Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: School Reunion

doctor who school reunion review toby whithouse james hawes sarah jane smith k9 anthony head park vale school juxtaposition chips krillitane

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.

doctor who school reunion review tenth doctor david tennant physics school class krillitanes toby whithouse james hawes anthony head

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.

doctor who review school reunion tenth doctor sarah jane smith david tennant elisabeth sladen goodbye k9 toby whithouse james hawes rtd

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

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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Doctor Who Review: Before the Flood

doctor who before the flood review toby whithouse daniel o hara morven christie peter capaldi jenna coleman sophie stone

We all have to face death some day, be it ours or someone else’s.

So, this is a little bit late, for which I apologise. It’s all those irritating real world commitments, getting in the way of things, as ever.

Now, Before the Flood. I was not so keen on last week’s Under the Lake, which I basically considered to be a fairly run of the mill base under siege style story, with very little else going on. There just wasn’t much that I was impressed by, sadly. Very little stood out – it was diverting enough, but there didn’t feel like there was much substance to it.

And, when the episode began, I actually quite enjoyed it. It seemed to me that Before the Flood was really improving upon its predecessor, picking up on its mistakes, and filling in the gaps that had been left. The opening with Peter Capaldi talking to the audience was really entertaining, and it was a nice break in terms of the conventional openings, where we might run around a little and then get a jump scare, or find a dead body, before the titles begin.

doctor who before the flood review peter capaldi twelfth doctor beethoven's fifth fourth wall break toby whithouse

And, you know, this episode had a lot of the same strengths as the previous episode, I’ve got to make that clear. The direction was really strong (something that stood out to me was the zoom in on the Doctor, Bennett and O’Donnell as they first heard the roar of the Fisher King), and the set design remained impressive.

There were still some tense moments and shocks throughout, and that can be difficult to create, so the episode does well there. The Doctor’s ghost had a few good moments, and Lunn’s journey to get the phone was quite tense in places too.

The Fisher King had a really great, imposing design too. Peter Serafinowicz (Darth Maul!) did a great voice, and Corey Taylor (the Slipknot fellow!) had a pretty impressive scream. So, you know, it came together to create a fairly impressive monster, with a lot of potential. (Squandered potential, in the end, given that the monster didn’t really do anything, but it gets some points for looking cool.)

Clara also had some interesting stuff to do this week – which is one of the few areas where Before the Flood did improve upon Under the Lake. Jenna Coleman is a brilliant actress, and I am again inclined to suggest that Clara might be the best companion of the new series. Ordering the Doctor to “die with whoever comes next” was a really well done scene, and everyone involved deserves plaudits for that.

doctor who before the flood review toby whithouse morven christie o donnell beckett fridging peter capaldi twelfth doctor daniel o hara

But, again, as with last week, where it fell down was on the writing.

Fact is, the episode is predicated upon an entirely nonsensical premise. The whole morality of whether or not you should change time is a completely fictional morality – the rules are hazily defined, the context changes regularly, and the outcome is different with every passing episode. Doctor Who does this all the time; sometimes it’s alright to change time, and sometimes it’s not. They have no hard and fast rules, because different writers want to do different things, so they can’t have any semblance of consistency.

But that makes it very difficult to take these episodes seriously. At the very least, it makes them difficult to write and get right – it takes a very deft and subtle approach to the dilemma to make it work. Something like Father’s Day does a fairly good job of it, actually. The Fires of Pompeii does too, actually.

Before the Flood does not. Now, it’s in a harder position anyway, that’s true, because it’s come after years of timey-wimey stories where the get out clause is to change time, but maintain the appearance of the timeline prior to the change – that having been the entire resolution to The Wedding of River Song, and arguably of The Day of the Doctor too.

In this instance, though, Before the Flood totally shoots itself in the foot. Because it opens by explaining how you can seemingly change time, but let history carry on “with hardly a feather ruffled”, as it were – and even then goes on to do this! The Doctor, of course, survives by maintaining the appearance of the original timeline. That’s why we have a holographic ghost of the Doctor, rather than his actual ghost.

