Since Steven Moffat took over, Doctor Who has scheduled a relaxed comedy episode each season that’s just about the characters, with a little plot added on. That’s not to say it never happened previously. Black Orchid tried it in the 80s, and didn’t really pull it off, though it still had a somewhat refreshing feel just to see the companions hanging out and having fun. You know, seeing Tegan not freaking out and complaining about going home, or Nyssa actually getting some lines, or Adric not ruining everything. And it’s really too bad they didn’t try it again in the classic era, maybe with a better writer than Terrence Dudley. After all, done right, School Reunion was one of the highlights of the entire RTD era.
Moffat has wisely made it a regular feature. While none of the Moffat-era hangout episodes have been quite as good as School Reunion, they’ve consistently been refreshing breaks from the usual Character Melodrama At the End of the World yarns. Gareth Roberts, who originally became known back in the 90s for his very funny Who novels, has come to specialize in these, writing three of the four entries (The Lodger, Closing Time, and The Caretaker; Chris Chibnall penned The Power of Three). And he’s a great choice; his episodes are consistently funny and charming, and this is no exception.
Danny: Bit wet, aren't you?
Clara: Freak shower.
Danny: Is that seaweed?
Clara: I said freak.
Unfortunately, this makes it a little hard to write much, since with a high-humor, low-story episode there’s not a lot left to say after “It’s really funny.” But it’s worth exploring that character interaction, since that’s what really elevates the episode.
These are set up right in the hilarious opening, contrasting the Doctor and Clara going on wild adventures and the havoc this plays on Clara’s dates. She forces herself to keep leading this double life. “I can’t keep doing this. I can’t do it. Yes I can. I dan do it. Of course I can do it. I’ve got it all under control.” But then the Doctor decides to go under cover in her school to take care of an alien menace, and her carefully controlled life falls to pieces.
And man, Clara is a terrible liar, which is especially galling after Danny told her that he knows when people are lying. And he certainly does know she’s lying, but he’s patient, and relaxed, and gives her every chance to tell the truth, even gently guiding her towards it at times.
It tells you a lot about both of them. Clara is a brilliant adventurer and a wonderful person in a great many ways, but her control freak nature and ease with lying cause her to choose to be horrible to a person she truly likes. It’s deeply, painfully human, and might be almost unbearable if it wasn’t presented in the context of such a delightful comedy, thanks to Roberts. (And Moffat. It’s hard to say how much of this script is his, but based on the other co-written scripts and how closely this resembles Roberts’ other episodes, I’d say it was largely character specific. I suspect the response to season 7 forced Moffat to work a lot harder on making Clara’s complexities clear.
Really, though, the reason she seemed so undefined in that season, in retrospect, had a lot to do with the writers there. She’s well-written in Bells and Akhaten. Neil Cross also writes her well in Hide, but she’s otherwise got two Gatiss episodes (and Gatiss basically just writes generic companion, and barely includes her in Crimson Horror), the deeply flaws Journey, Gaiman’s Nightmare In Silver (which was already largely written when Moffat decided to revamp Clara at the last minute), and Name, which was largely about her mystery. Which gets to the other problem - besides stories just not being about her, her story was so heavily linked to this big mystery. Which, it turns out, was that she was just a normal person who did something awesome, and oh my giddy aunt this is a paragraph and a half of parenthetical. This is becoming a straight-up addiction)
It’s a real credit to Jenna Coleman that she’s able to make Clara’s flaws so charming (and to Roberts and Moffat for figuring out how to play them as funny without losing the dramatic underpinnings). At the beginning, she accuses the Doctor of being mysterious because he is, after all, “... a very clever man making a mistake common to very clever people in assuming that everybody else is stupid.” But it’s not long after that one of her attempts to keep Danny and the Doctor in separate lives ends in Danny saying, “It’s like you’re trying to be mysterious. I’m not stupid, you know.”
