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Doctor Who  - School Reunion

Bringing back Sarah Jane Smith is one of the most definitive moments of the relaunched Doctor Who. Not just for what it tells us about the show's past, but for what it tells us about its present.

Unlike the "reimagined" Battlestar Galactica, the new Doctor Who doesn't wipe the slate clean; it's a sequel, not a slash-and-burn retelling. Although Russell T. Davies's relaunched series is content to hold its predecessor at arm's length, freely reinterpreting the format and tone for a new audience, it's careful to respect the show's long history. This begins with keeping basic iconography such as the TARDIS and the Sonic Screwdriver, extends to peppering the scripts with throwaway continuity references, and culminates in fruitfully mining the old series for its most iconic monsters. The second season follows this pattern just as closely as the first, strategically deploying the Cybermen at the heart of the year and reprising them for the grand finale. With good reason: Davies's Who is built on the bedrock of the original, whose reputation as a British institution has only grown in hindsight; the passage of time has softened the memory of its weaknesses and crystallised its strengths. Monsters like the Daleks and Cybermen are the epitome of those strengths, proven winners with built-in audience recognition, guaranteed publicity, and a ratings boost to match.

Enter Sarah Jane Smith.

Well, perhaps: except that returning to old monsters had always been a staple of the old series, with popular adversaries cementing themselves in the public imagination through appearances every few years. Returning to long-vanished companions, on the other hand, was previously unheard of (with the exception of those rare "Doctor meets Doctor" events that became a sub-genre in themselves). After all, reviving a cool cyborg for a modern audience is easy enough, but fitting a middle-aged companion into the mix, particularly one who ended her three year run in the mid-1970s, is a different proposition. Elisabeth Sladen's return as Sarah Jane says a great deal about the target audience—or audiences—for the new series.

It's easy to forget that the new Doctor Who was relaunched with its place in the TV schedules firmly in mind: family viewing. It's a role fraught with contradictions. To appeal to an age range from six to sixty requires stories which operate on more than one level, or which sandwich together elements aimed at quite different audiences. The Doctor Who of today must shift rapidly between silly, funny, safe, edgy, sexy, and dark; never too silly for adults, too safe for teenagers, or too edgy for children. This is a near-impossible task, and one that has inspired dizzying creativity and jarring compromise in equal measure.

Fortunately the series has one major asset that it consciously draws on to convince adult audiences to watch an often childish show: nostalgia. Although the old Doctor Who ran for 26 years, every era inspiring its devoted fans, it was the 1970s which saw the show's peak popularity; the moment of equilibrium when it had succeeded in growing up with its viewers, but had not yet been left behind by the increasing sophistication of television. It's therefore no accident that every significant element that the new series has revived to date would be recognisable to viewers from the 1970s—the show's heyday. Along with Tom Baker's Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith is one of the defining symbols of the series at its height. She was still popular enough five years after her departure to star in 1981's aborted K-9 and Company spin-off, and later still in "The Five Doctors" (1983) anniversary special. Crucially, even casual viewers might still recognise her; so much so that it's difficult to imagine any other companion filling this role as effectively.

But it's not enough to peddle nostalgia alone. Sarah Jane Smith, if she's to work for a new audience, can't just be one of those dull 'old friend' characters who sometimes pop up in US TV shows, never having been mentioned previously. In "School Reunion," as always, Rose is the key. From the beginning she's been the gateway character for new viewers: to the series, to the Doctor, and to old enemies. She roots the show's fantastical elements in reality—even the Daleks and Cybermen are deliberately made to feel personal and relevant for Rose. If she cares, we care, and most importantly, children and teenagers care. For this reason, "School Reunion" cannily throws Rose and Sarah Jane together from the first, and seldom parts them. They're forced to deal with one another's existence while the Doctor uncovers and defeats a typically improbable alien plot (which involves school-children harnessed as parallel processors to crack the ultimate secrets of the Universe). It's instantly obvious to us that Rose and Sarah Jane are cut from the same cloth; we're invited to compare and contrast the two women and their relationships with the Doctor. And of course they hate each other. There's little that can overcome suspicion like having a character voice the audience's fears.

