the dying child into the scream of the theme tune, and run credits.

Davies is better than that, both stylistically and in terms of his responsibilities to the younger elements of his audience. It may well, to many children, feel like evil lives in their school, and so, to both establish a duality of good and evil and assure them that they’re not alone as prey in this situation, Davies brings in the Doctor as a new teacher.

The point of that is both to delight new viewers who could completely see David Tennant as their schoolteacher, but also to establish a Western-style duality that will continue throughout the rest of the story – where there is evil, yet there is good. And for younger viewers, even though there might be teachers at their school who seem like would happily eat children for lunch, it’s a reassurance that not all teachers are like that. For every Mr Finch, there’s a Doctor – a trustworthy teacher who can make things right.

Then we can run credits, and the story itself can begin.

The story actually has three strands: the return of Sarah Jane Smith and K9, and the uncomfortable consequences for the Doctor when a friend who was abandoned having done nothing wrong comes back to ask him questions; the subsequent consequences for both Rose and Mickey when they realize that the Doctor has had lifetimes’ worth of friends, and rarely if ever mentions them again once they’ve gone out of his life; and the whole alien-bat-people-enslaving-children-to-break-the-master-code-of-reality… thing.

Let’s deal with Finch and Friends first. The addition of Anthony Stewart Head to the cast is an absolutely masterly stroke of genius. With his frankly preternatural ability to open his jaws snake-wide and save on the SFX bill, he adds a focused savagery to the main villain that is intense and internalized, while his suave, sophisticated outer layer belies the cold calculation of Brother Lassar.

All credit is due to writer Toby Whithouse when it comes to the sizzling dialogue between Finch/Lassar and the Doctor, and James Hawes on directorial duty deserves plaudits too, for creating something with subtle layers of subtext – corresponding scenes with Finch on high, watching his students scurry about their day like mice in his maze, and later, with Finch down among them, and the Doctor looking down in judgement from the same vantage point, for instance.

The swimming pool stand-off between the two, where each has thrown off the pretension of being a new headmaster and teacher, and they assess each other like gunslingers is shiver-down-the-spine taut TV, and again, Whithouse and Hawes knock the scene out of the park.

They’re immeasurably helped on their way by the sheer bristling charisma of the heroic and villainous leads of the piece. For the first time in New Who, you get that sense of a Pertwee-Delgado equality – but this has much sharper knives drawn, as the Doctor asserts that if he doesn’t like what Lassar is up to, it will end, and Lassar throws scornful shade on the whole race of the Time Lords.

That’s what we mean – it’s only when you get to School Reunion that you realize you’ve been missing this sense of equal and opposite charismatic power, and the story delivers that in spades.

When it comes to the return of Sarah Jane and K9, there’s no doubting that it was always going to be at least a soft win with Classic fans, because Sarah Jane (and Elisabeth Sladen) was always far more beloved than it seems the actress ever knew.

But having both Sarah Jane and the new Tardis team investigating the same suspicious events feels like the vindication the Doctor believes in – the idea that Sarah Jane Smith doesn’t particularly need him in order to investigate, expose, and where necessary save the world from unusual and alien chicanery.

In fairness, she was doing precisely that the very first time she met the Doctor, so it’s only right to imagine her continuing to do it after he dumped her (as it turns out) in Aberdeen.

On the other hand, neither Sarah Jane, nor in some senses Sladen, lets the Doctor off the hook as easily as that. She’s had negative consequences as a result of the fact that he never came back for her, and has lived her life more or less waiting for the day when a big blue box would drop out of the sky, or a weird black triangle would pick her up again.

She’s never married, never really had a serious relationship, because she’s known what Rose has only recently learned – that nothing can really compare to the wonders of the universe, and it wouldn’t be fair to get close to someone, only to run off into time and space and potentially never see them again.

Sladen is – it practically goes without saying – superb as this older, wiser, slightly more life-bruised Sarah Jane, who, while running the gamut from being angry at the Doctor’s abandonment and catty with the new girl, is still absolutely up for adventure and foiling the plans of the aliens. It’s important though that at the end, she demands the Doctor say a proper goodbye, after turning down the offer to travel with this new incarnation and his teenage fan club.

It's an adventure that she needs, to give her closure on the waiting she’s been doing since we last saw her in the mid-Eighties. And – naturally, given her ability to knock this material out of the park – it sets her up expertly for the successful spin-off show she’d deserved since 1981.

It’s worth noting though that when The Sarah Jane Adventures began, the first order of business was to give her a son to fight for, an alien supercomputer, a sonic lipstick, and a young gang of her own to act as companions. The Sarah Jane Adventures would essentially prove that Sarah Jane Smith had graduated from waiting around for the Doctor to drop out of time and space and whisk her away into a bona fide Earth defender in her own right.

Being able to turn him down at the end of School Reunion was key to that.

As for Rose and Mickey, School Reunion provides a seismic shift in how things work between them and the Doctor. Even early in the episode, there’s a sense of the Doctor diminishing Rose Tyler – when she comes to talk with him in the dinner hall, he instructs her about spots of gravy she’s forgotten to clean. There’s an unspoken class layering there – he the academic, she the dinner lady, and he plays with that, even though she’s fed up with it.

When Sarah Jane’s fate of being seemingly forgotten is revealed to her, Rose re-evaluates her whole relationship with the Time Lord. “Me and you, I thought we were – I mean, obviously I was wrong.”

The discussion they have is pivotal, in that it sets up her eventual destiny with the Metacrisis Doctor – a Doctor who can grow old and die, sharing the whole of his life with her, a thing this regenerating Time Lord can’t do. And the reappearance of Sarah Jane, and particularly K9), is also crucial to Mickey, as he reassesses his place in the lives of the time travellers.

Not wanting to be “the tin dog” any more, Mickey’s actually pretty handy in the adventure – as, come to that, is the tin dog – and he determines to come with the Doctor and Rose from here on out. What’s intriguing about that is that throughout the time of the Ninth Doctor, it was usually the Doctor who vetoed his travel.

The Tenth Doctor, having mellowed towards “Ricky the Idiot,” is fine with his coming along, whereas in the wake of the Sarah Jane revelations of what a life of choosing the Doctor over connections of her own can lead to, Rose is annoyed with Mickey the interloper for pushing in where he’s now even more of a third wheel between her and the Doctor.

A story that allows Anthony Stewart Head the range to be one of New Who’s most powerful personal villains, allows Sarah Jane Smith to shine and resolve her issues with the Doctor, and lets K9 have at least one great battle sequence, a noble, self-sacrificing death, and a regeneration of his own is always going to stand high in the memory.

On a rewatch in 2023, all this remains true. The visual effects stand up surprisingly well almost two decades on, too. And the ability of Toby Whithouse to cram all this action into a plot a little reminiscent of Davies’ Dark Season, and allow for meaningful character developments for both Sarah Jane and the whole contemporary Tardis team is little short of miraculous.

If you’re looking for a powerful, punchy story that also has layers of characterization, significant charismatic tension between the protagonist and the antagonist, several interesting standoffs, weirdly logical bat-people – and a tin dog to boot, School Reunion is the story for you.

If you’re looking for by far the strongest story of the Tenth Doctor era so far… School Reunion is also the story for you.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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