Friday, January 16, 2015

David Tennant’s Fandom Dreams Come True With “School Reunion!”

The Good: Good continuity, Decent acting, Good character development
The Bad: Poor special effects, Somewhat tiresome plot development
The Basics: Doctor Who assures fans of its own internal continuity when Rose and The Doctor encounter Sarah Jane Smith in modern England where they discover a school is infected by aliens.

It is no secret – and it was not at the time – that David Tennant was a lifelong fan of Doctor Who before he was cast as the Tenth Doctor in the revived Doctor Who. If it had ever been in doubt, by the time “School Reunion” aired, the cat must have been out of the bag. “School Reunion” does what none of the episodes with the Ninth Doctor (reviewed here!) managed to do – it definitively establishes that the revived Doctor Who is a continuation of all the Doctor Who that preceded it. For sure, the Daleks have popped up already, but their return follows the nebulously-resolved Time War, so it is not until “School Reunion” that the franchise is definitively solidified.

The elements that root the prior portions of the franchise with the revived one are Sarah Jane Smith and K-9, the Companions of the Fourth Doctor. Given that Tom Baker was who many fans considered the quintessential Doctor, tying the current incarnation to the Fourth Doctor makes quite a bit of sense. Sarah Jane Smith and K-9 are reintroduced into the Doctor Who narrative in “School Reunion” and more than simply offering a bridge between Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures, the episode is a nod to all that came before and offers a chance for Sarah Jane Smith to reflect upon her past. The episode also allows David Tennant the chance to play with the Companions that dominated the series when he became a fan and it is clear he delights in the opportunity. There are moments of wonderful acting in “School Reunion,” but some of Tennant’s acting, which is the embodiment of pure delight when his character encounters Sarah Jane Smith is not necessarily great acting on his part.

At a school in modern Britain, The Doctor joins the staff as a physics teacher and Rose finds herself working in the school cafeteria. Despite the creepy Headmaster Finch taking a student aside and The Doctor and Rose noticing irregularities with the students (like their abilities to perform incredible calculations unaided and physics knowledge that is well beyond their years) and staff (most were recently replaced), the mission that Mickey recalled them for seems to be a dead end. When Sarah Jane Smith pops up, posing as an investigative reporter, The Doctor is thrilled and Rose soon becomes jealous. After Rose witnesses an accident in the kitchen, she, The Doctor, and Mickey break into the school at night to discover what is going on.

Sarah Jane Smith had the same idea and when she finds the TARDIS in one of the school’s rooms, she and The Doctor have a reunion that allows them to shed their disguises and be honest with one another. Sarah Jane Smith brings the defunct K-9 to The Doctor and while Rose and Sarah Jane Smith are snarking at one another, The Doctor repairs the robot dog. K-9 is able to analyze the substance that wounded one of the cafeteria workers as Krillitane oil. The Doctor reveals to his companions that the Krillitanes are a genetic amalgamation of multiple races they have encountered. Disturbed by the Krillitanes use of the school, The Doctor squares off against Headmaster Finch, who wants to use the Doctor to evolve his race while utilizing the children to solve a god equation that would give the Krillitanes control over the universe.

The Krillitanes are an interesting adversary, but more than their quest for the equation that will unlock the secrets of the universe, “School Reunion” is about the relationships of The Doctor. Sarah Jane Smith erupts into the modern mythos of Doctor Who as the Companion left behind. In “School Reunion,” Sarah Jane Smith asks the question that fans like Tennant must have asked for decades: if The Doctor is immortal and continued to regenerate and visit Earth, why did he never go back for his beloved companion? The practical answer, of course, is that different show-runners had different visions for where the series was going and different versions of The Doctor were intended to play off their Companions in ways that expanded the character as opposed to simply repeated all that came before. Within “School Reunion,” though, the answer is given a character-based answer and it is a compelling character exploration.

The Doctor declares that he could not take Sarah Jane with him to Gallifray when he left and in the years (and Regenerations) that followed, he found the idea of watching those he cared about most – like Sarah Jane Smith – aging and eventually dying while he remained unaffected by time distasteful. More than any of the production reasons for explaining away the failure for companions to endure with multiple Doctors (for the most part), the idea that The Doctor wants both companionship and is tormented by the mortal nature of those who accompany him on his adventures is a compelling one. While there are many goofy aspects of Doctor Who and within the episode “School Reunion” itself, this in-universe explanation of why The Doctor did not continue his relationship with Sarah Jane is remarkably sensible and satisfying.

Unfortunately, “School Reunion” is not all about The Doctor’s relationship. While Mickey is given an uncommon amount of character development in “School Reunion” as he plays off K-9 and realizes his place in the Tenth Doctor’s entourage, “School Reunion” features a decent amount of time having Rose and Sarah Jane Smith sniping at one another and the Krillitane plot. The Krillitane are an interesting alien design and Headmaster Finch is ably portrayed by Anthony Stewart Head, though the role has him as something of a monolithic villain. More problematic than Head being given little wiggle room to play Finch with any depth are the special effects.

The Krillitane have a decent initial alien design, but the computer-generated batlike biped aliens, when they are exposed, are erratically rendered. The way they move and, especially, the lighting for the creatures, is not consistent and does not always fit the environment seamlessly. Even more ridiculous, director James Hawes does not have the effects department try to match the effects with the acting. As a result, during a climactic battle in the cafeteria, actress Billie Piper is laying on her back, flailing at nothing!

“School Reunion” is very much an episode for Doctor Who fans; it is not an exceptional hour of television. The plot conflict is a simple one and the character conflict is as easily resolved as it is introduced, which makes for the feeling that if one did not have a connection to the prior incarnations of Doctor Who, they are missing out on the majority of the substance of “School Reunion.”

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Second Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season of the Tenth Doctor here!


For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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