Doctor Who and the Nostalgia Factor: "School Reunion"
Reviewed by Iain Clark
07 August 2006
Bringing back Sarah Jane Smith is one of the most definitive moments of the relaunched Doctor Who. Not just for what it tells us about the show's past, but for what it tells us about its present.
Unlike the "reimagined" Battlestar Galactica, the new Doctor Who doesn't wipe the slate clean; it's a sequel, not a slash-and-burn retelling. Although Russell T. Davies's relaunched series is content to hold its predecessor at arm's length, freely reinterpreting the format and tone for a new audience, it's careful to respect the show's long history. This begins with keeping basic iconography such as the TARDIS and the Sonic Screwdriver, extends to peppering the scripts with throwaway continuity references, and culminates in fruitfully mining the old series for its most iconic monsters. The second season follows this pattern just as closely as the first, strategically deploying the Cybermen at the heart of the year and reprising them for the grand finale. With good reason: Davies's Who is built on the bedrock of the original, whose reputation as a British institution has only grown in hindsight; the passage of time has softened the memory of its weaknesses and crystallised its strengths. Monsters like the Daleks and Cybermen are the epitome of those strengths, proven winners with built-in audience recognition, guaranteed publicity, and a ratings boost to match.
Enter Sarah Jane Smith.
Well, perhaps: except that returning to old monsters had always been a staple of the old series, with popular adversaries cementing themselves in the public imagination through appearances every few years. Returning to long-vanished companions, on the other hand, was previously unheard of (with the exception of those rare "Doctor meets Doctor" events that became a sub-genre in themselves). After all, reviving a cool cyborg for a modern audience is easy enough, but fitting a middle-aged companion into the mix, particularly one who ended her three year run in the mid-1970s, is a different proposition. Elisabeth Sladen's return as Sarah Jane says a great deal about the target audience—or audiences—for the new series.
It's easy to forget that the new Doctor Who was relaunched with its place in the TV schedules firmly in mind: family viewing. It's a role fraught with contradictions. To appeal to an age range from six to sixty requires stories which operate on more than one level, or which sandwich together elements aimed at quite different audiences. The Doctor Who of today must shift rapidly between silly, funny, safe, edgy, sexy, and dark; never too silly for adults, too safe for teenagers, or too edgy for children. This is a near-impossible task, and one that has inspired dizzying creativity and jarring compromise in equal measure.
Fortunately the series has one major asset that it consciously draws on to convince adult audiences to watch an often childish show: nostalgia. Although the old Doctor Who ran for 26 years, every era inspiring its devoted fans, it was the 1970s which saw the show's peak popularity; the moment of equilibrium when it had succeeded in growing up with its viewers, but had not yet been left behind by the increasing sophistication of television. It's therefore no accident that every significant element that the new series has revived to date would be recognisable to viewers from the 1970s—the show's heyday. Along with Tom Baker's Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith is one of the defining symbols of the series at its height. She was still popular enough five years after her departure to star in 1981's aborted K-9 and Company spin-off, and later still in "The Five Doctors" (1983) anniversary special. Crucially, even casual viewers might still recognise her; so much so that it's difficult to imagine any other companion filling this role as effectively.
But it's not enough to peddle nostalgia alone. Sarah Jane Smith, if she's to work for a new audience, can't just be one of those dull 'old friend' characters who sometimes pop up in US TV shows, never having been mentioned previously. In "School Reunion," as always, Rose is the key. From the beginning she's been the gateway character for new viewers: to the series, to the Doctor, and to old enemies. She roots the show's fantastical elements in reality—even the Daleks and Cybermen are deliberately made to feel personal and relevant for Rose. If she cares, we care, and most importantly, children and teenagers care. For this reason, "School Reunion" cannily throws Rose and Sarah Jane together from the first, and seldom parts them. They're forced to deal with one another's existence while the Doctor uncovers and defeats a typically improbable alien plot (which involves school-children harnessed as parallel processors to crack the ultimate secrets of the Universe). It's instantly obvious to us that Rose and Sarah Jane are cut from the same cloth; we're invited to compare and contrast the two women and their relationships with the Doctor. And of course they hate each other. There's little that can overcome suspicion like having a character voice the audience's fears.
More than this, the real masterstroke of the episode is casting Sarah Jane as the Doctor's romantic "Ex." Not only does it open up some interesting themes, it creates a romantic triangle that gives every age group someone to root for: "Your assistants are getting younger," remarks Sarah Jane cattishly, on realising that the Doctor and Rose are more than just good friends. "Where are you from, the Dark Ages?" retorts an equally cattish Rose. Examining the Doctor's sexuality is a line the old series never crossed, but was almost the first line the new series crossed in its bid to appeal to a wider audience. In the old show the Doctor's companions never shared the romantic frisson of his relationship with Rose. However much he might care for those he travelled with, the Doctor remained asexual and slightly apart: a parent; a colleague; a friend. That was true even for Sarah Jane, whose tenure on the show spanned two Doctors, and for whom both incarnations felt great affection. The Sarah Jane who returns here is not quite the one who left all those years ago; she's a subtly new version, "reimagined" to suit not simply nostalgia but also the themes and preoccupations of the new series. The collision between old and new sensibilities begs obvious questions, both about Rose's uniqueness for the Doctor, and about his feelings in the past. In a brilliantly clever choice the episode not only confronts those questions, it makes them the point.
Sarah Jane's return first shocks the Doctor into blissful reverie, but rapidly drags him into a melancholy mood of loss and transition. In her unhappiness and sense of rejection, he's confronted with the impact of his rootless lifestyle on those around him, a theme briefly explored in last season's "Boomtown." Meanwhile Rose gets a vertiginous glimpse into the Doctor's long life before he met her, and starts to wonder what might happen after she's gone. It's a rare and welcome opportunity to see the two main characters at odds, particularly given their cliquey relationship during the majority of the second season. In particular, the poignant examination of someone the Doctor once abandoned to a crushingly ordinary life has particular relevance to Rose, who seized a lifeline from just such an existence.
