Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: School Reunion

By Jon de Burgh Miller on 02 May 2006

The Doctor Who New Adventures were a series of novels published during the 1990s that bridged the gap between the old and new series of the television show. Critically acclaimed, the NAs showed for the first time character driven Doctor Who stories which could explore the deeper impact of life travelling with the Doctor, and the relation his companions had to each other.

‘School Reunion’ shows that this way of thinking was ahead of its time for Doctor Who, taking the New Adventures model for the show and finally putting it on television. Episodes such as ‘Rose’ and ‘Father’s Day’ were heavily influenced by the books but this is the first time we see the format cloned so closely. All the elements are there – the story starts not with a cheesy TARDIS landing, but with the characters and story having been underway for a couple of weeks. The Doctor has become an arch manipulator, putting himself and Rose in a place to uncover the mystery having already worked out a large part of it before the story begins. Most of all, however, this is an episode exploring epic, resonant and very human themes, with a metaphoric sci-fi background to create tension, drama and excitement, debatebly the key reasons why the New Adventures were so popular.

The core of this episode revolves around the Doctor’s reacquaintance with former companion Sarah-Jane Smith. In lesser hands this could have become cheesy fan-fiction, only resonating with those alive in the 1970s, but one of School Reunion’s strengths is that it’s almost irrelevant which past companion turns up; the story could have invented a brand new character and still worked just as well. The strength of the story isn’t seeing familiar faces (most of the audience won’t have seen her before anyway) but in seeing Rose’s possible future come to face the Doctor, and in this respect no prior knowledge is necessary, but having that knowledge adds great weight to the story for the older viewers.

The themes addressed here are universal. Everyone at some point replaces someone in their life with a younger or newer model. Anyone who has grown apart from or had to end a relationship with a friend or a partner, or who has had one ended unexpectedly, can relate to the pain and anguish Sarah goes through in this episode.

The Doctor’s situation is unique – how does someone who can live forever cope with the knowledge that they’ll always outlive their loved ones? While we may not be immortal, everyone lives in fear of losing loved ones, and in the scenes where the Doctor is contemplating it, David Tennant gives his finest perfomance yet as the Doctor, showing a steely reslience covering a wounded and shattered heart.

At its heart, this story is all about loss, grief and accepting the past in order to move on. Rose has lost the Doctor once, and just as she’s coming to terms with her grief and accepting the new Doctor, she realises that this one will leave her too eventually, that all good things must come to an end.

The contrast between the exciting life with the Doctor and the dreariness of coming back down to Earth is highlighted here. ‘Chips’ are a New Who shorthand for the mundane. In ‘End of the World’ the Doctor and Rose go for chips, as a way to savour the world as it is, and there have been a couple of references to ‘going to work and eating chips’ as being the life every non-Rose has to lead. It’s fitting that the Krillitane are using chips to takeover the school – the most mundane thing in the universe becoming deadly, just as the Doctor gets involved.

Away from the character drama, there’s plenty to recommend this episode. Anthony Head puts in a strong turn as the Head Master, and the Krillitane make exciting and uber-cool monsters that just beg for action figures. The school setting provides some great scares-in-the-everyday for kids, and the danger of school dinners nicely parodies current political concerns.

The supporting cast do well here. Noel Clarke excels as always as Mickey, while robot dog K9 returns for a few jokes and provides both an illustration of the one companion that can never die, and a replacement for the Doctor in Sarah’s life.

Funny, heartwarming and very human, this is one of the best Doctor Who stories yet, showcasing just how far the series has come over the last twenty years. The new series has put character at the heart of the drama, presenting it not as hard, po-faced science fiction, but as multi-layered, complex fantasy allegory for all ages to relate to. When you add cool monsters, oozing villains and robot dogs into the mix, you realise just why this is the best programme on television by several light years.

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By Jon de Burgh Miller

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