More than this, the real masterstroke of the episode is casting Sarah Jane as the Doctor's romantic "Ex." Not only does it open up some interesting themes, it creates a romantic triangle that gives every age group someone to root for: "Your assistants are getting younger," remarks Sarah Jane cattishly, on realising that the Doctor and Rose are more than just good friends. "Where are you from, the Dark Ages?" retorts an equally cattish Rose. Examining the Doctor's sexuality is a line the old series never crossed, but was almost the first line the new series crossed in its bid to appeal to a wider audience. In the old show the Doctor's companions never shared the romantic frisson of his relationship with Rose. However much he might care for those he travelled with, the Doctor remained asexual and slightly apart: a parent; a colleague; a friend. That was true even for Sarah Jane, whose tenure on the show spanned two Doctors, and for whom both incarnations felt great affection. The Sarah Jane who returns here is not quite the one who left all those years ago; she's a subtly new version, "reimagined" to suit not simply nostalgia but also the themes and preoccupations of the new series. The collision between old and new sensibilities begs obvious questions, both about Rose's uniqueness for the Doctor, and about his feelings in the past. In a brilliantly clever choice the episode not only confronts those questions, it makes them the point.

Sarah Jane's return first shocks the Doctor into blissful reverie, but rapidly drags him into a melancholy mood of loss and transition. In her unhappiness and sense of rejection, he's confronted with the impact of his rootless lifestyle on those around him, a theme briefly explored in last season's "Boomtown." Meanwhile Rose gets a vertiginous glimpse into the Doctor's long life before he met her, and starts to wonder what might happen after she's gone. It's a rare and welcome opportunity to see the two main characters at odds, particularly given their cliquey relationship during the majority of the second season. In particular, the poignant examination of someone the Doctor once abandoned to a crushingly ordinary life has particular relevance to Rose, who seized a lifeline from just such an existence.

This focus on the feelings of the regular characters, particularly the Doctor, is something the old series rarely attempted. It's instructive to compare "School Reunion" to 1985's "The Two Doctors" in which companion Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines) returned alongside Patrick Troughton's Doctor to encounter the latest incarnation, played by Colin Baker. That serial could equally have been the springboard for contemplation of things left behind and roads not travelled. It wasn't, because the Doctor Who of that time was rarely interested in exploring such issues. Jamie's character was plucked from his own era, effectively sealed in amber, and his return sparked little more than momentary fondness. For the most part the purpose of the original series was to watch an idiosyncratic character solve an interesting and largely external story. There may have been memorable guest characters, dramatic moments and moral dilemmas, but there was seldom much in the way of introspection. Only in its twilight years did the show imbue companions like Ace (Sophie Aldred) with anything approaching psychological complexity. In this sense the new Doctor Who has embraced character to a much greater extent, to the point of occasional soap opera. While its stories often follow the same basic templates as the original, when story and character come into conflict it's now the story that gets short shrift.

"School Reunion" is one of the best examples of this approach, structured in such a way that the story counterpoints and serves as a backdrop to the characterisation. Toby Whithouse's script is a rare example in Doctor Who of character, theme and plot coming together to create smart, entertaining alchemy. The plot is straightforward, even familiar: something is not quite right about the local school, whose teachers have been replaced by aliens with sinister plans for the local children; including, but not limited to, eating them. There's a youth-oriented setting, a memorable villain (Buffy's Anthony Stewart Head in scenery-chewing form) and plenty of peril. It's a premise that blends traditional Doctor Who with producer Russell T. Davies's Dark Season (1991), but whilst in past decades the story would have been the sole dimension, here the shorthand storytelling provides a framework within which the characters are the real focus. Sarah Jane the investigative journalist is fully integrated into the plot, and most of her scenes occur while striding from one plot point to another, or regrouping before the next assault. The school setting means something different to children and adults, deftly echoing the themes of nostalgia and regret, and even the aliens of the week are, literally, the sum of their experiences. Although the episode's tone is typically uneven, with off-screen deaths serving as punch-lines to thin jokes, David Tennant's portrayal of the Tenth Doctor has seldom been more sober, and his relationship with Sarah Jane is effortlessly convincing right down to his note-perfect farewell: "My Sarah Jane!"

