For Toby Whithouse’s first Doctor Who episode, he got the plum assignment of bringing back Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, with K9 Mark III looking a little worse for the wear and dumped unceremoniously and inactive in the trunk of her car. They were last seen in “The Five Doctors” twenty-three years, or “half a dozen” regenerations, ago. Of course our son had the biggest ear-to-ear grin you’ve ever seen when K9 was revealed. It took him a few seconds to register Sarah Jane. It took him no seconds at all to register his favorite dog. He was very pleased when I told him that we’d be seeing them again in the near future.
The beautiful center of the story is Sarah Jane’s return, with all the mixed emotions that it brings. I think that they did a brilliant job balancing the unresolved sadness of the Doctor never returning – Sarah Jane was the only companion that the Doctor ever actually dumped – with the hilarious “missus and the ex” comedy. Rose is completely shocked to learn that the Doctor ever had any traveling companions before her. In the eighties, it seemed like everybody who joined the TARDIS got a TED talk in regeneration and prior companions. Peri even recognized a random photo of Jo Grant in “Timelash.” The Ninth Doctor clearly just didn’t tell Rose much of anything, did he?
The brilliant, brilliant scene that begins with Rose and Sarah Jane sniping at each other over who has seen more impressive sights is the episode’s highlight. They break the tension as they realize that the Doctor’s face might change but he’s still the same clueless man. I bet a thousand fanfic writers were punching the air as Rose and Sarah Jane collapse with laughter while the Doctor can’t get a sentence out, saying “Yes, that, exactly like that!”
It’s all so good that the actual plot is fairly irrelevant, honestly. Anthony Stewart Head is the main baddie, and at least he gets a completely terrific showdown scene opposite David Tennant. For the record, these monsters are called Krillitanes and they’re after something called a Skasis Paradigm, but they might as well be Slitheen in Downing Street or Mark Gatiss with a big CGI monster or Sontarans with GPS smoke bombs. As much as I enjoy Russell T. Davies’s four seasons, there are plenty of present-day Earth stories where I just adore the characters and the dialogue so much but have no idea what the actual stakes are. It’s apparently building blocks of the universe, this time. I’ll try to remember that.