Yet at the very same time, Toby Whithouse has expected us to take seriously the idea that the Doctor will die (we know he won’t, okay? We know) and we are supposed to accept that blatant, cheap, awful fridging of O’Donnell. It’s ridiculous.

If the Doctor can save himself, why can’t he save O’Donnell? That nonsense about seeing dead people? That wasn’t an ethical dilemma, it was an aesthetic dilemma. And yet the backbone of the episode was centred around this. An entirely hollow and empty piece of “drama”.

At this point, I’m inclined to suggest that we need to put a ban on all time travel stories, because they clearly do not work anymore. They need a rest, until someone has a new idea. Because here, there was not a new idea. It was just… nothing. There wasn’t enough there.

So, sure, very strong direction, good acting – and admittedly some good writing in places – but it’s all let down by the fact that, at its core, the episode was just sort of empty. 6/10

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

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Doctor Who Review: Under the Lake

doctor who review under the lake toby whithouse daniel o hara peter capaldi jenna coleman clara oswald twelfth doctor

They walk through walls, they only come out at night, and they’re see-through. They’re ghosts!

Reaction has been quite positive to this one, hasn’t it? People really seem to have enjoyed it.

I, however, was not so enamoured by it. Certainly, the episode did a lot of things right, but it felt a little sub-par to me, in comparison to previous weeks, and in comparison to the previous variations upon this theme that we’ve seen in the past – the base under siege is a staple of Doctor Who, and it didn’t feel like there was much else on offer here.

But! We will start with the positives, because like I said, there was a lot to enjoy here, and it would be remiss of me not to give the episode due credit for it’s many noticeable strengths.

First off is, obviously, the cast. A lot has been said on the topic of the casting, but it’s worth stating again: It’s brilliant that the characters were so diverse. Representation is important, and Doctor Who did really well on it this week. A particular stand out was Sophie Stone, who played Cass – the deaf woman in charge of the base. Personally speaking, I think her best scene was when she stood up to the Doctor (”you can do the whole ‘cabin in the woods’ thing if you want”…) with regards to evacuating the base; you can see a lot going on with her body language, in the way she gets very forceful and aggressive, to convey her point. It works quite well, I think, and it’s worth noting that this a scene that would typically go to a male commander of the base; the fact that if was given by a woman, in sign language, is a great forward step.

Next up would be the direction. It’s a very stylish looking episode; the base looks great, and it’s shot extremely well. The entire episode is very atmospheric, and can be quite tense at times; it’s heightened by Murray Gold’s score, who again did a very good job here.

But…

doctor who review under the lake cass sophie stone lunn interpreter sign language deaf character toby whithouse daniel o hara representation

Well, that’s it?

I mean, there really is very little about this episode that can be commented on, because it’s really just half a story. I’d actually assumed that this week we would have seen a full story, and then next week coincidentally ended up seeing the episode before hand – a two parter in the same way The Ark works as two connected stories, or The Long Game and Bad Wolf. Two separate stories, in essence, linked by shared consequences and a shared setting.

But that’s not the case, because in actual fact, we have another episode which acts simply as set up for the next part. At least with The Magician’s Apprentice there was a fair amount of spectacle to act as, essentially, a diverting sleight of hand, to distract from the fact that there’s nothing really happening – here there’s nothing, really. I am now starting to question the wisdom of a series full of two parters, given the difficult with first parts that seems to be beginning to arise.

A few moments ago, I was talking about the characters, and how it was great that they were so diverse… but that’s all that can really be said about them, to be honest. One would have hoped that the extra run time would be used to flesh out the characters, develop them more, and so on and so forth – but that’s not the case. They’re essentially short hand; we even have the stock greedy corporate character, an entirely one dimensional insert, who even has a freudian slip between “valuable” and “powerful”.