After the first fight with the Blitzer, she’s lying for a moment even when there’s no lie left worth telling. She’s terrified of losing what she loves, and needs to control it, so she builds a web of lies, which of course nearly makes her lose what she loves.
She’s more than just her flaws, of course. There are her obvious traits - her adventurousness leads her to be brave and clever and so forth. But watch the scene where she confronts the Doctor about going under cover in the school: her concern there truly isn’t the Doctor and Danny crossing paths, but that whatever alien the Doctor is investigating will put the school and the children in danger. She shows a rare moment of real fear, and it isn’t fear for herself, but for the children.
Secondarily, of course, she’s worried about the havoc this will wreak on her life, and The Caretaker plays the farce right, getting the laughs it can out of the expected contrivances (the Doctor thinks Adrian is Clara’s boyfriend because he kinda looks like Eleven, Clara tries to pretend a flashy fight with an alien killbot was part of a play) without extending them anywhere past credibility. And even those are still used for important dramatic purposes; the Doctor’s assumptions about Adrian lead to several moments showing how much Clara feels the need for the Doctor to approve of Danny. We see how relieved she is at his false approval, making the turn when they largely reject each other much more gutting than it would have been otherwise.
Danny ends up turning on Clara a bit, noting, “It’s funny, you only really know what someone thinks of you when you know what lies they’ve told you.” Ultimately, he sticks with her, because he does love her, but the complexity of their relationship hangs over the rest of the season, lending not only an extra layer of drama, but a human reality even in the wackiest situations.
Danny: I know men like him. I’ve served under them. They push you and make you stronger till you’re doing things you never thought you could. I saw you tonight, you did exactly what he told you. You weren’t even scared. And you should have been.
Clara: I trust him. He’s never let me down.
Danny: Fine. If he ever pushes you too far, I want you to tell me, because I know what that’s like. You’ll tell me if it happens… and if you break that promise, we’re finished… I can’t stand not being able to protect you. Are we clear?
Clara: Yes, we’re clear.
Samuel Anderson again excels as Danny; both the relaxed teacher and the soldier are vividly realized in his gestures and body language, and he balances the humor and drama superbly.
The Doctor’s meeting with Danny doesn’t go well, since the Doctor refuses to acknowledge him as anything other than a soldier (calling him PE, denying that he could be a math teacher). This speaks to several things about the Doctor, but there’s a truth to it: Danny’s not only proud of being a soldier, but deep down, he still is one, however far in his past he likes to think it is. Even right after the Doctor refuses to call him anything other than PE, Danny turns and walks away in a very military fashion. The kids’ even nickname him “The Squaddie”.
But, as Danny points out, the Doctor is a kind of soldier himself - specifically, an officer. He gives orders, and people go running directly into danger. “I’m the one who carries you out of the fire, he’s the one who lights it.”
Danny: Time Lord! Might have known.In the end, the Doctor sees enough of Danny’s good side to accept him, though he’ll always insist on calling him PE, because, hey, the Doctor. Speaking of which, Capaldi really gets to shine comedically here. I especially love the way he tells Clara that yes, there is an alien in the school. "Yes, me. Now go." would be a brilliant Doctor line from any of the Doctors, but Capaldi makes it sing in his own magnificent way.
Doctor: Might have known what?
Danny: Well, the accent’s good, but you can always spot the aristocracy. It’s in the attitude. Now, Time Lords, do you salute those?
Doctor: Definitely not.
Danny: [Saluting] Sir!
Doctor: You do not call me sir.
Danny: Absolutely, sir, as you wish, sir!
Clara is right that he can’t possibly blend in as a normal human, but he knows exactly how to blend in with them: by being the janitor, the lowest on the totem pole. Most people don’t notice what the people below them are doing if they don’t have to. As the Doctor said in Deep Breath, he prefers to be down with the people rather than flying above them, because they’re too small when you get higher up. (This notion finds a horrifically tragic turn in Death In Heaven, when the Doctor, put above the entire planet, is rendered completely ineffectual.) The janitor is below the teachers, so they don’t notice him, no matter how strange he acts or how conspicuous his gadgets are. People just phase those sorts of things out, and don’t bother to do anything if they actually do notice. I mean, if the janitor put some beeping device on the fire alarm, you’d just assume it was there for a reason and move on, right?
