The headmaster of a primary school finds a girl waiting outside his office. The nurse sent her over because she
is weak enough to be culled has a bad headache, but she’s an orphan so there’s no one to notice she’s missing take her home. The headmaster verbally winks at the audience, then takes her inside his office to do something horrible to her.
The rest of the teaser establishes that this is one of those boring schools with student uniforms and that the Doctor teaches a class there, pinstripes and all. Doubtless some of the frailer faculty faint as he walks by.
The Doctor opens his lecture by writing “Physics.” on the board, then repeating the word over and over, as the students watch him with generic Dull TV Student Faces. Remember, folks, only weirdos have the slightest interest in getting an education.
He starts class off with a basic question, and Milo establishes himself as the school’s Hermione (except his admirer is blonde). The Doctor heads deeper into science, the class taking on a wider spectrum of lost or worried looks, until Milo pops out a method of faster-than-light travel.
In the British-word-for-school-cafeteria, today’s menu is yellow chips with yellow sandwich and a side of yellow glop. Rose gives the Doctor a “This had better be worth it” stinkeye as dessert.
The Doctor tells her “your boyfriend” was right: something’s odd here. Everyone’s too orderly, the fries are off, and there’s a ten-year-old who’s smarter than the entire crew of Voyager.
Before Rose can tell him that last point isn’t unusual, the head British-word-for-lunch-lady comes over to chide Rose for leaving her station. Rose explains the new teacher doesn’t like the chips, and Food Bossess says too bad, the headmaster designed the menu himself. Guess who the special ingredient is.
Rose goes away, irked, and the Doctor eavesdrops on a nearby black teacher: Melissa is promoted because Milo “failed” the teacher somehow, and why isn’t another boy eating the chips, hm? (There were ‘Yay chips!’ posters by the lunch line, which I took for faintly amusing set decor, but I guess that was a plot point. Well done.)
After lunch, some people wheel a canister into the kitchen. It’s a sturdy, chemical-storing metal barrel, with danger symbols glued on, encased in a heavy wooden frame. Also the people are wearing lab gowns, gloves, and breathing masks. This must be next week’s Chicken Surprise.
Mickey now calls Rose to report plot while she’s on the clock: secret military records of a recent rash of UFOs. Further info is behind Torchwood (ding!) security, and they’re far too smart to rely on “buffalo” as their master password like everyone else in the Western Hemisphere. So, until it occurs to Mickey to try “doowhcrot”, he’s stuck.
Well, the school completely replaced its kitchen staff recently too. Mickey is pleased that he was actually on to something. Rose says she thought maybe he’d, you know, invented an emergency as an excuse to be with her? Mickey says that actual emergencies happen when they get together, no inventing required . . . at which point the barrel spills yellow goop on someone, who’s ushered into quarantine. Rose goes to call emergency services, but a straight-faced lunch lady assures her that everything is fine, even as the victim continues to scream.
Meanwhile, the black teacher has the school’s presumed best and brightest headphoned up and seated at computers that display glowy-green freaky Smart People things like alien hieroglyphics and square roots. The evil scheme unfolds before our eyes: it isn’t long before these innocent children are typing in excess of 30 wpm!
We’re seven minutes into the episode. Seven minutes of horror, of physics classes and school lunches and toxic yellow goop and math symbols. If you’ve survived this long, congrats, you win the prize! Sarah Jane Smith arrives, listening to Headmaster Finch’s enthusiasm for his reforms. She flatters him, but tips the audience the wink that she isn’t fooled.
The Doctor is learning from another teacher that the faculty recently suffered a drastic turnover as well. One day Finch arrives, the next day half the teachers get the flu, the next day ‘this new lot” take their places. Not subtle, but humans aren’t the canniest lot. Look at their movies: as long as an intrepid reporter isn’t around, you can get away with anything.
The teacher the Doctor replaced, meanwhile, had a winning lottery ticket shoved through her door. Similarly brute-force. In fact, the straight-faced lunch lady from earlier reminded me of the Doctor quelling a background character at a moment of crisis: you don’t matter, so I’ll tell you whatever it takes to keep you out of the way for the next five minutes.
