Liked this one.
The new Doctor Who is a strange beast, attempting as it does to appeal to young and old (and all those in between). This episode is really a case in point. What we have here is a fast-paced Buffy-esque tale of sinister creatures at the local High School – complete with soapy romantic triangle – and, simultaneously, an exercise in pure nostalgia for people who remember watching Doctor Who in the mid-1970s. It really shouldn’t work, but it does.
The stroke of brilliance here is casting Sarah-Jane as the Doctor’s “Ex”. In the show of old, the companions never had this frisson of romance with the Doctor, and yet they did form close bonds with him and it’s easy to reconcile Sarah-Jane’s account of an overhwelming relationship with a past love affair. It allows Sarah-Jane to slot perfectly into the show as it is today, and also fits rather neatly with the introduction of psychological realism into the series. Plus there’s the return of K-9, which is pure nostalgia through and through, but also ties into the Sarah-Jane angle.
Being Doctor Who this is all spelled out rather obviously, but I don’t care because a) Sarah-Jane! and b) it’s very welcome to see this programme tackle the issue of what happens to former companions. In the real world we know that actors and actresses choose to leave, but in the context of the show we really have never had an explanation for why the Doctor doesn’t go back and visit old friends. In Sarah-Jane’s case it’s even odder, because the Doctor rather abruptly got an urgent telegram from the Time Lords and unceremoniously dumped her, never to return. (I’m assuming The Five Doctors doesn’t count.) The way that the issue is handled here is quite reminiscent of the Doctor’s discussion with the Slitheen in Boom Town, about moving on and not facing consequences, but here it feels much more organic to the show and to the storyline.
Anthony Stewart Head is excellent as the head villain, although some of his contorted faces towards the end did give me pause. And if the story itself is no more than a lift from half a dozen stories of super-genius children being harnessed for a sinister cause, it still works well – in fact it’s really a convenient short-hand for a story, one which doesn’t intrude too much and which allows the characters to come to the fore. And of course the theme of change, of what you take with you and what you leave behind, is woven in nicely.
The only thing that sits rather oddly in all of this is Rose. It’s really about her learning that the Doctor has a past, and has had many companions before her, which is fine and good and interesting. However it almost diminishes Rose to just one in a long chain, whereas the new show has gone to great pains to distance her from past companions. Is she really on an equal footing to all those old companions, despite this new romantic aspect to the relationship? We’d thought not. And if you follow the logic through that the other companions, literally or metaphorically, were akin to lovers then that really does paint the Doctor in a strange light – a cosmic casanova wandering through space and time having flings and dumping them, never to return. All of which is part of the point of the episode, but it feels slightly uncomfortable. Luckily Sarah-Jane herself is a neat fit for the metaphor, and it’s probably best not to examine too closely how other companions might fit the mould.
Anyway, overall it was thoughtful, character-oriented, nostalgic fun and I heartily enjoyed it. I’d be interested in how it works without the nostalgia factor, but I think the relationships are clearly enough drawn that it would lose very little.