Doctor Who - School Reunion
I'm sure I'm not alone among Doctor Who fans in having been unsure of which of the mid-series run of stories to look forward to the most - the return of the Cybermen ('cos it's the Cybermen, innit), the Steven Moffat-penned Girl in the Fireplace ('cos it's Steven Moffat, innit), or School Reunion. After a start to the series that, while not exactly lacklustre, has certainly failed to excite in any massive way, there was a lot riding on this one. In addition to the press- and fan-feeding returns of Sarah Jane (the series' most popular companion) and K9 (the series' most popular... well, only robot dog) we were promised a contemporary story of the sort the new series does so well, and a guest villain appearance from Tony Head to boot.
Thankfully, on most counts, it delivered. I'm one of those fans of the opinion that, while Tooth and Claw had a lot quite going for it, it still felt like there was something missing, and that the series needed a real kick up the arse to get it going. I still don't think that feeling has been completely eradicated yet, but School Reunion was a step in the right direction.
It was certainly quite startling, based on previous episodes of RTD-era Who, to see the Doctor and Rose already having arrived on the scene. Indeed, the BBC are starting to make a compelling case for actually watching the ludicrously-named "TARDISodes", with last week's Tooth and Claw teaser providing the audience with knowledge of the werewolf's alien origins, and this week's showing Mickey discovering the goings-on at the school and ringing Rose on her mobile (I'm not sure, incidentally, that I'm hugely keen on Rose and the Doctor having such a simple and easy connection to the present day, ready to be called back at a moment's notice - it removes the "wandering traveller" nature somewhat). Still, though, it saved us a lot of unnecessary exposition, and the Doctor's opening scene in the classroom was an absolute joy.
The core storyline - shape-changing bat thingies infiltrate school to use kids for nefarious purposes and eat some of them - isn't exactly the most original in the world, but it's the sort of thing that it's good to see Who - as Britain's representative in this field of drama - tackling, because it's the sort of thing we Brits do so much better than the Americans, Buffy aside. The idea of there being something eerie and sinister going on at a school is one that appeals to us greatly; our schools are far more institutionalised, and as a result far more menacing - how many people in this country didn't think, at some point during their schooling, that something hideous was going on in secret behind the scenes? It's one of the reasons why The Demon Headmaster - a series to which this episode, of course, owed plenty - was one of the best kids' drama series of the last couple of decades. The idea is even paid lip-service to in the episode itself, with the Doctor remarking on Rose's childhood belief that the teachers slept in the school turning out to be, in a suitably warped way, true.
Tennant himself continues to delight, his joy at playing the man given license to bound around the Universe righting wrongs coming across as more infectious than it has done since, arguably, the Tom Baker days. There's been criticism from some quarters that his Doctor doesn't have enough gravitas, but it's not one I share - not because I think he's got it, but because I don't think he needs it. Not only is it not a defining trait of his particular Doctor, but I don't think it's a hugely defining trait of any incarnation of the character. Serious, of course, needs to be done sometimes - and Tennant can do that. But does he really need to be the world-weary traveller? His regeneration from Eccleston (who was that, following his experiences in the Time War) has cast off that particular shackle, and here we have a man who has come through the worst hell his nine hundred year old eyes have ever witnessed, and been given a fresh outlook on life. It's true that I wouldn't want the Doctor to be this young, charismatic, infectious figure for the rest of his life - it would get downright boring - but each new regeneration is about looking at a different facet of the character, and Tennant has this one nailed on. A far more important characteristic that every Doctor should have, in my opinion, is to constantly give the impression that he knows far more about what's going on than anyone around him (and it should usually, but crucially not always, be true). Again, despite his youthful looks, this is something I get from the Tenth Doctor.
Of course, he was rivalled in the acting stakes this week by one of the best guest-star appearances the new series has seen so far in the form of Anthony "Shoulda Been The Master" Head. The only criticisms you can really aim at his appearance are that (a) he wasn't in it anywhere near enough and (b) he probably won't be coming back. The ideal mix of charismatic and malevolant, the swimming-pool face-off with the Doctor was the highlight of the entire episode (indeed, in an episode full of "kisses to the past", one of the most notable was that of the episode's main confrontation being a dialogue-heavy standoff with an adversary who respected, rather than belittled, the Doctor).
What this episode was really about, though, was the nature of life as the Doctor's companion (not "assistant", as Rose vehemently claimed in an amusing nod to the term oft-used by non-fans). I have to reiterate how I'm not hugely fond of the way the word "love" has been brought so forcefully into the TARDIS - it's one thing to have Rose swooning over the quirkily handsome Eccleston and Tennant, but are we meant to believe that Sarah Jane's heart beat at the thought of Pertwee or Baker? Still, though, it was good to see the episode delving into the sort of territory that previously only the New Adventures had seemed willing to dare to, and beginning to explore the idea of Life After TARDIS. I didn't feel Liz Sladen's performance completely hit the mark every time, but she did have some good moments, and Billie clearly enjoyed sparking off her - although the pair of them were far more fun when sniping at each other rather than through the rather sudden and forced switch into friendship that followed. Mickey, too, was given a chance to shine (both as a character and an actor) for arguably the first time; and while his presence in the TARDIS surely won't last long (current speculation has him gone by the end of the Cybermen story), it's a good evolution to the dynamic - especially now that Rose has realised that she isn't the Doctor's one-and-only companion - and he'll surely be better than Bruno Langley, though not a patch on Captain Jack.
And then, of course, there's K9. Ahh, K9. Surprisingly cute for a big green lump of '70s-styled metal (did you see him wag his li'l tail?), he of course stole the episode, and like Tony Head the only criticism can be that he just didn't get enough to do. Nearly every line spoken by him ("WE are IN a CAR") or about him ("forget the shooty dog thing") was endlessly quotable, and who in the country can have failed to have a few tears forming at "You good dog"? Indeed, the emotional resonance of his saving-the-day scene was, surprisingly, not spoiled in the slightest by the knowledge that the Doctor was surely going to rebuild him (he was K9 mark III, after all). I'd go so far as to say he was arguably the best thing about series two so far, and the ending with him and Sarah Jane walking off into the sunset was deeply satisfying.
Despite a slightly flimsy plot (seriously, why did the school explode?), this was one of those episodes that judged the mix of being funny, moving and scary (and I, unlike some, liked the bat creatures) in the way that all good Who should (although of course not to the devastatingly brilliant extent that The Empty Child did). It was an affectionate doffing-of-the-cap to the past (for those who complained that the Eccleston episodes lacked such a tether to the classic series) while simultaneously bidding farewell to it and preparing to look straight ahead to the future from now on. I'm still not getting the feeling that we've moved up from the lower gears, but this was the first episode of the new series that I can see myself really wanting to re-watch, and damned if we haven't got an impressive few weeks to look forward to. And did anyone else notice the strains of "Song For Ten" in the closing scene? Marvellous.