Anyway, Finch introduces Sarah Jane to the teachers, and the Doctor has to hold back his pleasure at seeing her again until she introduces herself. Then it’s smiles all around. The Doctor says he’s John Smith, and she recognizes his standard alias, but naturally doesn’t make the connection. She has happy memories of the Doctor, though.
Sarah’s a journalist now, but don’t worry Mister Finch, she might not be intrepid. Well, she finds out it’s only John’s second day on the job, and immediately starts asking pointed questions. Uh-oh! The Doctor gives her inquisitiveness his warm blessing as she heads over to another group of faculty; she’s evidently made his week.
Elsewhere, a student hears an odd noise and heads off alone through the school. He finds a slimy humanoid prowling under a desk. He and the humanoid both stand up, and it resolves into the black teacher, who tells him to leave.
The day is over, the school drains of students. Bring on night and skewed camera angles! Rose heads to the kitchen, Mickey to the maths section (all the new teachers work there). Ooh, Mickey Smith, right? Three Smiths in this episode, and none are related to each other.
The Doctor heads toward the headmaster’s headroom. Sarah Jane (who broke in through a window) is already there, but just as she’s about to open the door, freaky noises and an increasingly alarmed soundtrack spook her. Meanwhile, Rose gets a sample of the yellow goo, but a shadow and a screech pass over her. She looks upward to see . . . a cutaway back to Sarah Jane, who slips through a door to hide. She turns around to find herself caught in an enclosed space with the climaxing soundtrack and . . . a lit-up police box, looming ominously. Stunned, she backs through the door and keeps going, almost straight into . . . the Doctor.
Sarah has turbulent emotions, but is glad to see the Doctor again. Finally she lets her anguish through: she expected the Doctor to return for her, and when he didn’t, she thought he’d died. “I lived. Everyone else died”, the Doctor replies simply and sadly. “I can’t believe it’s you!” Sarah says. A haunting scream from afar convinces her, and off they run, just like the old days.
They almost run over Rose, who didn’t see anything in the ceiling (or forgot to mark her arm) but had the sense to scram. The Doctor makes introductions. Sarah Jane comments that his “assistants” are getting younger. Rose protests the title, to which Sarah Jane assumes she’s the Doctor’s girlfriend. Rose is already giving Sarah Jane a bit of the stinkeye.
They race off to investigate another noise, to find that Mickey has opened the “packaged yellowfied rats” closet. The Doctor teases Mickey for screaming. Rose wants to know why a school would collect rats; Sarah Jane isn’t sure she’s old enough for high school dissection yet; Rose retaliates with a dig at Sarah Jane’s age. The Doctor calls a halt to this, and the two literally huff at each other while he tries to get things back on track.
Unfortunately for him, the two women begin comparing notes, with Rose insisting that no, the Doctor never even mentioned you.
In the Headmaster’s office, they find that child Rose was right: these teachers, at least, do sleep in the school. In the rafters. They’re giant CGI bats, a little faker-looking than the wolf last week. Everyone leaves the room, but shutting the door causes one of the bats to go from zero to jump-scare.
Outside the school, Mickey is done with bat country, and Rose looks shaken up too. Sarah Jane leads them all over to the boot of her car, where she’s stashed K-9. The Doctor is tickled, but Rose thinks the dog is a little too “disco”. One of the bats has been watching all this, and responds by sweeping back and forth against the moon.
The group retreats to a restaurant, where the Doctor is catching up with Sarah Jane as he tinkers with K-9. Mickey is highly amused, telling Rose that he has a special “I was right” dance exhibition planned for her later. Rose insists the Doctor isn’t a womanizer, but Mickey thinks she had better watch her figure.
Finch has perched, oh so inconspicuously, atop a nearby building, framed against the full moon. He calls a bat over. Aaand we have bad compositing. That was bad compositing last episode, poor compositing in “The Empty Child”, and here it is again.
