Previously on TARDIS Eruditorum
|No, no, darlings. I’m the tin dog.|
It’s October 23rd, 1976. Pussycat are at number one with “Mississippi,” with Rod Stewart, Chicago, ABBA, and Rick Dees and his Cast of Idiots also charting, the latter with, well, the only song they ever chart with, “Disco Duck (Part One).” In the week prior copyright is extended by twenty years in the United States and Cearball Ó Dálaigh resigns as President of Ireland because the Minister of Defense insulted him. And, the day in question, Lis Sladen makes her final appearance on Doctor Who.
The show almost immediately collapses. Three weeks later, in the very next story, a particularly violent cliffhanger attracts the rage of moral crusader Mary Whitehouse, whose rantings are deemed sufficiently inconvenient as to necessitate a bureaucratic change. Doctor Who producer Philip Hinchcliffe is moved over to produce Target, whereas Target’s intended producer Graham Williams is put on Doctor Who with a mandate to tone down the violence. The Williams era has its moments, but is largely a brutal step down from the highs that Doctor Who reached with Lis Sladen around, and the show methodically circles the drain for a decade before finally falling through.
Thirty Years Later…
|K-9 must live!|
It’s April 29th, 2006. Gnarls Barkley remains crazy, while Rihanna, Fall Out Boy, and the Black Eyed Peas also chart. In the last week, Benedict XVI was reported to have agreed to a relaxation of rules on condoms (which are, for the record, a wildly more fascinating and unusual theological issue than anyone gives them credit for being), Tony Snow became White House Press Secretary, several years too early to be the victim of image macros involving government lies and the phrase “You know nothing, Tony Snow,” and Silvio Berlusconi announces that he’ll resign as Prime Minister of Italy, like he does every few years.
On television, Lis Sladen returns to Doctor Who in Toby Whithouse’s School Reunion. A big episode by any measure, deserving of a big post. No fancy formatting – let’s just take a wander. The good old-fashioned way, like we used to do.
One line of criticism regarding this episode is the idea that Sarah Jane is somehow cheapened by being put into a “romance” plot – that her character is lessened somehow by becoming “the ex,” as Mickey puts it. But let’s be careful here. Yes, Sarah’s relationship with the Doctor is clearly one that plays a role in her life that for other people are filled by romantic partners. But there’s no suggestion that it was romantic as such. In fact, there’s an explicit hedge against it – what devastates Sarah Jane is explicitly the fact that nothing earthly, romance included, can possibly compare to adventures in the TARDIS.
On the other hand, one can’t deny that the question of romance is present in the episode. But what’s interesting is that there is a clear distinction here between the frame and the content, so to speak. Yes, the relationship among the Doctor, Rose, and Sarah Jane is presented in the televisual terms of a love triangle, but nothing whatsoever in the past of Doctor Who supports the idea that just because you present something in the frame of a genre it is entirely a part of that genre.
The key observation is who makes the “missus and the ex” comment: Mickey. Ignore absolutely everything else about School Reunion, in fact, and focus on Mickey and Sarah Jane’s relationship, as it is the single most interesting thing in the story. Mickey, after all, is from EastPowellStreet. He belongs to the soaps. It’s not just the fact that Sarah Jane runs into the Doctor’s world again that prompts her story line, in other words, but the fact that she runs into Rose’s. Or, more to the point, Mickey’s, because Rose is by this point treated more like a character in the Doctor’s world than one in EastPowellStreet. Becoming a god will do that to you. (Observe the stark difference between her two appearances in Victorian stories – in The Unquiet Dead she’s in a period gown, in Tooth and Claw she’s in contemporary clothes. She’s become bigger than any genre she steps into, including her own.)
And crucially, Sarah Jane Smith is a Doctor Who companion. She has no life beyond that series. She’s a journalist, ostensibly, but is this really her plan? Go to schools where it looks like aliens might be running a Doctor Who plot and write news stories about them to stop them? I mean, try imagining Sarah Jane’s day-to-day life. How exactly does this style of journalism make her any money? It does not seem like anything that can happen at Deffry Vale High School can possibly make a publishable news story. And, further, she’s apparently the sort of person who drives around with a broken-down K-9 in the back of her car. This, I think, says it all about how fundamentally ill-suited she is to real life.
And this isn’t a problem. She wasn’t designed for real life. She was designed for a specific 1970s television show, and when the Doctor left her she stopped existing. There is no Sarah Jane Smith before The Time Warrior or after The Hand of Fear. That’s not how fiction works. You can write one, but there isn’t one. And even if you write one, you’re only adding a version to Sarah Jane Smith who stopped existing after The Hand of Fear. That’s what happens in stories when they end. That’s why endings are sad.
But there’s no avoiding an ending. Everything ends. That’s how stories work. The secret of alchemy is material social progress, and that means death. Sarah Jane knows that. She was quite literally there when it happened. That’s the consequence of it. The story after Sarah Jane leaves is the one with the continuity bit that cancels the series. This is what the Hinchcliffe era was about: death. And given that, Sarah Jane’s ending is a mercy because she gets to just walk away, held in our memories forever, our Sarah Jane.
