[2006, Season 28/Series 2, Episode 4]
"Some things are worth getting your heart broken for."
I may have mentioned before that I sorta like Sarah Jane as a companion. And by sorta like, I mean she's my favorite companion in the entire history of Doctor Who, and I love every moment she's onscreen, and would marry her in an instant if she was real and the opportunity inexplicably presented itself. So, obviously, the idea of her returning to the show, even for a single episode, sound pretty wonderful to me. But School Reunion far exceeds any and all expectations. It's about as perfect as it could be.
It goes much further than just bring her back. It's not like The Five Doctors where Sarah shows up for no apparent reason and it's just like, Hey, Sarah Jane! And then does nothing with it. Writer Toby Whithouse goes much deeper than that. Of course, she's overjoyed to see the Doctor again, but her feelings are a lot more complicated than that. She's bitter that he abandoned her on Earth after showing her the Universe and never came back. She's gone back to journalism, yes, but has mostly wandered aimlessly, waiting for when her Doctor would come back. And now, having spent half her life waiting, she finds that he's replaced her with a newer, younger girl in Rose. And she's really bitter about that.
In this, School Reunion really digs deep into what it means to be one of the Doctor's companions - and, more importantly, what it means when you suddenly aren't any more. It's harder for Sarah than most - she was more deeply attached to him than almost any other companion, which brings it into starker light, but it's a question that still hits powerfully for each of those travelers: how do you see all of time and space, wonders and terrors never dreamed of, and then go back to a regular life? This isn't sentimental or sappy; it's dark and complicated at times, and actually surprising in its insistence on taking more thoughtful and human paths, making it far more moving and satisfying.
Doctor: Oh, you didn't need me. You were getting on with your life.
Sarah: You were my life.
Even at 59, Elizabeth Sladen is still a beautiful woman, and is as marvelous as ever. Her age has taken none of her energy or passion, and only given her more authority.
Whithouse doesn't ignore what all this means to Rose, either; suddenly, she's not the Doctor's Special One, but just one in a line of many earth girls who tagged along for the ride. The Doctor tries to reassure her that he'll never leave her behind, and she accepts this to a point, but it's not clear that he really wouldn't, and she suspects that. It's a dark, intriguing question, and it hits even harder on comparison with Sarah: while Rose is likable and loyal, she's not as intelligent or helpful as her predecessor. If the Doctor keeps her around, it's not because she's special. It's because this is a scarred, wounded Doctor, less so than before but still lonelier and more lost than ever before.
Whithouse writes Rose every bit as well as Sarah, and gives her lots of fun stuff to do. Piper is as charming and funny as she's ever been here. I especially love her utter disgust at having to go undercover as a lunch lady.
The relationship between Rose and Sarah is appropriately tense, but not overdone. One of the best scenes in the story is the confrontation between those two, which goes from them bickering over who was the better companion to pointing out the Doctor's sillier qualities to outright laughing at him. At which point he walks in and is utterly baffled at why they think he's so funny.
While he's at it, Whithouse throws Mickey into the mix, and writes him better than he's ever been written in past appearances. Of course, he's gotten more complex and likable every time he showed up, but his material here is great, and Noel Clarke knocks it out of the ballpark. There's one especially great scene where he's left outside with K-9 by the Doctor, Sarah, and Rose while they do all the heroic stuff, and he realizes to his horror that, in his words, "I'm the tin dog!"
Speaking of which, this is probably K-9's greatest appearance ever. Even Whovians who despise the thing can't help but enjoy his appearance here. His response to the Headmaster's last line is a gem.
What's really amazing is how well Whithouse balances all four of them. Because, essentially, the Doctor has four companions in this story; past stories constantly struggled with three, sometimes even two. But Whithouse gives every one of them a satisfying storyline and a purpose within the plot.
In the center of all this is, of course, the Doctor himself. Few stories have ever presented a more fully-rounded portrait of this most fascinating of characters. He's heroic and funny, of course. His relationships with Sarah and Rose are both complex: he clearly loves them both in his own way, but there are some dark undercurrents to the relationships, and the episode doesn't shy from those. Best of all, though, is his scene confronting the villainous Headmaster around the swimming pool. It's a tremendous sequence, superbly written and brilliantly performed. Tennant is at his absolute peak throughout the story, but this may be his finest scene in his entire tenure as the Doctor. His delivery of his central line to the villain is just chilling: "I'm so old now. I used to have so much mercy. Now you get one chance. That was it." In that moment, you see every century of the Time Lord in Tennant's eyes and feel the full brunt of his presence, his intellect, and his power.
Of course, the Doctor does have a reason he leaves his companions behind. He may not be entirely right to do it, but it's painfully understandable.
Doctor: I don't age. I regenerate. But humans age. You wither and you die. Imagine that happening to someone you... You can spend the rest of your life with me. But I can't spend the rest of mine with you. I have to live on. Alone. That's the curse of the Time Lords.
He doesn't finish the first sentence. He doesn't need to, but more importantly, it's not something he would say aloud.
... oh, yeah, the plot. With so much characterization packed into 45 minutes, there's not much room for plot, but it's a good, solid construction on which to hang the story. It's engaging and entertaining and holds together pretty well. The villains are intent on ruling the Universe, but their way of achieving it is intriguing and imaginative; more interesting, though, is the Headmaster's offer to the Doctor to join them and become their leader. The Headmaster sees the Doctor's wisdom and moral compass and knows how much it would add to their rule, and his offer is genuine. Of course, when the Doctor hands him defeat after defeat, his mood turns nasty, but there's some depth to the portrayal. Mostly, though, it works because Anthony Head is absolutely magnificent in the role. It's almost too bad this wasn't a two-parter, so he could have had more room, but still, his presence elevates this story to even higher levels.
Their plot does intersect the character focus of the story, and it's in her response to the Headmaster's offer to the Doctor that Sarah finally finds closure in her past. For the first time since she was young, she can move on in her life. Which, again, deepens the impact of the tale. It's a light, fast story, but with an underlying sadness, which serves to add to the enjoyment - and vice versa. After Sarah's realization, there is, of course, all the action and monster-fighting and explosions and stuff we came to see, but the real climax of the story is there, in Sarah's words and the Doctor's understanding.
But what really makes the plot work is that it's fun. Everything in this story works. The characters, the story, the dialogue, the drama, the adventure, the comedy - it's all a sheer, effortless joy to watch, but with an underlying depth and power to give meaning to the fun. It's just terrific.
* * * *
- One little detail I liked: when the Doctor tells Rose and Sarah to check out the computers, he hands the Sonic Screwdriver to Sarah, even though Rose extends her hand.
- I talked about the underlying sadness in the story, but it's not underlying the final scene between Sarah and the Doctor; it overwhelms it. It's beautifully written and played. Sarah's insistence on the Doctor actually saying goodbye this time, his joyful smile and calling her "My Sarah Jane," and the look on her face as the TARDIS leaves and she knows she can't undo her decision are heartbreaking.
Only Moffat could follow that up with something even more devastating.