This focus on the feelings of the regular characters, particularly the Doctor, is something the old series rarely attempted. It's instructive to compare "School Reunion" to 1985's "The Two Doctors" in which companion Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines) returned alongside Patrick Troughton's Doctor to encounter the latest incarnation, played by Colin Baker. That serial could equally have been the springboard for contemplation of things left behind and roads not travelled. It wasn't, because the Doctor Who of that time was rarely interested in exploring such issues. Jamie's character was plucked from his own era, effectively sealed in amber, and his return sparked little more than momentary fondness. For the most part the purpose of the original series was to watch an idiosyncratic character solve an interesting and largely external story. There may have been memorable guest characters, dramatic moments and moral dilemmas, but there was seldom much in the way of introspection. Only in its twilight years did the show imbue companions like Ace (Sophie Aldred) with anything approaching psychological complexity. In this sense the new Doctor Who has embraced character to a much greater extent, to the point of occasional soap opera. While its stories often follow the same basic templates as the original, when story and character come into conflict it's now the story that gets short shrift.
"School Reunion" is one of the best examples of this approach, structured in such a way that the story counterpoints and serves as a backdrop to the characterisation. Toby Whithouse's script is a rare example in Doctor Who of character, theme and plot coming together to create smart, entertaining alchemy. The plot is straightforward, even familiar: something is not quite right about the local school, whose teachers have been replaced by aliens with sinister plans for the local children; including, but not limited to, eating them. There's a youth-oriented setting, a memorable villain (Buffy's Anthony Stewart Head in scenery-chewing form) and plenty of peril. It's a premise that blends traditional Doctor Who with producer Russell T. Davies's Dark Season (1991), but whilst in past decades the story would have been the sole dimension, here the shorthand storytelling provides a framework within which the characters are the real focus. Sarah Jane the investigative journalist is fully integrated into the plot, and most of her scenes occur while striding from one plot point to another, or regrouping before the next assault. The school setting means something different to children and adults, deftly echoing the themes of nostalgia and regret, and even the aliens of the week are, literally, the sum of their experiences. Although the episode's tone is typically uneven, with off-screen deaths serving as punch-lines to thin jokes, David Tennant's portrayal of the Tenth Doctor has seldom been more sober, and his relationship with Sarah Jane is effortlessly convincing right down to his note-perfect farewell: "My Sarah Jane!"
Where this more character-oriented approach stumbles is in removing some of the Doctor's essential other-ness. He threatens to become, in Rose's words, "just like any other bloke," a more straightforward romantic lead. Although the script emphasises both his near-immortality and the Time War, the over-riding impression is of the most human of aliens; not quite that person from Season 1 who felt the world "falling through space" beneath his feet.
It must also be said that the remainder of the second season disappointingly fails to deliver on the seeds of impermanence planted in Rose's mind by Sarah Jane. In "New Earth" Rose and the Doctor began in a honeymoon-like daze of contentment and they remained gigglingly self-absorbed the following week. In "School Reunion," for the first time, Rose is prompted to look beyond the narrow sphere of their relationship, and hot on its heels she finds herself relegated to the sidelines of the Doctor's infatuation with Madame de Pompadour in the season's standout instalment, "The Girl in the Fireplace." In the weeks that follow Rose is presented with a parallel world in which her father never died, and sees her nominal boyfriend Mickey strike off on his own.
Cumulatively it's easy to imagine these outside influences piercing the Doctor and Rose's perfect bubble, sending them on gradually divergent courses ending in a bitter-sweet parting. Instead the season takes a safer path. The couple bond more single-mindedly than ever in a succession of stories which vindicate their devotion. In the "The Idiot's Lantern" the Doctor vows to a 1950s policeman that "no power on Earth" can stop him from rescuing Rose, and in the pulp-SF "The Satan Pit" he tells the devil himself: "If I believe in one thing, just one thing, I believe in her!" In the same story Rose even flirts awkwardly with the concept of settling down. There are hints from this point onward that all will not end well: her death is predicted in "The Satan Pit," foreshadowed in "Fear Her," and explicitly referenced in the finale, "Doomsday." However the pair remain thick as thieves in the season's closing stretch: sharing a cosy cameo in the otherwise format-breaking "Love & Monsters," and playing cops and robbers in "Fear Her." By the finale itself Rose is still steadfastly declaring that their relationship is "forever."
Whatever long-term issues "School Reunion" may have presaged are forestalled by Rose's departure at the end of the season. Ultimately the couple are tragically separated by circumstance rather than by any clear-eyed appraisal of the future. However Sarah Jane's words do still linger: having once escaped from a mundane life it's difficult to find experiences that are as fulfilling in the real world. It's this sense of seizing the day that remains at the core of Rose's relationship with the Doctor during the season, and that permeates her unwillingness to leave. And Sarah Jane's spirit is very much present in the season's closing scenes, when the Doctor must, finally, learn to say goodbye and a heartbroken Rose begins to build a life less ordinary.
Overall "School Reunion" is one of the new series' more notable successes: an episode which captures the characterisation and breezy post-modern tone of the current series while sending a love-letter to the mature viewers who fondly remember the original series from their childhood. It's a rare example of setting, character and theme gelling perfectly, and playing equally well to old and young alike.
And lest all this fail, the episode has one other trick up its sleeve. The middle-aged companion from the 1970s that no six year old could fail to love: the robot dog.
Just in case.