Put another way, we can end the story at The Hand of Fear because then Lis Sladen never dies. Because it’s impossible to watch this now without that event just ripping through you. It was one thing when Hartnell died – he was always old. Troughton was harder, but it’s key to remember that he was around for a long time. His presence haunted the entire series – he appeared with four other Doctors, almost with a fifth, and died at the dawn of a sixth. And it was a long time ago. So was Pertwee, honestly – over a decade ago when Lis Sladen died. And that had been the last really big one. Yeah, there were sad ones. Verity Lambert was hard. Jacqueline Hill, oof. John Nathan-Turner, actually, was really sad, as we’ve learned. Even Nicholas Courtney didn’t quite compare to Lis Sladen.
And that’s because of this story. Because she got brought back to be a regular on the new series, and to get her own spinoff. And for God’s sake she deserved it. I mean, you talk about your heartwarming stories – that she gets that kind of late career recognition. But it made her death so fucking hard for fandom. It was just one of the most devastating things to happen. And this episode is already so metatextual that it’s impossible not to read it that way.
And that’s the choice you get to make. You can leave her at The Hand of Fear or you can let her come back. But if she comes back, she gets old and dies. Those are the rules. Those are the two worlds you get to live in.
She gets old. She changes. She has to. You cannot just walk from The Hand of Fear to School Reunion without stepping through thirty years of history like they’re just pages in a book. The rooms aren’t arranged that way. If you go from The Hand of Fear to School Reunion you get a character who simply does not work in the series any more. Because she hasn’t changed in thirty years, and the series has. So she can’t change just by contact with the show, because of the Blinovitch Limitation Effect or something – look, I could work this bit of theoretical poetry out if I wanted to, but it’s not actually that interesting. Let’s skip ahead.
The fact that she gets aged to match up with the show through a soap opera love triangle plot is a joke. But it’s a joke that ties a particular connection between Mickey and Sarah Jane. Mickey has become a sort of Lone Gunmen character – a perfectly ordinary guy who’s become a Doctor Who fan, only he’s done it within the story instead of outside of it. Mickey Smith’s From Outer Space. This is only possible in this new iteration of the show where it’s about its own success – now that Doctor Who is a thing in the culture it has ordinary people who are fans, and so Mickey has become a meta joke about that. It’s very clever, and it keeps him present in a show that’s now about Doctor Who being a cultural force that Coronation Street will poach a producer from. (Likewise, Jackie becomes the person who still really doesn’t get this Doctor Who thing, even though all the kids are into it.) Sarah Jane Smith is a Doctor Who character who is suddenly thrust awkwardly into being a soap opera character, Mickey Smith is a soap opera character who is suddenly thrust awkwardly into being a Doctor Who character.
And then there’s the tin dog. Tin is one of the alchemic metals, just as mercury is. If the Doctor is mercurial than describing K-9 as the “tin” dog is as significant as changing the Cybermen from being lunar to being martian. Again, wibbly wobbly, alchemical whemical, but the end result of the alchemical argument will be that describing K-9 as tin in an alchemical sense will result in him being a force of the old order that is holding us back and that we must surpass even though it hurts. I’m sure Jane can explain it in comments.
Shortly after Sarah Jane’s departure, as one of the first acts of the new producer, K-9 was brought into the series. He was at once immensely popular with children and a perfect symbol of the show’s decline because he was, let’s be honest, absolutely stupid. There’s thus an oddly fitting balancing of him and Sarah Jane – her departure marks the end of the beginning, his arrival marks the beginning of the end. And they’re inexorably paired because of a naff spinoff attempted in the 1980s that didn’t work, but that starred the two of them.
The problem is, K-9 can’t grow old. He’s a robotic dog. There’s no future for him. He’s disco. And so he’s dying. Decaying within the series, a festering wound. Putrefying. Fittingly, the monsters are putrefactive themselves, transmuting as a result of… wait, actually. Why do Krillitanes have oil? This is never explained in the plot. They have to use the children because they’re allergic to their own oil, but why they have their own oil in the first place is unknown. But the fact that they are creatures of continual change explains it – they are oil in the crude oil sense – the carbonization of life itself. They change through death.
In other words, they’re creatures of chemistry, not alchemy – a rationalist cult science fiction series come to destroy our fun little televisual fairy tale. They’re even led by Anthony Stewart Head, who is of course both brilliant and cult, in the second funniest instance of Doctor Who directly plundering Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And look at what they offer the Doctor – the ability to go back to the Time War.
Ah, yes. The Time War. That big mythic thing, the awful scar of cult television and cancellation. Here’s an interesting question: why does the Doctor respond to Sarah the way he does in the basement? I mean, “everyone died, Sarah” has to be one of the most weirdly jarring lines ever – a complete non-sequitur of a conversation. Is part of it the shock of him seeing her? No, because he’s overjoyed to see her still living. It’s something else – it’s her horrified reaction. That she thought he’d died.
