School Reunion ★★★★★

Elisabeth Sladen is captivating as Sarah Jane Smith in this nostalgic treat from Toby Whithouse

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Story 170

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Series 2 – Episode 3

“But Sarah Jane – you were that close to her once and now you never even mention her. Why not?” – Rose

Storyline
All is not well at Deffry Vale High School. While some pupils are over-performing, others are vanishing, and half the teaching and kitchen staff have been replaced in the past few months. Following a tip-off from Mickey, the Doctor joins as a supply teacher with Rose installed as a dinner lady. The Time Lord is delighted to find his old friend Sarah Jane Smith investigating the mystery too. With Mickey and K•9 as back-up, they discover that the staff are bat-like shape-shifters, Krillitanes. A noxious oil in the school dinners is accelerating the children’s learning power in order to help crack the Skasis paradigm – a universal theory that would give the Krillitanes control over space, time and matter.

First UK transmission
Saturday 29 April 2006

Production
August–October 2005. Locations: Fitzalan High School, Leckwith, Cardiff; Duffryn High School, Newport; Belle Vue car park and Da Vinci’s coffee shop, Newport. Studio: Unit Q2, Newport.

Cast
The Doctor – David Tennant
Rose Tyler – Billie Piper
Sarah Jane Smith – Elisabeth Sladen
Mickey Smith – Noel Clarke
Voice of K•9 – John Leeson
Mr Finch – Anthony Head
Mr Parsons – Rod Arthur
Mr Wagner – Eugene Washington
Nina – Heather Cameron
Kenny – Joe Pickley
Luke – Benjamin Smith
Milo – Clem Tibber
Melissa – Lucinda Dryzek
Dinner lady – Caroline Berry

Crew
Writer – Toby Whithouse
Director – James Hawes
Designer – Edward Thomas
Incidental music – Murray Gold
Producer – Phil Collinson
Executive producers – Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
(filed 29 April 2016)

This is one of those rare stories that reach across time. Not only in the sense that it transports me right back to the 1970s and the passions of my childhood (as it surely does for many watching) but also that, in 2006, it sent out ripples into its own future. Now, in the present of 2016, I can look back over those ten years and marvel at how much has happened in the Doctor Who universe, in my own small sphere, even in the realm of social media, since School Reunion first aired.

I wonder: were the Doctor Who team itching to call this episode Friends Reunited? In spring 2006, for many people that was still the social network. Remember, Facebook and Twitter didn’t fully launch until later that year. Like School Reunion, Friends Reunited hooked up old chums who’d drifted apart over decades and were pleased to renew friendships, and there was heavy emphasis on school days and terrible teachers. Now, Friends Reunited itself is a thing of history.

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On a personal front, on 19 April 2006 I visited the Blue Peter studio at BBC Television Centre with my best girlfriend’s son Carl, a ten-year-old new fan of Who. We’d come to watch an item on School Reunion and meet Elisabeth Sladen. That seems mere moments ago but Carl has since become an adult; he’s grown out of Doctor Who and is living the high life at university. The following year my friend Richard Marson, a brilliant Blue Peter editor, was ousted unjustly from the post. TV Centre is all but demolished now. And the wonderful Lis Sladen has been dead five years. Sobering! Revisiting School Reunion after a decade really does feel like touching a marker in time.

For Sladen, it was her time in the sun… again. Amazing to think she’d debuted in Doctor Who 33 years earlier (43 years ago now). Aged 59 during filming, she was remarkably well preserved, still looked fabulous, still looked like Sarah Jane Smith. And, as an actor, she’s quite superb in School Reunion. I recall my partner (a casual viewer) was captivated by her performance: “Who’s she? She’s great. Why doesn’t she get more work?” On the back of this performance Sladen garnered her own CBBC series, The Sarah Jane Adventures. It was a hit, ran for five series and 53 episodes, and would have gone on longer had she not died in 2011.

