When Doctor Who returned to our screens in 2005, Russell T Davies was, wisely, very careful not to overwhelm new viewers with back story. Although we, the hardened fans of old, knew that this was a continuation of what we’d been watching decades before, Davies strategically drip fed bits and pieces to the audience about who and what the Doctor was. But actually, by the end of Christopher’s Eccleston’s all too brief tenure, new viewers still knew surprisingly little about his past and, apart from the Daleks returning (and they got a nice new makeover), there were no actual references to the so called Classic series.
In fact, it wasn’t until the third story of David Tennant’s first series that New Who did honour it’s rich history.
School Reunion sits at Number 9 in our 50 for 50 and is almost like going from the sublime to the ridiculous. From having no references to the past, we suddenly get hit squarely between the eyes with the return of an old companion, a rather beaten up metal dog and continuity references galore. Watching School Reunion was an absolute joy. Here, for the first time, was “my” Doctor Who meshing seamlessly with “new” Doctor Who. My daughter was only nine when this was aired and I remember gushing with excitement as I explained to her who Sarah Jane Smith was and about the adventures she’d had with the Doctor. To my delight, Alice was intrigued enough to want to watch a Classic Sarah Jane story and so we both sat down and watched Genesis of the Daleks.
And this is one of the main reasons that School Reunion works so well. It doesn’t reinvent anything. Over the years since 2005, we’ve now seen many Classic monsters return, but they’ve always had the New Who makeover. But in School Reunion there is no reinvention. This is absolutely the same Sarah Jane that we know and love and the tin dog is not redesigned in any way (don’t even get me started on the travesty that is the K-9 spin off series!). And that’s what so nice. Here is a slice of the past, for life long fans merging effortlessly with the present. And it’s an absolute testament to Davies’ writing and the performance of Elisabeth Sladen that the character of Sarah Jane should get her own highly successful and very enjoyable spin off series later on.
Let’s talk a bit more about hers and others performances. Lis hadn’t played Sarah Jane on screen for nearly thirty years and yet she slipped back into the role with ease. All of the charisma, charm, inquisitiveness and playfulness was still there but subtly filtered with age. Her obvious joy at playing the part again was there for all to see. Crucially, the chemistry between her and the Doctor is almost tangible. The scene where the Doctor sees Sarah Jane for the first time in the staff room is so wonderfully played by Tennant that it brings a lump to your throat. The sheer joy that he has at seeing her again is almost overwhelming to him.
The other scene that stands out is the scene when Sarah Jane sees the TARDIS for the first time again and realizes that the man saw earlier, Mr. Smith, is in fact, the Doctor. Both Lis Sladen and David Tennant play the scene with such pathos and every time I watch it, it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. This scene also re-affirms another continuity point from the Classic series to this. That this is the Tenth Doctor, him having regenerated “half a dozen times” since they last met.
In fact, the whole story is about chemistry between characters. The initial bickering between Rose and Sarah Jane is followed by a wonderful scene where the two compare “adventures” and ends up with them laughing at the Doctor himself. An instant camaraderie is formed there and then and the TARDIS team is all the more stronger for it. And then there’s Mr. Finch, played with utter devious conviction by Anthony Head. If he had appeared in any other story, his performance would have been show-stealing, but faced with so many in this one, his ruthless and thoroughly evil Head Master fits seamlessly into the whole. The scene where the Doctor and Mr. Finch come face to face around the swimming pool is like something out a spaghetti western. In fact, you can imagine Mr. Finch as the Master and personally, I think Anthony Head would have been superb in the role, as a cunning and charming opponent for the Tenth Doctor rather than the babbling madman we ended up with.
Even Mickey’s character gets fleshed out here, realizing that he plays the role of the “tin dog” but ultimately helping to save the day. And let’s not forget that dog. K-9, played again by John Leeson, is wonderful in this, obedient to his master to the last and heroically having to pay the price.
School Reunion also shows us, for the first time, what happens to companions after they leave the Doctor and foreshadows the departure of Rose at the end of this series. However, watching the story now, it is tinged with sadness at the tragic loss of Elisabeth Sladen, taken from us far too soon. But Russell T Davies proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt that old and new could exist side by side. This was indeed, the very same show that we knew and loved from our youth. School Reunion works both as a beautiful homage to the past and a lovely stepping stone to the future, with Sarah Jane and K-9 having new and exciting adventures to look forward to. — Steve