Where this more character-oriented approach stumbles is in removing some of the Doctor's essential other-ness. He threatens to become, in Rose's words, "just like any other bloke," a more straightforward romantic lead. Although the script emphasises both his near-immortality and the Time War, the over-riding impression is of the most human of aliens; not quite that person from Season 1 who felt the world "falling through space" beneath his feet.

It must also be said that the remainder of the second season disappointingly fails to deliver on the seeds of impermanence planted in Rose's mind by Sarah Jane. In "New Earth" Rose and the Doctor began in a honeymoon-like daze of contentment and they remained gigglingly self-absorbed the following week. In "School Reunion," for the first time, Rose is prompted to look beyond the narrow sphere of their relationship, and hot on its heels she finds herself relegated to the sidelines of the Doctor's infatuation with Madame de Pompadour in the season's standout instalment, "The Girl in the Fireplace." In the weeks that follow Rose is presented with a parallel world in which her father never died, and sees her nominal boyfriend Mickey strike off on his own.

Cumulatively it's easy to imagine these outside influences piercing the Doctor and Rose's perfect bubble, sending them on gradually divergent courses ending in a bitter-sweet parting. Instead the season takes a safer path. The couple bond more single-mindedly than ever in a succession of stories which vindicate their devotion. In the "The Idiot's Lantern" the Doctor vows to a 1950s policeman that "no power on Earth" can stop him from rescuing Rose, and in the pulp-SF "The Satan Pit" he tells the devil himself: "If I believe in one thing, just one thing, I believe in her!" In the same story Rose even flirts awkwardly with the concept of settling down. There are hints from this point onward that all will not end well: her death is predicted in "The Satan Pit," foreshadowed in "Fear Her," and explicitly referenced in the finale, "Doomsday." However the pair remain thick as thieves in the season's closing stretch: sharing a cosy cameo in the otherwise format-breaking "Love & Monsters," and playing cops and robbers in "Fear Her." By the finale itself Rose is still steadfastly declaring that their relationship is "forever."

Whatever long-term issues "School Reunion" may have presaged are forestalled by Rose's departure at the end of the season. Ultimately the couple are tragically separated by circumstance rather than by any clear-eyed appraisal of the future. However Sarah Jane's words do still linger: having once escaped from a mundane life it's difficult to find experiences that are as fulfilling in the real world. It's this sense of seizing the day that remains at the core of Rose's relationship with the Doctor during the season, and that permeates her unwillingness to leave. And Sarah Jane's spirit is very much present in the season's closing scenes, when the Doctor must, finally, learn to say goodbye and a heartbroken Rose begins to build a life less ordinary.

Overall "School Reunion" is one of the new series' more notable successes: an episode which captures the characterisation and breezy post-modern tone of the current series while sending a love-letter to the mature viewers who fondly remember the original series from their childhood. It's a rare example of setting, character and theme gelling perfectly, and playing equally well to old and young alike.

And lest all this fail, the episode has one other trick up its sleeve. The middle-aged companion from the 1970s that no six year old could fail to love: the robot dog.

Just in case.

Iain Clark has always written a great deal of nonsense, but increasingly feels the need to inflict it on other people. He lives in the North of England with his wife and two cats.

Iain Clark was born in the same year Star Trek was cancelled. He has contributed a number of TV and film reviews to Strange Horizons, and lives in the North of England.
10 comments on “Doctor Who and the Nostalgia Factor: "School Reunion"”

Nice piece. My only comment is this: I found the whole depiction of Sarah Jane immensely sad, and I'm wondering if I'm the only one. I mean, the Doctor dropped her off in the 1970s at the age of, what, 30; and thirty years later, she's still hung up on the fact that he never said goodbye properly. She says, in so many words, that she's never been able to form relationships with anyone else because of travelling with the Doctor. That's the majority of her adult active life wished away; we're meant to believe, I think, that the School Reunion visit leaves her somewhat healthier and more whole, but it's by no means guaranteed. As a comparison, in The Winter's Tale, Leontes loses sixteen years to lovelessness and gets a very much more explicit turn back towards wholeness at the end; yet everyone thinks of it as only an ambivalently cheerful play. School Reunion is, if we want to put it like that, half as cheerful; and yet it seems to be regarded as a piece of feelgood Who-affirmation.
Or, like I say, that may just be me.

