Being at something of a loose end this weekend, I decided to finally get round to watching Russell T Davies and Phil Ford’s much-heralded kids fantasy series, Wizards Vs Aliens, 8 episodes of which have been backed up on my Tivo since I finally got a job. This gave me a chance to evaluate the development of this replacement for the sadly missed Sarah Jane Adventures. And I must say, based on what I’ve seen so far, it can’t hold a mystical candle to its predecessor.
It takes the same format as SJA, with each story comprised of two twenty five minute episodes on consecutive days, forming, basically, a fifty minute story each week. But SJA often tackled sophisticated, complex emotional issues with well-written drama that didn’t talk down to its juvenile audience. While basically a fantasy show, it dealt with emotive subjects like ageing, Alzheimer’s disease, divorce, absent parents, and growing up.
Wizards Vs Aliens, by contrast, is a much more childish romp, that replaces drama with running around and chucking brightly coloured goo on its protagonists. Yes, SJA did that as well, with the regular trope of Clyde being spattered with goo from whatever exploding life form the heroes had to deal with that week. But it seems more noticeable here, because Wizards Vs Aliens has so little drama elsewhere to counterbalance it.
The high concept premise, embodied in its very title like Snakes on a Plane, actually has a lot of promise with children’s insatiable desire for Doctor Who-like sci fi and Harry Potter-like fantasy. Why not, as Russell T Davies seems to have reasoned, bring both those things together in one for a winning formula? So we have a tale of a boy wizard and his magical family and unmagical but scientific friend combatting a race of aliens whose purpose is to literally eat magic. These aliens, the Nekross, look like the standard RTD creatures from any average Who episode, all brightly coloured armour and blobby face appendages that make no evolutionary sense:
So far, so good, but there are a few problems inherent even there. The alien Nekross, we’re told, have come to Earth because they have managed to eat all the other magic in the universe. Got that? Not ‘this quadrant’ or ‘this galaxy’. The whole universe. This is a common problem in a lot of sci fi writing, the one of not grasping scale. It’s all very well to say that its intended audience of children won’t care, but IMHO that’s a cheap excuse for lazy writing. I know the ten year old me would have been saying, “The whole universe? But there’s only one ship, and only about six aliens on it. Where did they find the time?”
Yes, that’s nitpicking, but it didn’t help that, at least initially, the hero was pretty hard to like. Boy wizard Tom Clarke, on whom the aliens eventually focus, actually seems like a bit of a dick. He’s the sporty kind of kid, with the currently de rigeur gym toned, over muscled body that makes it look like he has two sets of shoulders, one on top of the other (does every teenager spend hours in the gym these days?).
Nothing wrong with that per se, but we first encounter him using magic to cheat at football, then to do his homework for him. Harry Potter may have done many dodgy things, but as a hero, I’m pretty sure cheating wasn’t one of them. I guessed at this point that part of the show’s ongoing plot would be to show him getting nicer, but it’s hard to sympathise with someone whose morality seems so dubious from the start.
Anyway, Tom is accompanied by his non-magical dad and his very magical grandmother Ursula (Annette Badland, who’s the best thing in the show by miles). Their suburban house has a magical cave in it, staffed by a very Dobby-like goblin called Randall Moon, who (just like Dobby) constantly refers to himself in the third person.
Their peaceful existence of school cheating and varyingly convincing CGI spells is disrupted by the arrival of the Nekross, and in the process, sporty arrogant popular Tom forms an unlikely friendship with the school geek, Benny. Benny forms the scientific perspective on the show, which makes a running theme of the conflict between science and magic. Also, as the show progresses, his friendship with Tom starts to seem more and more homoerotic, particularly when Tom is ditching the pretty girl from school to spend time with his bespectacled sensitive friend, who gets awfully jealous when he forms attachments to other boys.
With many of the SJA writers involved, this is, not unexpectedly, still chock full of classic sci fi references. The first story, by Phil Ford, gave us a cameo from the late Lis Sladen’s husband Brian Miller, who appeared in 1983 Who story Snakedance, and established the ongoing character of the Nekross King, a grossly flabby creature embedded in the wall of the alien ship. Not only does it resemble Boss Nass from The Phantom Menace, it’s voiced, like him, by genre stalwart Brian Blessed, giving one of his less restrained performances.
