Sunday, 10 September 2017

School Reunion

Chapter The 65th, it's September, which means it's back to school.

The Doctor and Rose are contacted by Mickey to investigate intriguing developments at a school in London, Wales. The school turns out to have been taken over by noisy bat-people aliens called the Krillitane. They want to use the schoolchildren as a gestalt supercomputer to crack the mathematical equation that controls the universe; to help them they use a special (magic) oil which has many and contradictory properties like making children clever and obedient, blowing up Krillitanes, moving the plot along, and making chips taste nice when they're fried in it. None of that matters, though, as the key event for the Doctor is bumping into his old friends Sarah Jane Smith and K9, who are also investigating the school, which allows him to enjoy a good old whinge about his extended mortality, and the shortness of human lives, and all that stuff that makes him look deep.

In the last week, all the children (boy of 11, boy of 8, girl of 5) went back to school, so I thought one afternoon they might like to watch this, as - although it was randomly chosen - it would have some thematic resonance. No dice, though: there was not a single flicker of interest. I waited until the evening when they were abed instead, and watched alone as the Better Half was busy (though she did wander in at one point, and have to tear herself away from the nice close-ups of the scrummy and very fresh-faced Tennant on screen - this story was part of his first recording block, so he looks awfully young).

First-time round: 
I watched this live on its debut transmission on BBC1 in 2006. The Better Half and I had got married at around the time they started filming the Christopher Eccleston series, and for the year following that we lived in Kent where she was teaching at the time. Late in 2005, we moved back to the Sussex coast, where we'd both spent our childhoods; by that time, we were expecting our first baby. We didn't sell and empty the flat in Kent straight away, though, and did many trips back in the spring of 2006. I remember buying the Radio Times with Doctor Who on the cover in Gillingham before the season started,and sitting on a box in an almost empty room looking at the fold-out cover that (for some reason) showed the Doctor, Rose, Sarah Jane and lots of monsters all holding hands in a chain. I likely got shouted at a minute later for sitting on my arse and letting my pregnant wife do all the work. Anyway, I associate the stories of David Tennant's first season with this transition, and it was indeed a period of transition for the show too.

I've described the 2006 series of stories before as New Who's Difficult Second Album; losing the leading man, despite getting a very good replacement, has altered the mix, and something's not quite right. They'd fix it; the following years are much slicker, and a few stories of Tennant's first run are excellent. But many, including School Reunion, seem - for want of a better word - fake. There's something hollow and unrealistic about the world of this story. From the very first scene, the background feels like a superficial and shiny representation of a school rather than a real establishment. This is a shame, as it's quite an original setting for Doctor Who (in fact it was the original setting) - it's the first full story to take place inside a working school full of pupils, though a few early scenes of the very first episode in 1963 have a similar setting. With the reintroduction of Coal Hill (the fictional place of education from that first ever episode) when Clara later worked there, it would become a much more common playground, but in 2006 this was new.

Anthony Head, who's mostly very good in the rest of the story at being a traditional yet uniquely alien villain, is twirling a moustache in the opening scene, where he believes that because a pupil is from a children's home, and has no parents, he can eat her. Notwithstanding his need for all the children intact to further his mad plan, are we to understand the institutions of this story universe really aren't going to notice one of their charges disappearing. Are we in a realistic environment or a heightened fairy tale one? I don't think the writing or production has quite made up its mind, and this uncertainty infects the rest, with the story veering scene by scene from wonderful to cringe-a-mundo (a word I have never used before and hopefully never will again). One negative, and apologies for being a bit controversial and having to speak ill of the dead, is that Liz Sladen is a very limited actress; she was generally fine as Sarah Jane first time round, when nothing too demanding was required and her face still had some movement. But to make the story centre on her loss and abandonment issues was a risky move.

To be fair, it's mostly a perfectly serviceable performance, although not very in keeping with the character - she was one of the original series companions that had the fullest life away from the Doctor; it stretches credibility to think this independent woman has been living in his shadow for thirty odd years. There's one moment where it all comes together, the scene where Sarah Jane finds the TARDIS hidden in the school and turns to see Tennant in the shadows, in heroic pose, and they exchange some cracking dialogue. Elsewhere, though, it's dragged down by someone's bright idea of adding the very male humour about the Doctor's old and new companions acting like "the Missus and the Ex" which then means the two female actors involved have to do lots of demeaning bitchy acting, which isn't very apt or very funny. Worse, there's then a scene where in a short space of time they have to both go from sniping at one another, to competing to outdo the other's experiences, to bonding, to uncontrollable laughing. This writing is un-actable for even the very best performer, so isn't very convincing here (though obviously some of the references were fun for us long-term obsessives, but fan service is not a good enough reason to keep it in). It should have been possible to have covered the intriguing aspects about loss and adventure and mortality without sexisim, and without any actor or character having to throw away their integrity.