I agree that the episode is very bitter-sweet, and I'm quite certain it's intentional. On rewatching I was forcibly struck by just how bitter that bitter-sweetness is. Most of what comes out of Sarah Jane's mouth is an expression of loss, loneliness, abandonment, unwillingness to move on. Her reunion with the Doctor is an acute mixture of pain and pleasure for her; probably more the former than the latter. At first I think it almost hurts her more to realise that there was no good reason for his not having returned - she was almost better off not knowing.
It's only by the end of the episode that she becomes reconciled to the Doctor's part in her life, and starts explicitly talking about finding a proper life for herself. So yes, thirty years of feeling empty - benchmarking your entire life by one brief high point - is a long time.
Partly I suspect that this is made to seem worse by the decision to reflect the full passage of thirty years. It's a side-effect of having made the episode in 2006. To fulfil the needs of the story Sarah Jane can't have moved on, so she's required to be still suffering the loss of the Doctor, regardless of how long ago it was. They really needed to write this episode at least ten years earlier. But didn't, for obvious reasons.
I think the only reason the episode is seen as feel-good is the sweet part of the bitter-sweet equation, and the fact that it's so good to see an old character again, and to watch her work out her demons. As in all drama, her pain is not quite our pain. And by the end Sarah Jane clearly has reached a very solid emotional equilibrium as she walks off into the sunset. I think that overall it's an optimistic ending.
(I note that they're now mooting a Sarah Jane spin off series for CBBC - after all these years - and I wonder how much of this characterisation will survive into that iteration of the character.)

Tim Phipps

"by the end Sarah Jane clearly has reached a very solid emotional equilibrium as she walks off into the sunset. I think that overall it's an optimistic ending."
How do you feel about the ending of 'Doomsday', given that it clearly shows that Rose hasn't reached anything like the same state?
You stress that we're meant to be seeing parallels between Sarah Jane and Rose - but you're right, Rose clearly doesn't lean anything. If I have issues with 'Doomsday', they result from that character-gutting final scene on the beach where Rose's inability to see what's been repeatedly pointed out to her becomes clear.
The learning curve, and the character development from 'School Reunion', is the Doctor's - he, at least, learns the value of coming back to say goodbye.

I disagree that Rose is portrayed as not having learned. Certainly it's true that she hasn't embraced the fleeting nature of her relationship with the Doctor, so she certainly lacks perspective. But unlike the Doctor she doesn't have the luxury of being able to place their relationship in the context of long life experience.
Sarah Jane tells Rose to seize the chance, despite the pain, despite knowing that one day it will end, because it's worth it. That's what she's doing. The reason that Rose clings to the Doctor quite so tightly is that he's her chance to better herself. I think she's quite right to do so. She's in the middle of a bright, bright moment in her life, one that has not yet lasted very long and clearly still has much to offer her. While she may be fixated on the Doctor as her totem in this respect, she's not at the point where the relationship is in any way unhealthy, or restrictive for her.
If, as we believe, one or the other of them would have moved on eventually, that's still a long way off. It's something that every relationship may one day have to face, but that doesn't stop the relationship from being healthy for now.
As for the ending of Doomsday I rewatched it quite recently, andI think it's a deliberate attempt to echo Sarah Jane. The Doctor even repeats the same phrase: "Good for you". In School Reunion this is about Sarah Jane having forged a life in which she can make a difference. In Doomsday it's an awkward pleasantry when Rose says she's back in the shop - which she punctures marvellously with: "Shut up!" As in: of course I'm not back in the shop you idiot! I think that says it all. She is indeed forging a life in which she can make a difference.
Beyond that it's a tad too soon to expect emotional equlibrium, I think. Nonetheless I suspect that Rose will be in better shape thirty years from now than Sarah Jane was, because she's had her closure.