Anyway, Sarah Jane recalls the “Christmas Invasion” and says she’d imagined the Doctor being on that spaceship. The Doctor says yeah, I was up there. Rose was too. Sarah Jane looks stricken again, clearly thinking That could have been me. And she asks: Did I do something wrong? I waited and you never came back. The Doctor says he was called back to Gallifrey and there was a No Humans Allowed rule, and anyhow she didn’t need him. “You were my life”, Sarah tells him. It was hard, as several modern companions have found, to return to a mundane existence. The Doctor tries to pep her up, tell her she’s been doing great, but it’s not working. Finally, he quietly tells her he couldn’t come back. Sarah Jane is not satisfied, but that’s all she’ll get for now, so she has another gripe: he dropped her off in the wrong place, and that’s just rude. But she smiles at his lack of British geography.
K-9 comes alive, hooray! Unconcerned about screaming lunch ladies (dinner ladies, it seems), the Doctor smears some of the yellow goo on K-9’s antenna. K-9 starts talking, which tickles Mickey. (Sarah Jane refers to K-9 as “my dog.”) K-9 says the stuff isn’t human extract, but Krillitane oil. The Doctor doesn’t like this: “Think how bad things could possibly be and add another suitcase full of bad.” Oh really. Bats who devour a few children and educate the rest within a single school rank pretty low on this show’s threat scale. But the Krillitanes are an empire that pilfers the best bits of their conquerees . . . including their physical shapes.
Rose takes the Doctor aside and wants to know if she’s just another travelling companion. “As opposed to what?” the Doctor asks. As opposed to something more permanent, Rose thinks but doesn’t say. She now sees her future in Sarah Jane: a friend for a while, then forgotten.
The Doctor insists that Rose can stay with him indefinitely. But understand, Rose: I can’t stand watching my friends “wither and die” as the years pass by. I can’t cope with how short your lives are. For a moment he comes close to sobbing — again, this Doctor is more approachable than Eccleston’s, who would have kept a hard front up the whole time. But he’s no less intense.
Finch whispers “Time Lord”, and that of all things catches the Doctor’s attention. The bat buzzes our heroes. Rose wonders why it didn’t physically attack them, but we see the answer as it insistently flies away toward the Moon:
Next day, the Doctor and his team head back to school for more action. Mickey stays back with the auto, and the Doctor actually tells him, completely seriously, to crack the window so he won’t suffocate. Wow. It’s a hard life being Mickey.
The Doctor goes inside for a glaredown-staredown with Finch. Finch (“Brother Lassar”) likes being humanoid, so he’s the figurehead while the others stick with their batforms. That’s a nice bit of characterization. Finch has an educated, debonair thing going on. He refers to the Time Lords as old, reactionary “senators” and invites the Doctor to figure the plot out himself. “If I don’t like it, it will stop,” the Doctor replies simply. Finch affects interest in this interventionist Time Lord. Just how far will you go, Doctor? “I’m old now. I used to have so much mercy. You get one warning. That was it.” The “Fun times with my BFF Rose” Doctor has vanished. But Finch is confident that the Doctor will join his cause soon.
Meanwhile, Mickey sulks with the tin dog. And Sarah Jane (to whom the Doctor gave the sonic screwdriver) and Rose are trying to get into the lab computers. Seems like you could use an experienced hacker for that, but it would have to be Mickey. Anyway, Sarah is having trouble with the screwdriver, to which Rose comments things were sure simpler waaay back in your day, eh? Sarah tries to make peace, but Rose does feel threatened by her and a catfight ensues. They try to one-up each other’s experiences before calling it off and bonding over the Doctor’s eccentricities. The Doctor enters to find the two women laughing over who knows what human foolishness.
But Finch has alerted his friends to wrap it up quickly. Step one: trap the children inside the school. (The students, except Master Eat-No-Chips, are all eager to get back to class. Considering they’re just hanging out in a concrete courtyard, I don’t blame them.) Step two: Eat the human staff. Step three: 60 wpm or bust!
The Doctor has no luck with the screwdriver either — the hard drives must have deadlock seals. Fortunately for his curiosity, all the computers display the current lesson for him to view. It takes him a while to decipher, but he finally gets it: the children are being used to solve the Skasas Paradigm, which would give the Krillitane the equations necessary to control the universe. The yellow goop greases the brains, and the childish imaginations provide . . . leaps of logic or something.
