The highlight of this episode was its character focus. School Reunion brought back iconic Classic Who companion Sarah-Jane Smith and explored the dynamics of the Doctor-Companion relationship. The heartwarming reunion of the Doctor with Sarah-Jane (and K9) ought to have brought a broad smile to any Classic fan’s face. As should the very entertaining and telling interplay between Sarah-Jane and her successor, Rose. It’s clear that the Doctor’s companions, particularly the ones with whom he forms the strongest relationships, like these two, are very protective of him and jealous of their special bond with the Doctor, thus the rivalry between Rose and Sarah-Jane which played out almost like that between a wife and an ex-wife, as the episode indicated. They all think they’re special; they all think they have something special with the Doctor, and are somewhat resentful and put out when they realise the Doctor has had dozens of companions with whom he has been as close to before and after them—as Rose’s interrogation of the Doctor about her not being his first showed. They oughtn’t be so surprised, though. As the Doctor made touchingly clear, it’s too painful for him to stay with one companion for too long, to grow too attached, because he has to face watching them wither and die, and having his heart broken in the process, as he continues, ageless and eternal. This emotional dynamic between the Doctor and his companions was explored really excellently and movingly by this episode, and constituted the highlight of an otherwise mediocre story.
The episode also explored the effect travelling with the Doctor has on his companions’ lives. Sarah-Jane had evidently bottled up a lot of resentment towards the Doctor for leaving her behind. He had shown her the unbelievable, done the extraordinary with her and profoundly changed her life… and then, in her words, he “dumped” her. Back to the dull, dreary monotony of ordinary life on Earth, after all that. I think the Doctor underestimates how profoundly he affects the lives of his companions, such that he’s unwittingly wont to leave them permanently affected when he parts company with them. I don’t think the original series gave this aspect of the Doctor-Companion dynamic the attention it merited, and it’s refreshing to see that the revived series is more sensitive to the character dynamics in this respect, not only with Sarah-Jane but with subsequent companions, Rose especially. We seem to be already seeing how significantly Rose has been affected by her travels with the Doctor, as she seems to have become infatuated with him. At the end she seems immoderately put out by the prospect of Mickey’s joining them aboard the TARDIS. Compare with the end of World War Three in Series 1 when she was scolding the Doctor for not “allowing” Mickey to come aboard. She sees herself and the Doctor as having something special, love even, and Mickey as being an intruder on their special, private relationship. This will end in heartbreak.
The episode also did a good job of exploring the Doctor’s character more deeply. Apart from exploring his relationship with his companions, and the way he feels about becoming too close to them, as discussed above, the episode also delved intriguingly into the darker side of the Doctor’s character:
Finch: “Fascinating. Your people were peaceful to the point of indolence. You seem to be something new. Would you declare war on us, Doctor?”
Doctor: “I’m so old now. I used to have so much mercy. You get one warning. That was it.”
And also where the Doctor was tempted almost to join sides with the Krillitanes, tempted by the lure of absolute power, which his reason and experience tells him should not be wielded by anyone, not even the most noble-intentioned, but yet he’s tempted nonetheless. This is a far cry from the eternal goody-goody peacemaker that was the Doctor of Classic Who. We see again how the Doctor has changed since we last saw him in San Francisco in faux-Edwardian garb and long black curls. One of the revived series’ most successful motifs is exploring the way the Time War has affected the Doctor. It’s a compelling aspect of the revived series’ Doctor’s characterisation which, for me at least, never gets old (and was one reason why I didn’t like the way the events of the Time War were reversed in The Day of the Doctor). I’ve heard some say that these little glimpses we get from Ten, like here and more infamously in The Waters of Mars, show that Ten was potentially the darkest and most complex of all the Doctor’s incarnations. I’m inclined to think there’s something in that observation, and Ten’s usual irrepressible joviality, if anything, makes it all the more compelling a theory.
To say something about the plot, I’m inclined to think that, while admittedly it was not the main focus of this highly character-focussed episode, it rather let down the quality of the episode. To say the least, the plot consisted of very unimaginative, even trite, writing. The monsters, the Krillitane, were badly designed and were generally treated poorly by the production, although I’ll admit that their concept was quite interesting and had a lot of potential. For this reason I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to their being brought back, although something fresh and interesting needs to be found to do with them, and, for goodness’ sake, change their form (at least that can actually be done). I feel like, thus far at least, Series 2 of Doctor Who has been more self-consciously a children’s show than Series 1. In this episode, this was manifest in the rubbish and simplistic plot surrounding the poorly-designed Krillitane, and in the depiction of schoolteachers as ugly shape-shifting bat-like monsters, something we all suspected as children and a children’s fantasy Doctor Who was obviously indulging. I mean, that’s not necessarily a bad idea in itself, but the way it was pitched squarely to children seems like lazy writing and production in that it lets the producers get away with pleasing the lower standards of children rather than creating something of genuine quality that all ages can appreciate.
I couldn’t find anywhere to fit these last minor points, but I think Anthony Head, or Uther Pendragon, as I know him, was superb as Mr Finch. He’s electric as the King of Camelot, and he was suitably intimidating and menacing as a giant bat in human form. He’s a great actor. And finally, I found the scene where Rose and Sarah-Jane were splitting their sides laughing at the Doctor together just gorgeous. Great writing, that bit—I was actually grinning broadly as I was watching. I wonder if this is what all the Doctor’s companions do when they meet?