Except Danny and Courtney. Danny notices because he’s a good soldier (and a better officer than he would like to admit), and knows to watch for what’s happening below him.
Courtney, on the other hand, notices because she’s a “disruptive influence”, and they just have a knack for noticing what doesn’t belong, because most days they’re the ones who did the things the don’t belong. Courtney is a brilliant character here; the school treats her as a disruptive influence, as though that defines her. The Doctor sees it a little differently.
Courtney: You’re weird.
Doctor: Yes. I am. What about you?
Courtney: I’m a disruptive influence.
Doctor: Good to meet you!
Courtney: And you.
Doctor: Now get lost.
Right then, you know she’s going to get to see the inside of the box, one way or another. I love that Roberts and Moffat decided to focus on a rebel and partial outcast as the one kid in school who gets more than a line or two. She’s a solid sort of proto-companion, though she’s got a ways to go.
I like how her parents are played, too; they only get a handful a lines, but you get the idea that they both truly love Courtney and are very close to her.
Danny: Yes, I would say Courtney is a disruptive influence.
Dad: Yeah, but last year, you said Courtney was a very disruptive influence.
Mom: So I suppose that counts as an improvement!
Also, they later say, “Our Courtney was right about those two,” telling you that they actually listen when their child is talking. The Doctor never meets them, but I imagine he’d approve of any parents who so lovingly raised a disruptive influence.
There’s one other great aspect to her and the school: the focus on minorities. Not only is Courtney black, but so are the two kids who are approached by the cop sending them back inside. It’s a saavy choice that gives a subtle sense of menace and real-world reality here; the cop almost comes off like he’s harassing them, and you’re convinced he’d be less concerned if they were a few shades lighter. Like the Doctor, the show is interested in the people below; the authorities are the ones to watch out for.
The sinister overtones mean I feel no sympathy for the cop’s death right afterward. Which is great, because it’s one of the most delightfully gruesome deaths the show has ever done. It’s not up to Kane doing a low-budget Raiders of the Lost Ark face-melting in Dragonfire, but it’s suitably nasty. (If you’re worried about the children, let me point out that kids love the Raiders face melting stuff. They like it a little gruesome, as long as it’s a bad guy getting gruesomed to death.)
Which brings up the one thing I haven’t really talked about: the plot. There’s little to say, because there’s so little of it, but it’s perfect. The Skovox Blitzer looks cool, does a lot of shooting lasers and blowing stuff up, and doesn’t need more than a line of exposition. Just threatening enough to be a real problem, but it doesn’t feel underdeveloped. It’s a very effective rack to hang the comedy and drama on.
And when the comedy and drama is this rich, that’s all it needs to be.
* * * ½
- Calvin: But what about our homework?
Clara: [shrugs] Who asks for homework?
Clara Oswald: Best teacher ever.
- Clara: You can’t do this. You cannot pass yourself off as a real human among actual people!
Doctor: I lived among otters for a month. Well, I sulked. River and I, we had this big fight --
Clara: Human beings are not otters!
Doctor: Exactly, it’ll be even easier.
- Doctor: I used to have a teacher exactly like you.
Clara: You still do. Pay attention.
- We get to meet Chris Addison's Seb here at the end. Addison gives Seb a set of ticks and a delivery so over-the-top it should be excruciating, but it's absolutely hilarious. He doesn't really get to shine until Dark Water, but even his brief scene here is pretty awesome.
- It is a little disappointing that we don't get a cameo from Ian Chesterton, but Gareth Roberts was probably right in thinking that if you're going to put him in, you need to do it right and give him an actual story.