In many ways, School Reunion was fanboy/girl heaven. It’s lovely to read of the excitement of Russell T Davies and producer Phil Collinson taking Sladen to dinner (at Joe Allen’s restaurant in Covent Garden) to sell her the concept. You can imagine the thrill for writer Toby Whithouse on being gifted with this scenario. And, on screen, behind the eyes and in his face muscles, one spies the joy of David Tennant as he shares the screen with his childhood heroine. “Good for you. Sarah! Jane! Smith!”

We all have our favourite companions. Sarah Jane Smith isn’t mine. She is tops, though, for many, and I grew fond of her in the 1970s. Very much a modern woman, the character opens up more dramatic possibilities than would most other companions from back in the day. We share the Doctor’s pleasure that she is still, after all these years, an investigative journalist nosing out a story and foul play, just as she was in her 1973 debut, The Time Warrior. She instantly earns her place in the narrative, so that any sense of fannish indulgence evaporates.

The return of Sarah gives Rose a reality check. She gets her place in the Doctor’s long life into perspective: she may be important to him now but she’s one in a conga of women he’s dallied with. Just as Sarah is wounded that the Time Lord has never mentioned her to Rose, Rose realises that one day he won’t speak of her.

Russell T Davies continues to open up an emotional dimension for the Doctor largely overlooked since the earliest days. Die-hards may squirm and gag, but engagement on an emotional level is what the majority of viewers want to see. Russell T is man enough to deliver – and deliver in JCB loads as series two progresses.

I’ve no issue with this refreshing new direction, although I do baulk at revisionism. When Sarah tells Rose, “Some things are worth getting your heart broken for,” it’s implied that she once romanced with the Time Lord and feels jilted. Mickey teases: “Ho-ho, mate. The missus and the ex. Welcome to every man’s worst nightmare.” No! Unlike Rose, Sarah was never besotted with her Doctors. There was little chemistry between Jon Pertwee and Sladen, and with Tom Baker’s Doctor Sarah was just “good friends”. There was no hanky panky in the Tardis nor any hankering for it – thank you very much.

The writing of Who is almost always a collaboration: it’s hard to tell where one writer’s good idea ends and another writer’s begins. Showrunner Russell T Davies rewrote most scripts. It was his decision to revive Sarah and K•9 and he chose the school setting. But it’s safe to say that School Reunion is an excellent script by Toby Whithouse – taut, pacey and witty.

There’s no messing about in the pre-credits sequence: slimy headmaster feasts on “poor thin child” – Doctor turns up as a teacher – Bang! We’re straight into the story. The allusion to Jamie’s School Dinners is clear. It’s fun to see Rose as a dinner lady doling out chips, and Mickey realising he’s on a par with K•9: “Oh my God. I’m the tin dog.” And there are many stand-out scenes…

1) The Doctor and Mr Finch stalking and talking by the swimming pool.
2) Rose and Sarah’s oneup(wo)manship over the monsters they’ve seen; Sarah finally trumping Rose with “THE Loch Ness monster!” “Seriously?” It’s a joy when their cattiness sublimates into hysterics and they compare notes on the Time Lord: “Does he still stroke bits of the Tardis?”
3) The moment when Sarah stumbles upon the police box, then realises the young man in the long coat is her old buddy. This is one of the finest lump-in-the-throat moments ever in Doctor Who and always prompts a tear.
4) The money shot is Sarah stepping inside the Tardis again; then at last getting her “closure cuddle” with the Doctor; shivering subtly as the police box fades away.

All wonderful stuff that elevates School Reunion into the ★★★★★ bracket.

To end, another vivid memory from 2006. An awkward moment in the Blue Peter studio when I showed Lis Sladen the triple gatefold RT cover. It was the only time she’d make it onto the cover of Radio Times and, though polite, she didn’t disguise her dislike for it – especially the ungainly stance she’d been asked to pose in. I could see her point.

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RT Archive

In 2006, Nick Griffiths reported on the return of Sarah and K•9 for RT’s Doctor Who Watch.

We also spoke to guest star Anthony Head and writer Toby Whithouse.

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David Tennant and Billie Piper – rare RT photos from 2006

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