Pain and loss, they define us as much as happiness or love. Whether it’s a world, or a relationship… Everything has its time. And everything ends.
Doctor Who is, obviously, a family show. We all know that (the debate as to how effective a family show it is can be saved for another time) but, at the same time, it’s always held something of a special regard for children.
After all, it’s the children who are going to be pretending to be Daleks in the school playground come Monday morning (I say that, probably I was the one being K9). It’s like the Krillitanes say in this episode; there’s something special about the imagination of it. And so, in turn, Doctor Who has a pretty special relationship with the child portion of its audience.
Which is why, in many ways, this conceit at the heart of this episode is so fantastic. It’s not just the fact that we’re setting a Doctor Who episode at a school – but, in and of itself, that’s a wonderful concept. Juxtaposing the mundane and the alien is something Doctor Who has always done very effectively, but there’s something so much more personal about setting it in a school, rather than the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Everyone has, at some point, wondered if the teachers slept at school at night… but what if they were aliens as well? It’s a fantastic image.
But the episode doesn’t stop there; it takes it further. It’d be easy for the cold open to end right after Mr Finch has ate the child; with any other episode, that’s where you’d expect the titles to start, and the music to come crashing in. Not here, though.
Because the hook of this episode isn’t the fact that aliens are teachers.
It’s the fact that the Doctor is a teacher.
And there’s something unique about that, and the way that this episode melds those two worlds. Certainly for me, there was something a little extra thrilling about seeing the Doctor – my Doctor – walking up and down corridors that I could have quite easily been in myself just a few hours ago. Teaching a lesson I could have been in (well, I say that, I don’t actually take physics lessons anymore) surrounded by students that I could have been.
This episode, moreso than any other, is one that’s able to merge the world of Doctor Who and the world we know. And I think that’s pretty impressive.
Also notable is the fact that this is the first time we really delve into the Time War with the Tenth Doctor; though we are, obviously, aware of it as an audience, it was always framed in terms of the Ninth Doctor. Understandable really – it was through him that we came to know about it.
But thus far we’ve not really seen David Tennant’s Doctor being confronted by the Time War; in both New Earth and Tooth and Claw, it simply didn’t really come up very often. This is his first Time War episode – it sets a precedent for how things will follow on from here.
I find it fascinating, actually, and I consistently find this fascinating, how well telegraphed a lot of the Doctor’s later development was, even right from the beginning. When we see the Tenth Doctor being tempted by Mr Finch, that right there is sowing the seeds for the Time Lord Victorious, a good three years down the line. Hubris has always been this Doctor’s fatal flaw, and here it is on display, as early as his fourth episode. Tennant does a wonderful job here; it helps, of course, that’s he’s playing off of an actor as talented as Anthony Head (Giles!) but he gives a brilliantly subtle and understated performance when first confronted with the Skasis Paradigm. It’s moments like this that prove, over and over, why Tennant was cast as the Doctor.
Interesting further still, though, is the Doctor’s little diatribe about aging, and why he has new companions. “You can spend every day of your life with me, but I can’t spend every day of mine with you.” David Tennant, once again, performs this wonderfully; he does a great job of conveying how strained the Doctor is in that moment, trying to hold himself back from an emotional outburst. It’s clear that this is something he’s kept bottled up for a long time, and will continue to do.
It’s a new way of looking at the dynamic between the Doctor and his companions; that’s why he’s always running. Always moving forward, never looking back.
And that brings us quite neatly to Sarah-Jane Smith.
Sarah Jane was, and remains, iconic in her own right. One of, if not the, most popular companions of Doctor Who’s original run, this was one of the most meaningful interactions that the new series had with its history in the first couple of years of its life. True, we’d had the Daleks, and shortly afterwards we’ll have the Cybermen – but there’s something rather different about having metal men in suits, when compared to the sheer joy that is seeing Elisabeth Sladen on screen as Sarah Jane once again.
I mentioned in a recent article for Yahoo that there’s a palpable sense of legacy throughout this episode; more than that, though, there’s a real pathos and poignancy to the episode. It’s not just about seeing Sarah Jane taking another lap around the corridors, there’s genuine emotional depth to her return. The Doctor is forced to confront what happens when he leaves people behind, and Sarah Jane is able to find closure. (It’s rather wonderful, though, that’s she’s become like the Doctor in her own right though; a fantastic little detail is that, when breaking into the school at night, both the Doctor and Sarah immediately head for Mr Finch’s office.)
With hindsight, of course, this episode is particularly poignant; even five years on, it’s difficult not to view this in light of Elisabeth Sladen’s passing. She embodied the role perfectly – twice, for two different generations of children. I wasn’t there the first go around, when Sarah Jane was travelling with the Third and Fourth Doctors, but I was there watching The Sarah Jane Adventures each week. And as wonderful as it is to see her… it’s sad, too. It’s a harsh reminder of one of the key themes of the episode; pain and loss define us, just as much as happiness or love.
(The first time she appeared on screen in this episode – Mr Finch introducing her to the Doctor – I was just beaming. Grinning at the screen like a fool. It was just genuinely wonderful and truly heartening to see Sarah Jane on screen again, because she’s a part of my childhood too.)
Ultimately, then, School Reunion is a strong effort from Toby Whithouse, and it’s another impressive instalment in the ongoing story of the Tenth Doctor. Once again, we’ve got another effective reminder of just why I love this era of the show so much.