Meanwhile, No-Chips is freaking out. He gets Mickey’s attention. Mickey wakes up K-9 for help, only to be told “We are in a car.” Finally he gets the hint and rams it through the doors.
Finch offers the Doctor partnership in this venture. With the Doctor’s wisdom, they can make the universe genuinely better, saving all the races destroyed by the Time War (not explicitly said). And he’d never have to say goodbye to another friend again. The Doctor is seriously considering this. But Sarah Jane pops in with a Kirk speech, saying that everything comes to an end, and that pain and loss are as inmportant as the happy stuff. Never thought I’d mention “The End of the World” and The Final Frontier in the same sentence, but here we are. Much as I agree with her, her words seem lightweight against all the emotions the Doctor is feeling. But the Doctor throws a chair into the main LCD widescreen.
The Krillitane smoke-shift into bats and chase our heroes (plus Mickey) (sorry, Mickey) into the cafeteria for second lunch. But K-9 arrives and aggros the bats with lasers. Having escaped, the Doctor decides that the Krillitane have changed their physiology to the point that the goop is toxic to them. How to get past the bats to the goop? No-Chips hits the fire alarm, which immobilizes the bats with pain. Mickey evacuates the children, but unfortunately K-9 must remain behind to explode the goop. It’s, uh, a very delayed explosion. The children all cheer wildly (?!) as exam papers rain down, and Kenny “No-Chips” gets appreciation from a cute schoolmate, so no trauma to worry about there. The Doctor consoles Sarah Jane, who is trying to keep the old stiff upper lip.
Back in the TARDIS, Sarah Jane admires the new interior, and she and Rose exchange warm fuzzies. The Doctor is willing to let her come along now, but Sarah says she can’t do this any longer. She’s got her own life to live now. Everything is set to end on smiles, when Mickey announces that he wants to come with: he’s sick of being the tin dog. Surprisingly, this harshes Rose’s mellow something fierce. I guess she wants the Doctor to herself. Or perhaps she doesn’t like her “mundane life” intruding into her “adventure life”.
Sarah Jane gives Rose one last word of advice: stay with the Doctor. “Some things are worth getting your heart broken for.” Then Sarah Jane and the Doctor head outside to get their private warm fuzzies on. The TARDIS leaves, and Sarah is about to sob, but she finds the Doctor left behind a fancy new K-9 for her. And off the two walk into new Adventures.
This episode presents us with a stronger, faster, better Mickey, in the same way that the Wright Brothers’ biplane was better than pedaling a bike really fast off a cliff and hoping for the best. He’s more confident, more aware of how to attract Rose’s interest (appear competent and a little aloof). But he still gets easily scared, like a normal human being. Even when he makes good, he’s presented as slow on the uptake. At least this Doctor has no venom in his voice when he rags on Mickey. Mickey gets some schaudenfreude this episode, entertained both by Rose having a rival and by the Doctor’s “missus” and “ex” getting together.
That last aspect is made full use of here, with plenty of interaction between Sarah Jane and Rose. Sarah Jane comes off as a well-rounded, independent adult who benefited from her TARDIS time. She misses the adventuring but has carried on with life. Rose starts in on Sarah Jane a little too early for it all to be due to insecurity over the Doctor’s attention.
Several apparent plot threads were false leads (the fries aren’t soylent green or soylent rat, Milo does nothing in the second half). Sometimes that’s jarring, but here the unpredictability is fine. What’s actually going on is satisfying enough that I don’t miss any of the false leads.
No one ever thinks to return the Moon to orbit.
Rating: 3 swooping briefcase bats
Favorite dialogue: Mickey: So what’s the deal with the tin dog?
Sarah Jane: The Doctor likes travelling with an entourage. Sometimes they’re humans, sometimes they’re aliens, and sometimes they’re tin dogs. What about you? Where do you fit in the picture?
Mickey: Me? I’m their man in Havana, I’m their technical support, I’m . . . Oh my God. I’m the tin dog.
(He sits down and Sarah Jane pats him on the back.)
Number of TARDIS-blue doors and chairs: So, so many.
List of terminology the Doctor will never use again: 1. Correctamundo
How many times must a man be reminded that the “Aliens of London” two-parter exists: the answer is blowin’ in the wind