Mickey and K9 fair a bit better, probably as the lesser focus on them entails more subtlety. Mickey realising he's the 'tin dog' is a wonderful moment for the character, as is his solution to pulling the plug on the nefarious Krillitane scheme. K9's self sacrifice at the end has fans of a certain vintage punching the air too. Other characters get short shrift from an already busy 45 minutes that appears to have had some vicious cuts. There's a focus on the character of Milo, who then completely disappears from the narrative bar a cryptic message later that screams out "missing scene". But it's doubly damaging, as it sets up that it's only Milo being made clever, when all the children are later shown to have similarly been got at, without much story time having elapsed between. It also means that Kenny, the hero of the guest cast, gets even less screen time to be established.

Both stories feature K9, and in both he's damaged and in need of mending. Both feature infiltrating alien creatures implausibly disguised as humans.

Deeper Thoughts:
Driving and Schools. The story under consideration this time features a high school and some dangerous driving; both of these remind me of my own youth and adolescence (ask the few people who've been driven by me), and have - apologies in advance - opened the car door to a bit of a reminisce. I was an out and proud Doctor Who fanboy at school from early on, often to be found sketching out Daleks or copies of Target novelisation covers, writing my own Doctor Who comic strips, or wandering round the playing field reading the Doctor Who Magazine Summer Special 1983. I made friendships through Doctor Who; I first bonded with one of my oldest friends, Alex, who's been mentioned a few times in the blog, over a shared love for the show and dislike of P.E. But occasionally, other schoolchildren would confuse my enthusiasm with my being a member of the production team and having responsibility for what aired. Any time anyone had a problem with the show they'd come to tell me, as if I could do anything about it. This was worst after the broadcast of Colin Baker's debut, The Twin Dilemma episode 1. I had a number of kids aggressively telling me they'd never watch the programme ever again; John Nathan-Turner owed me some therapy sessions.

I must have stood out at school a bit, in a certain way, because of this or maybe other factors. I have a few times over the many years since bumped into people from school whom I didn't recognise but who remembered me. On a couple of different occasions, separate people have voiced a variation on the comment "Of course I knew it was you, because of your glasses." Now, this is interesting as I never had glasses at school; I got my first pair of specs in my fresher year at university. I must have just looked like the sort of (computer and Doctor Who loving) person who ought to have glasses back then, and that made an indelible psychological impression on some. Not that I didn't need glasses at school necessarily, my myopia was probably quite a while undiagnosed. On the (only a few!) times I took my driving test, the bit that terrified me most was not being allowed to drive at all if I failed the very first task, reading a number plate in the car park., If they were too far away, I just couldn't see them, which may have explained a thing or two about the quality of my driving.

I never really wanted to learn to drive; but thanks to the persistence and passive-aggressive generosity of a well-meaning parent, I had no choice. If you're bought a second-hand car as a birthday present, you don't have much room for manoeuvre. To misquote Ferris Bueller: I asked for a computer, I got a car: how's that for being born under a bad sign? It seemed a waste of money to me, all the insurance and petrol; plus, I was just beginning to understand the environmental implications too. I eventually passed my test, but when I then drove my car, I kept damaging it by hitting thankfully inanimate things. The car patched up for the beginning of my second year of Uni, I drove myself and Zahir (another Doctor Who fan, and recurring character in the blog) up to Durham without incident. But, days later, before term had even started, I rendered it an insurance write-off. I have not driven since. But this week, I was reading an article. Apparently, millennials - that wonderful rare hothouse breed that jaded Gen-Xers like me love to read about - are choosing not to drive in greater numbers; the number of 20-somethings with a licence has declined by more than 20% since 1994, with rising fuel and insurance costs cited as a reason, and probably technology changing leisure habits a factor too, I would think: social media becoming increasingly a supplement to real world meets. In other words, they'd rather have a computer than a car. So, it wasn't that I was rubbish at driving, you see - I was merely ahead of my time! 

In Summary:
Final report: the exploration of the Doctor and companion's relationship, their lives, and their mortality - A+; the Krillitane plot - B; the Missus and the Ex idea, and the silly bitchy scenes to which it gives rise: D. Overall: Could do better.

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