You get interesting moments because the clichés are subverted (rather than an angry male commander shouting, it’s an angry female commander signing) and the actors all bring moments of charm in their own way (O’Donnell punching Bennett on the arm, for example) but that’s about it. All of the guest cast are served poorly by the writing.

doctor who review under the lake jenna coleman clara oswald yellow green daniel o hara series 9

Same goes for Clara, actually, and to a lesser extent the Doctor. I wasn’t so impressed by the handling of their scene in the TARDIS, wherein Clara’s character arc was signposted in the most blatant way possible. There was a lack of subtlety to that throughout, actually; Clara’s excitement at the abandoned base felt far too on the nose, and the high five bit was a little tasteless. It’s hard to articulate what I mean here; essentially, I’d expected the basic character arc to be written far more deftly. Implicit details rather than explicit ones, and any confrontations over the issue should really have been saved until we’ve actually seen the issue built to over a few weeks.

And… well, that’s all I have to say, actually, because there’s really not a lot to say. This is just half a story. It’s an introduction of the premise, before they change the premise, because they want each half of the story to feel unique.

I mean, I’m certainly looking forward to next week, because I did enjoy this episode, and it’s set up some interesting concepts, but there’s not a huge amount that you can talk about within this episode.

Under the Lake is a pleasantly diverting way to spend 45 minutes, but I get the distinct impression that it’s not actually going to be a really compelling story until you get to include part two, Before the Flood.

For now, then, I’ll give it 7/10 – it’s the weakest of the series so far, but by no means a weak episode.

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

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Doctor Who: The Next Showrunner?

doctor who steven moffat action figures next showrunner leaving replace chris chibnall mark gatiss neil cross toby whithouse neil gaiman russell t davies

It seems that the general consensus of Doctor Who fans is that Steven Moffat has had his day. Obviously, this isn’t the case for everyone – there’s still some who’ll sing his praises. Other’s are vehemently against his staying even a year longer. Some just think it’s time for a breath of fresh air.

(Personally, I’m somewhat ambivalent – whilst some of Moffat’s recent work has faltered, there’s generally a high standard throughout)

Even so, I believe he’s said in interviews that he doesn’t see himself staying any longer than 2016 at the most – which, really, isn’t that far away now. Just 2 more seasons, give or take.

Either way, he’ll be going eventually. The question that’s asked, then, is… Who next?

The likely candidate is Mark Gatiss, not least because of his close partnership with Moffat. He’s got a fair bit of experience in different production roles – producer, director, writer, and actor, meaning he’d certainly be able to understand all the different aspects of the roles. He’s also, obviously, a big fan of Doctor Who, and has a lot of experience as a writer – of all the current team, he’s probably the most experienced as a Who writer.

Other candidates are few and far between really, perhaps because Moffat is using the same writers over and over again – Neil Gaiman and Chris Chibnall would likely be too busy, for example, and Toby Whithouse has perhaps not written enough Doctor Who yet…

Personally, I think Gatiss would be a great choice. In my opinion, An Adventure in Space and Time is the best piece of writing ever to have gone out under the Doctor Who name – if his episodes as showrunner were even half that standard, it’d be a rather impressive run.

His would also be quite a different direction to Moffat’s and RTD’s, which I think would be good – life depends upon change and renewal, after all.

What I think might be interesting would be a sharing of the role, like how Gatiss and Moffat run Sherlock. That is, perhaps, what leads to the overall quality increase there, in comparison to the pair’s Doctor Who work.

I doubt it’d be Neil Cross. Whilst he might have enough traction to return as a writer, I say he’d be far, far too divisive to be a legitimate choice to take over. The choice would, I assume, need to be approved by some BBC bosses somewhere – bosses who would presumably have seen quite how divisive his episodes were, and not want to take such a risk.

Nick Briggs is a name that’s thrown around a fair bit, but I sort of doubt it’d be him. Whilst he’s probably one of the best suited to the job, given his work at Big Finish, he’s perhaps not experienced enough in terms of TV writing?

What’s also interesting to note is that, way back in… 2003 it would have been, when Mark Gatiss had a pitch in the running to bring back Doctor Who, it was a collaborative pitch with Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman – perhaps the three of them, or Gatiss and Whithouse working together, would be the right choice?

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