‘You know what the most difficult thing was: coping with what happens next.’ RTD’s ongoing obsession with what the Doctor leaves behind bumps up against Toby Whithouse’s bread and butter alien plot, a fairly flimsy thing that’s too wobbly to support the first direct crossover between the classic and new series.
A basic plot isn’t the worst idea for this kind of team up – it’s not like The Five Doctors is a work of Pynchonesque complexity – but the problem is, Whithouse tries to load it with huge ideas like a god equation that can rewrite the universe, but which can, apparently, be solved by some 21st Century schoolkids on common or garden computers, and link this to the Doctor’s regret for the fate of the Time Lords. It’s far too much, and the end result is vaguely unsatisfactory.
Luckily, the return of Sarah Jane and K9 is the focal point of the episode, and on this front it’s a total success. The genius is that it works by making Sarah Jane both a generic ‘ex’ whose existence proves to Rose that she’s just ‘the latest in a long line’, doomed to grow old and feeble while the Doctor keeps running: ‘I’ve been to the Year Five Billion, right, but this? Now this is really seeing the future: you just leave us behind.’ But it equally works as a very specific coda to Sarah Jane’s travels, with references to The Hand of Fear and the circumstances of Sarah’s enforced departure, and, in a lip-wobbling moment, at last giving her a proper goodbye.
True, it conflates a lot of things that happened in the interim (the Doctor makes it sound like he was being called to war, and ‘everyone died’, but we can attribute this to him not wanting to admit he just didn’t bother going back). The Doctor’s reference to regenerating half a dozen times since they last met (in The Five Doctors) now works perfectly given the subsequent reveal of the Hurt Doctor. Sladen is excellent, recognisably playing the same character as 30 years earlier, and her undimmed ability to play two emotions at once (mostly, here, sadness and joy) gives some emotional heft even if you’re not familiar with the character. Certainly it worked well enough to convince the BBC she was a plausible lead for a CBBC series.
Interestingly, Sarah Jane’s presence brings out the worst in Rose. Piper is very good at exchanging baffled glances with Noel Clarke as the Doctor and Sarah Jane coo over K9, but generally Rose is cast as the jealous and bitchy new trophy wife to Sarah Jane’s dignified First Mrs Who, the Anne Boleyn to Sladen’s Katharine of Aragon. Seeing this side of her seems to repel the Doctor, who’s sharper with her in the scene outside the café (‘As opposed to what?’) than any point previously. This is the only conceivable reason why he might unceremoniously dump her for a hot new blonde in the next episode. This is all funny, and leads to the great one-upmanship scene of Slitheen and Gelth and the Loch Ness Monster, but it’s a nail in the coffin for Rose as the audience’s viewpoint character.
Tennant’s material is better. The story opens like a New Adventure, in media res, with him disguised as a teacher. He gets to play tongue tied meeting Sarah Jane, ominous when she realises who he is and later in his face-off with Finch, and bitter as he tells Rose, ‘I have to live on, alone. That’s the curse of the Time Lords.’ And Clarke gets some decent scenes that balance his daft Series One character with the more resourceful version that finally emerges in Army of Ghosts.
The Krillitane look good, like Harryhausen stop-motion monsters; Tony Head is brilliant as the demon headmaster, K9 is used sparingly but effectively, there’s loads of good bits. Sadly, the story itself is garbage. The Krillitanes’ vulnerability to their own oil isn’t entirely unbelievable, but I wanted more than the vague hand-wave explanation we got here. Finch feels like a villain from a different story, seeking to rule as a god, and then offering his throne to the Doctor. I understand that the Doctor is meant to be tempted by the offer of rebirthing the Time Lords with immortal companions at his side, but nothing about the scene makes me feel the Doctor is genuinely in a quandary because the stakes haven’t got to the point where he’s actually confronted with a real choice.
And it feels like pages of the script have been ripped out and discarded in the interests of time, without really considering the impact. Hence Wagner declares Milo has failed him, but we never see why (a deleted scene explained it), and Kenny is underdeveloped, a sort of generic chubby kid who never comes into focus. Basically, I don’t think the school stuff works, and The Sarah Jane Adventures ultimately do it much better. Over-ambition is hardly a crime, most of the classic run pitched further than it could reach. This one works because of Elisabeth Sladen, David Tennant and Tony Head, but it’s another weaker episode in a difficult second series that is already threatening to fall far short of the first. Maybe the next episode can score a hit.
Mickey researches UFO activity, gets locked out by Torchwood, and calls in Rose to investigate. A neat extra scene that’s referenced in the main episode and plays like one of those old New Adventures preludes.
Next Time: The Girl in the Fireplace