It has to be said, that in the past, reunion episodes of Doctor Who have never exactly worked. Usually, in an effort to bring back in an old face, the plot has suffered somewhat, and although it is usually fun to see old characters, they generally aren’t the best episodes. Like many fans of the series, I have really been looking forward to tonight’s episode featuring the return of Sarah Jane Smith and K-9, since as was said in the edition of Doctor Who Confidential that followed the show when Sarah Jane originally left, at the end of The Hand of Fear neither her nor the Doctor wanted her to go. At the conclusion of that story, the Doctor is summoned back to Gallifrey, and is not allowed to take Sarah Jane with him. As a result he returns her to Croydon (although we find out in School Reunion that again he missed the mark, and left her in Aberdeen) and heads off to Gallifrey, and one of the main plot threads tonight was how she actually coped.
The episode starts off straight into the action, with a student apparently eaten by the headmaster of a school, you then cut to a classroom, where the new teacher turns out to be the Doctor. It transpires that both Rose and the Doctor are working undercover looking in to strange goings on at the school, having been alerted by Mickey. Following a large amount of UFO activity in the area, large numbers of the staff of the school had mysteriously fallen ill, and were quickly replaced with a new team. After the appearance of the new team suddenly the results at the school have improved considerably, prompting suspicion that all is not well.
It seems that it is not only the Doctor who is suspicious, as on his second day, Sarah Jane, apparently writing an article about the headmaster appears. The Doctor introduces himself as John Smith – the pseudonym that the Doctor often uses – to which Sarah Jane replies that she once knew a man who used that name, but doesn’t recognise him.
Recognition comes later that night when both Sarah Jane and the Doctor are snooping around the school. Frightened by noises from the headmasters office, Sarah Jane goes running through the school, and finds the TARDIS hidden in a store room. Stunned she leaves the room and finds the Doctor stood outside.
After the very few references to the old shows that there have been, this was absolutely the opposite, with the show littered with references and obscure in jokes. For example, having shown the Doctor the non-working K-9, she says that she couldn’t fix him because spare parts were as hard to find as parts for a Mini Metro – a reference to the car she drove back in the one off K-9 and Company – although in School Reunion she has a somewhat more practical (for a robot dog at least) estate car.
What is really excellent about this episode is that unlike every other one of these reunion stories, the characters actually go through emotions, and really develop. In the case of Sarah Jane she finally gets closure over her time with the Doctor. After years spent waiting for him to come back, and thinking he was dead, she is offered the chance to go travelling again, but turns him down and finally gets a chance to say good-bye – indeed when he tries to make a fairly flippant ‘see you around’ type comment, she insists. Also, after being broken for much of the episode, and sacrificing himself to save the Doctor, K-9 is rebuilt and restored to his former glory as a parting gift.
Perhaps the most interesting changes are in the Doctor and Rose. For Rose, the realisation is brought crashing home that there have been many companions before her, and like Sarah Jane, one day she may be left behind. This also brings one of the few moments where you see the Doctor talk about himself, where he says that ultimately he is alone. Whilst his companions could stay with him for their whole life, as a time lord ultimately he can never stay with a companion for his whole life because he will outlive them all.
Unrelated to those, there was also an interesting moment with the Doctor, which reminded me of a comment made in a review of Tooth and Claw, that maybe there is a big series changing plot twist coming. It comes in the finale of the story, when the chief baddie, superbly played by Anthony Stewart Head, who has previously predicted that the Doctor will join him, faces the Doctor again, with the Time Lord having discovered the plan. Here the Doctor is offered ultimate power, and the chance to turn back time and save the Time Lords, and for a moment he looks really tempted. But it is Sarah Jane who persuades him that it is wrong.
From beginning to end I thought it was an excellent episode, probably the best of the new series so far. On the one hand you got closure for the character of Sarah Jane, but alongside that you got an excellent bad guy in the form of Anthony Stewart Head (hopefully he’ll have made a lucky escape from the explosion in the school to return again), and a decent plot and acting from the rest of the cast. I could list off the great moments and one liners for pages more, but I won’t. However as several of the reviewers at Behind The Sofa says, this was probably the first episode of the new series to really give the grown up fans the kind of feeling they got when they saw some of the original stories for the first time. Which perhaps makes the most ironic thing about it all, is that the episode was also the first in the whole new run to be written by someone who had not written any Doctor Who before, and confesses to not being much of a fan – Toby Whithouse.