Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: School Reunion

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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.

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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.

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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.

8/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: New Earth

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Can I just say, traveling with you… I love it.

Those of you with long memories will remember that, in 2014, I did a series of reviews to commemorate the ninth anniversary of Christopher Eccleston’s single series as the Ninth Doctor; each week a new episode, and I managed to cover some of the books too.

Those of you with even longer memories will remember that, in 2006, David Tennant’s first full series as the Tenth Doctor began – today marks Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor.

(Incidentally, I’ve written two articles about this most auspicious anniversary for Yahoo TV; you can check them out here and here. It’s a little selection of the top ten moments of the Tenth Doctor’s tenure – or, at least, some of my favourites.)

In any case, though, I think it is becoming clear what the purpose of this post is – we are embarking upon yet another series of reviews! This time, we’re covering the second series of Doctor Who, which aired in 2006; it was the first time we saw David Tennant in the title role, the first time we saw Cybermen in the modern series, and our final year with Rose Tyler as the companion.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Right now, this is about being introduced to a new Doctor – and for me, ten years ago, this was about being introduced to Doctor Who, essentially for the first time at all. Though I’d been aware of Eccleston’s run, I only joined the show at Bad Wolf; this episode was the start of my proper journey with Doctor Who.

So. Let’s get to it, shall we?

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The first, and I think most important question, is as to how successful this episode is at introducing the audience to a new Doctor.

It’s worth considering the position that the show was in when this episode was broadcast; for a lot of the audience, Eccleston would have been the only Doctor they’d ever known. Though the concept of regeneration wasn’t exactly an unfamiliar one, whether a show could survive a second reinvention so soon after its previous one is a legitimate question.

And, of course, at this point David Tennant’s Doctor wasn’t exactly very well known; though people had known he’d play the Doctor for almost a year at this point (given that it leaked not soon after Eccleston’s debut) they’d seen very little of his actual performance. The Christmas Special – aptly titled The Christmas Invasion – was structured around us not seeing the Doctor for the bulk of the episode; he only really appears in the third act, with possibly a little over 20 minutes of screentime.

Conventional wisdom, then, would suggest that perhaps you shouldn’t open the series with a body swap comedy; we’d presumably be better off spending time actually getting to know the Doctor as he is, rather than seeing the Doctor possessed by Cassandra (more on whom later). And, interestingly, this was initially the opinion of the production team as well – as I understand it, Tooth and Claw was originally to be the first episode, with New Earth taking second place. I’m not entirely certain as to why the order was switched in the end, but the fact remains that they were – did it work, though?

I’m actually inclined to say that it did work. David Tennant does a great job here (which we’ll come to expect from him, of course) and the script allows for us to see a general range of the Doctor’s emotions, and get a decent, if still superficial, understanding of the character. We’re introduced to this Doctor’s charm – he’s pretty effortlessly moving around the hospital and interacting with the different side characters – but also his sheer joy and enthusiasm at seeing a new place; the “New New York” exchange is a pretty simple one, but it’s a rather endearing way of showing us this character trait.

Of course, beneath all that, we’ve got some of the first hints of this Doctor’s potential for anger; he’s quick to raise his voice, actually, almost to the point of being quite volatile in his mood swings. That wasn’t something I quite remembered, which was interesting to note; I’ll definitely be paying attention to that over the next couple of weeks, to see if that’s an attribute that remains. Of course, though, it is worth noting that each time he was quick to anger was directly linked to Rose, and her relative safety at any given time; part of this was likely to establish the depth of care the Doctor has for Rose, and their general bond with one another.

As to the whole body swap hijinks… well, it’s difficult to say one way or another whether the episode would have been better without them. Certainly, Cassandra spent less time in the Doctor’s body than I actually remembered; it was, really, just a very short sequence with a couple of jokes. It serves well as a juxtaposition of what the Doctor is typically like, and what the Cassandra-Doctor is like; the episode is essentially defining the character of the Doctor in contrast to what he’s not. For the most part, I think they strike a decent balance with it – I don’t know that it would have worked quite as well had Cassandra spent more time in the Doctor’s body.

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The actual plot of the episode is, undeniably, pretty flimsy; like with last year’s Rose, it takes the backseat to the character beats and the thematic stuff. Certainly, the final resolution is weak – even Russell T Davies has said that he came up with that essentially by the skin of his teeth fairly late in the day. Personally, I wouldn’t say that the pseudo-science technobabble they came up with is significantly worse than, say, the anti-plastic McGuffin of Rose, but then, of course, everyone knows that intravenous medicine just doesn’t work this way, so it’s definitely a lot more noticeable.

On the flip side, though, we’re introduced to a lot of quite interesting concepts here, which I don’t think that New Earth is always really given credit for. New Earth itself is a rather quaint idea – I love that line about how everyone gets all nostalgic, and then a revival movement starts. Similarly, the hospital itself is quite inventive; I love the cat nuns, and the patients are a really neat concept. I think they’re also probably the closest that modern Doctor Who has ever come to a zombie story really; in any case, they’ll always have a special place in my heart, because the first time I saw this episode is still the most scared I have ever been by an episode of Doctor Who. Weeping Angels didn’t have anything on these guys; there was something about them that gave me that sense of crushing claustrophobia and being surrounded that just really, really freaked me out.

(“You don’t have to watch it, you know”, said my dad, after I jumped out of the seat for the third time in a row. “No no it’s fine” I said, eyes still glued to the screen. I was terrified, but I bloody loved it.)

There’s also something rather clever, I think, in positioning this as a sequel to The End of the World; we’re seeing our new Doctor, surrounded by the trappings of one of the old Doctor’s adventures. The whole idea of being new is a nice thematic thread across the entire episode – New New York, the new race of humans, etc – and it’s mirrored quite effectively through Cassandra. This is the story of how she has to accept that everything ends, and there’s some nice pathos with that towards the close of the episode.

Everything ends, but this isn’t the time for endings; this is a new beginning, with a brand new Doctor. He’s only just getting started, but it’s one hell of an episode already.

8/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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