Not a real review, just some brief thoughts.
Um, that was really, really good.
The third episode of the season is David Tennant's fourth real outing as the Doctor, and it's the first one in which he really makes the role his own. I'm curious to know what the production order on episodes was like, because it seems to me that in his first several appearances, beginning in "The Christmas Invasion," Tennant wasn't putting his own spin on the Doctor as much as he was on Eccleston's version of him. Eccleston is a hell of an act to follow, and Tennant's a fine actor, so he was quite watchable, but part of the charm of DR. WHO has always been seeing different interpretations of the Doctor. Until this episode I didn't feel I'd seen a Doctor I really felt was Tennant's version.
Some folks have said Tennant's performance brings to mind bits of Tom Baker. I disagree with that; I agree with the take of the fellow who said, in one of the BBC's DR. WHO CONFIDENTIAL bits, that Eccleston's performance evoked, in turns, Tom Baker's goofiness and good cheer and Peter Davison's gentleness and vulnerability. (Incidentally, I thought Davison was bland as a kid; as I age, I'm increasingly fond of his work as the Doctor, particularly his interactions with his companions. I'd also add that Nine's angry outbursts reminded me a bit of Hartnell.)
In Tennant's early episodes, he hadn't gotten away from Eccleston's terrific work; I felt that if he evoked thoughts of Baker it was because his performance was too close to that of Eccleston. In "School Reunion," he gets away from the tone set by his predecessor; his Doctor's less manic and more serious, but no less warm, and to me Tennant now brings to mind my favorite Doctor, Jon Pertwee. The Doctor we see in "School Reunion" is less flamboyant than Pertwee's, but the honest firmness is much the same; when Tennant's Doctor confronts Tony Head's Finch in a calm but tense conversation held across a swimming pool, I'm reminded of Pertwee standing up coolly and implacably to the mine owners in "The Green Death," or to the drill-happy scientists in "Inferno" -- even when Pertwee's Doctor was outraged and bellowing, you got the feeling he was holding something back. In this episode, Tennant shows considerable grace and reserve, and it's the most intriguing his Doctor has been for me.
The real performance turn in this episode, though, is Elisabeth Sladen's guest role as Sarah Jane Smith. I always liked Sladen, but I had never, ever, realized she was so goddamned good. In "School Reunion," she's downright amazing. Her first serious scene with the Doctor, after she's seen the Tardis and knows him for who he is, is terrific; Sarah Jane goes from astounded to happy to heartbroken to relieved, and Sladen sells every emotion perfectly. She and Tennant play off of each other magnificently, and that helps to sell Tennant in the role -- he's not just the new guy in the show; *he's the Doctor.* And he's as delighted to see her as we are.
It's hard to see how this episode could have been any more perfectly what it was. Writer Toby Whithouse does an excellent job of dramatizing the emotional effects of the series framework while still keeping the heroes active and investigating. The plot is admittedly thin (it almost doesn't matter what the bad guys are up to, as long as they're up to something -- but even there, the choice offered the Doctor makes the gimmick less of a MacGuffin and more of a tool for dramatizing the themes of the story), but it doesn't fall by the wayside for the character work; the script is sweet and full of love, and James Hawes's direction really makes the story come to life.
The supporting cast gets to shine in this one; Rose's exchanges with Sarah Jane and with the Doctor are standouts, but my favorite of Billie Piper's (and Noel Clarke's) scenes in this episode was Rose and Mickey interacting over chips. It's one of the few scenes that's made the relationship between them come alive for me. I really disliked Mickey when the new series began, but Noel Clarke's performances are slowly making the character grow on me. Mickey's a weak person, and a bit of a coward, but he's got a kind heart, and he's growing more interesting to me as he matures and comes to terms with Rose's new life. I'm starting to think of him as almost the Xander of the new DR. WHO. (And speaking of BTVS, Tony Head was a very good villain.)
I'm curious to know how this episode played for the new fans, the ones who didn't grow up watching the show from behind the sofa when the Doctor and Sarah Jane were fighting Sontarans or giant spiders or nasty mineral aliens with a tendency to possess people. For me, getting to see Sarah Jane and K-9 again, and seeing the characters used so well, was such a delight that it probably skewed the episode for me. There's just something about a reunion with old friends you didn't know that you'd been missing; it leaves you a little shaky and vulnerable. I tend to hold TV at a distance now, but when I was a kid, I didn't, and this episode cut through some of the crust and made me feel a little like a kid again. I admit it, I got sniffly a few times -- "Did I do something wrong?" -- "You good dog." "Affirmative, Master." -- but for me, the farewell between Sarah Jane and the Doctor just sealed it:
SARAH JANE. "Goodbye, Doctor."
DOCTOR. "Aw, it's not goodbye -- "
SARAH JANE. "Oh, say it please. This time. Say it."
DOCTOR. "...Goodbye." [long beat] "My Sarah Jane!"
It was the "My Sarah Jane!" that got me. Because Tennant frigging *nailed* that line, *and he said it just the way the Doctor always did.*
I've watched this episode three times already. The series has done better stories -- I haven't seen anything as good as "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" in years -- but I don't think it's ever done better fannish joy.