Because he did, of course. In the very next story, which pinned that stupid regeneration limit in place for absolutely no reason whatsoever other than Robert Holmes needing a reason why the Master was decaying and not Roger Delgado. The show was given an endpoint so the Master could look like a pizza. That is how far the show fell after Sarah Jane Smith left. (Delgado, of course, was the first really big “death in the family” for Doctor Who.) But that’s not what he’s referring to. He’s referring to the Time War. Which is actually ages after Sarah Jane left. And that’s not the only weird thing about that conversation – there’s also the whole regenerated “half a dozen times since we last met,” which doesn’t work. Even based purely on The Five Doctors it doesn’t work, except, of course, John Hurt. But she met McCoy and McGann in novels, so it still doesn’t work unless you take that line as decanonizing the wilderness years in toto. (Or at least the BBC Books range.) Which, yuck.
Except that we’ve already come to read the wilderness years and the Time War as equivalent. So the only issues are related to John Hurt, the wilderness years, or The Five Doctors. Two out of three are the Time War. Which the Doctor overtly brings up. Why? Surely the easiest explanation, consistent with absolutely everything we are told about the Time War, is that every single Gallifrey story got retconned by it. And so when the Doctor went from The Hand of Fear to The Deadly Assassin he really did go straight to the Time War, because that’s what The Deadly Assassin is now. (And notably, this tidies up The Five Doctors as well, which, as a weak spot in time due to four incarnations of the Doctor being there at once, and furthermore as what must be a fixed point in time given the momentous political events, was surely a major battleground of the Time War. I mean, there was lone, mad Dalek – the only time we’ve seen a Dalek on Gallifrey – trapped in the Death Zone, fallen through time, screaming out for orders that would never come.)
So what we have are cult villains threatening to eat the entire past of the series by elevating the Doctor to the status of a god. And, of course, the real joke is that they’re rubbish. These aren’t the Daleks. They may talk a big game and supposedly be really bad “ancient foes” that even the Doctor is scared of, but they’re firmly in the tradition of suicidal vegetable-enviers and ancient gods with thrones that have bum-massaging hands. But they’re not actually huge threats. There’s never really any danger to this story, and there’s not supposed to be. There’s just some rubbish bat creatures. The only danger they pose is the brief flirtation with the narrative collapse of the series posed by letting the Doctor go back to the Time War and save them all. Even Sarah, who doesn’t have to get old if only the Doctor embraces the ropey old cult show.
And Sarah Jane says no. Sarah Jane Smith says it is better to grow old and to die than to do that. And she’s the only one who has to. But she accepts it. She has to. She knows. The secret of alchemy is material social progress. To defeat the harsh chemistry of the Krillitane requires true alchemy. She will pick the real world of Mickey Smith and love and dying. Because it doesn’t mean abandoning the Doctor’s world, it just means growing up.
Except there’s one other price. It is rarely remarked upon that the only time a proper unambiguous companion has ever really died in the new series is K-9. Yes, Rory, but Rory comes back. K-9 doesn’t. Not this K-9. Not K-9 Mark III, the robot dog that first appeared in A Girl’s Best Friend, the pilot episode of K-9 and Company, and then again in The Five Doctors. Because the series has to sacrifice its past. Sarah Jane accepting death means K-9 has to die. It’s not quite enough to accept death in theory. Something actually has to die. We have to get over our pasts.
So K-9 dies. He gets the big, epic heroic death scene as a companion sacrifices themselves to save humanity. And the wonderful thing is he relishes it, going out with an “Affirmative” before nuking the school. (And in the process making the picked on nerd cool!) He’s a badass motherfucking dog. He should be voiced by Samuel L Jackson or something. And in that is something else. Triumph of the camp, perhaps. The reclamation. The thing we get. Death is the price paid. What do we get for our death? What did Sarah Jane safe for us? This. A tin dog sacrificing himself in a blaze of glory to blow up a school and make the bullied kid a hero. Hooray, as Davies and Gardner would put it.
And notably, of course, Mickey is the tin dog. There’s an interesting cyclic structure to this episode. Sarah Jane meets Mickey Smith and gets cast in a love triangle due to her abandonment issues from the Doctor. This gives her the strength to accept death and thus to redeem K-9 by offering him a spectacular and epic death that is the apotheosis of the 70s cute robot aesthetic he belonged to. And K-9 gives Mickey a way into Doctor Who. The Doctor needs a Smith. Mickey Smith is elevated to where he gets to see the wonders of the universe because of the giddy camp wonder of a disco tin dog – the one that featured in Queer as Folk at that. And that’s our reward. That’s what we get for accepting death. Giddy wonder. The fact that we’re alive in the first place. The ability to revel in the triumphant death of a disco tin dog from the year five thousand.
That’s the secret of alchemy.