Sunday, 18 August 2013

School Reunion

The universe is trying to tell Rose something, isn't it? Last week it was a telling off from no less an authority than Queen Victoria. This week, the Ghost of Companions Past drops by to pass on some intimations of mortality. Will she get the message?

Ah, our Sarah Jane! It's another sign of Doctor Who's increased confidence that it is prepared to flaunt its past at the new audience: School Reunion sets about addressing urgent questions that have been simmering away since 1976's The Hand of Fear (specifically "Was that Croydon?"). What's more it implicitly references 1981's failed K9 & Company pilot A Girl's Best Friend, and if that isn't reckless bravado, I don't know what is. Somehow, perhaps thanks to Doctor Who's miraculous new standing, nobody minds.

It helps that Lis Sladen's Sarah Jane is one of the best things from the programme's entire run. It's such a simple thing but she achieved it week after week: she convinced. Everything Sarah Jane did, every reaction she had, was compelling, engaging, and made whatever the ridiculous situation was seem as real and as terrifying as possible. For older viewers who remember her from the original series, her return reminds us that nobody else has ever really measured up since.

That's subjective of course. For the latest generation of fans, watching this in 2006, Rose is the companion. She's the be-all and end-all, the Doctor's very special friend and possibly more. The reappearance of Sarah Jane explicitly threatens this point of view and reveals her to be merely the latest in a long line of ephemeral companions. It's great that this episode explores these ideas, and great that drama can be leveraged from the casting mechanics of the programme itself. The relationship between old Sarah and new Rose is good too: the catty spats are entertaining ("Get you, tiger!") and the eventual rapprochement is satisfying.

I don't think I'm fair on Rose at all, by the way. Jackie often speaks of Rose getting 'airs and graces', an inverse snobbery suggesting that her daughter should know her place. My reaction is not based on class, but it is snobbery: I think Rose should know her place in the history of Doctor Who, because she can't stick around for ever. But I'm also convinced that the intensity of her relationship with the Doctor damages the show. The two of them form a closed circle with the viewer stuck on the outside looking in - and not having as much fun as they obviously are.

Mickey knows how this feels, with the added misery that he (unlike me) really loves Rose. The chemistry between them is borderline adorable - when she's bothering to pay him any attention whatsoever - so it's a big moment when he asks to come aboard the TARDIS at the end. Rose's reaction is a petulant shake of the head, desperate not to have her bubble burst. It's ugly, a moment of selfishness. Sarah Jane would never have behaved like that.

The rest of the story is okay - up until the Skasis Paradigm turns up. I don't have a problem with there being a Unified Theory that could be developed or thought up in order to manipulate matter, but these people talk about "cracking" or "solving" a "formula", as if the Skasis Paradigm was something that existed already, the code with which the universe was originally programmed. That prompts all sorts of questions about the nature of reality that nobody is any mood to have asked, let alone answered, lest this turn into something from the wrong sort of Matrix. Anthony Head's Krillitane chief is a lot of fun though, nasty but urbane and prepared to do business. It's about time he came back as somebody else isn't it?

The boys' point of entry for this was, of course, the excellent Sarah Jane Adventures. The happiness Sarah Jane later achieved in that series prompted Chris to worry that she was over-reacting a little here, before he changed his mind: "I suppose she has a right to be mad," he said. William, however, thought that Rose's behaviour was the more understandable. He was sad for the Doctor too. I didn't say, "Don't worry about him, he abandoned his own granddaughter and never looked back; he'll have forgotten all about Rose by the opening titles of The Runaway Bride," because, sadly, half of it isn't true. Chris gave this one an 8, Will, a 9, maintaining what they perceive to be a consistently high standard.


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