The reason that Rose clings to the Doctor quite so tightly is that he's her chance to better herself. I think she's quite right to do so. She's in the middle of a bright, bright moment in her life, one that has not yet lasted very long and clearly still has much to offer her.
Which is exactly why I think the non-safe characterisation option for the season couldn't have worked in the time frame: she may well have come to acknowledge the brevity of her time with the Doctor, but that's not the same thing as reaching the decision to leave at that point. She could acknowledge that they will be separated but still try to make it last a long time. I think her talking about mortgages and things in 'The Satan Pit' is supposed to be a bit ridiculous to us, and I think Rose knows that too, but can't help poking at the idea. I think she does learn, but it's going to take her longer than the couple of months we see in 'Doomsday' to emotionally recover from it.

Which is exactly why I think the non-safe characterisation option for the season couldn't have worked in the time frame
I think it's a shame that the idea wasn't explored further at the very least; that we didn't get to explore Rose's doubts about a long-term emotional relationship with a Time Lord. And I think that the one-note nature of Rose and the Doctor's bond remained slightly tiring and alienating in Season 2. But ultimately I do agree with you that it would have been extremely premature to explore the disintegration of the relationship this season.

Tony Keen

On an immediate emotional and nostalgic level, School Reunion is a marvellous episode. It's great to see Sarah Jane back, Lis Sladen is wonderful, interesting aspects of the Doctor's relationship to his own past are illuminated, and I even cared about K-9, which I've never done before.
Unfortunately, if you have more than a basic knowledge of the programme's past, the rationale of this episode starts to fall apart once you think about it. Everyone behaves as if Sarah's fate, to be left behind, is typical of the Doctor's companions. Yet, as I've said in another context, if you actually look at the years 1963-89, most of the Doctor's companions left of their own volition, as Mickey will do, or if not, were separated by circumstances beyond the Doctor's control (which will be Rose's fate). It isn't just that no other companion would be as effective to bring back as Sarah, but that there is virtually no other companion about whom this story could be told. Now Sarah and Rose don't have any reason to know how untypical Sarah's experience is, but the Doctor ought to be able to say "well, that's not how it generally happens."
And if there is one companion in all of Doctor Who's history who you would not expect to spend thirty years on hold, that would be Sarah Jane Smith. This is a woman who, in moments of crisis, could take on the Doctor's role in proceedings, if only for a short time (as she does in Moster of Peladon). And her very presence at the school, investigating a mystery, belies what she says. She has not been sitting around hoping the Doctor will come back, but has continued doing what she did at his side, fighting the good fight, albeit on a smaller scale (and one might say that knowing she would do this is why the Doctor sent her K-9 in the first place). The end of the episode rather implies that she and K-9 will continue on this path. So whilst she has her closure, meeting the Doctor again may not be the life-changing ecxperience it is made out to be.
Of course, one could suggest that she has been investigating mysteries in the hope that sooner or later she might encounter the Doctor. That's perfectly plausible, but if so, why doesn't she say so?
I think this reveals the intended audience. School Reunion is not meant primarily to appeal to long term fans, but to people whose relationship with the programme is much more casual, who remember who Sarah Jane Smith is, but probably haven't seen an episode with her in since 1976.


And her very presence at the school, investigating a mystery, belies what she says. She has not been sitting around hoping the Doctor will come back, but has continued doing what she did at his side, fighting the good fight, albeit on a smaller scale (and one might say that knowing she would do this is why the Doctor sent her K-9 in the first place).
That is the reason that I don't have quite such a bleak view as some of the other commentators on the intervening thirty years. However, I think it is fair to say that while she's had a good career, doing something she loves and thinks is worthwhile, she has missed out on an emotional life. She never married or had children, which are fine as choices, but it's suggested that these weren't decisions she made, but things she missed because she was still focused on her time with the Doctor.

things she missed because she was still focused on her time with the Doctor.
Yes, my thoughts exactly. She's got on with her life in exactly the forthright and independent manner you'd expect, but privately, emotionally she's been clinging on to the past to such an extent that her personal life has suffered.
She certainly wasn't miserable in the intervening 30 years, but when the Doctor returned all the pent up feelings of frustration, loss and abandonment came welling to the surface, and she was forced to confront them - and ultimately move past them.

Karen Meisner

I've never been a Doctor Who fan, not out of dislike but simply because I haven't watched any of the series. Just wanted to say that this review makes it sound so interesting that I'm now curious to find out what I've been missing. I'm enjoying the comments, too. Thanks for the thoughtful discussion.

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