That first story, Dawn of the Nekross, set up the premise efficiently enough, but was written with such a childish tone that it was hard to gauge its intended audience. Yes, the main characters were teenagers, as in SJA, but the tone of the drama, which was more than a little overbalanced by comedy, seemed aimed more at eight year olds. The broad performance of Scott Haran as Tom didn’t help; he has improved, but perhaps because the writing gives his character little subtlety or perhaps because the director assumes children are idiots, he tends to substitute excessive gurning for actual acting.
Things didn’t improve much with the second story, The Grazlax Attacks (again by Ford), which was so obviously a cut-price rerun of Gremlins as to be blatantly plagiaristic sometimes. Yes, Gremlins was ripped off plenty in the 80s, when it was current, by the likes of Ghoulies and Critters; perhaps Ford was hoping that today’s kids don’t remember any of that. Or don’t care. Which again, feels rather lazy. Even the creatures themselves (which reproduce when hot, and then make a beeline for Benny’s house’s boiler room), are like an amalgam of every one of those Gremlins ripoffs:
And of course, when killed (by, as it turns out, high pitched sounds such as Benny’s ineptly played violin), they explode. And cover our heroes in brightly coloured goo.
I’m not quite sure where this assumption came from, that covering your heroes in goo is the perfect ‘humorous’ climax to a children’s fantasy story. Perhaps writers saw the popularity of ‘gunge’ on Saturday morning magazine shows and thought that was what children automatically found hysterically funny. But this is fantasy based drama, not Tiswas. Yes, it can – and arguably should – offset its thrills and scares with humour. But I don’t recall children’s fantasy classics like Children of the Stones, or The Changes falling back on slime in place of wit or sarcasm.
Still, the next story, Rebel Magic, was a massive improvement on the two written by the guy who actually co-created the show. Written by Joe Lidster, the man responsible for some of my favourite SJA and Torchwood stories, it saw Tom’s friendship with Benny tested when he met a new, powerful teenage wizard, the self-consciously ‘cool’ Jackson Hawke:
Of course, Jackson wasn’t as ‘cool’ as he seemed (though giving him such a cool-sounding name probably didn’t help his rampant egotism). It turned out that his power, which even the magic-eating Nekross couldn’t resist, was the forbidden ‘Grim Magic’ which ultimately consumes its eager user even while making him constantly want more.
Yes, a fairly obvious analogue to drug abuse (especially from the writer whose Big Finish audio story The Rapture seemed almost a paean to the joys of clubbing on Ecstasy). But it was light years ahead of the comic goo-spattering and running around in the previous two stories. Guest star Andy Rush made a believably cool-yet-tormented ‘villain’, who ultimately came good and realised the error of his ways (even if he looked more than a mite too old to play a teenager). And the story also dealt nicely with the social pressures of teenagers; the need to fit in vs the desire to stay faithful to your real friends. Kudos once more to Joe Lidster for reviving my interest in a series that, by this point, I had been prepared to give up on.
It was followed up nicely with another more-sophisticated-than-it-appeared romp by former Doctor Who Magazine editor Clayton Hickman, Friend or Foe. It was once again broadly comic in tone, but this time the comedy felt like wit rather than custard pie throwing. Forced into an alliance after each had one of their own kidnapped by sneering billionaire Stephanie Gaunt, the wizards and the aliens kept describing their shaky cooperation as “a Coalition”, and declaiming things about the worthlessness of such an arrangement. A nice gag for the parents that wouldn’t alienate the kids – might even amuse some of the more astute ones.
Clay’s script was also, amusingly, rife with lines nicked… sorry, ‘homaged’ almost verbatim from Blake’s 7, a fun departure from all the Doctor Who references. Stephanie Gaunt, as played at a volume of 11 by Ruth Henshall, was basically a Servalan analogue, so it was fun when she (or at least an alien disguised as her) declared, “Ipswich! MAXIMUM POWER!”
And that’s as far as I’ve got. I must say, Wizards Vs Aliens seems pitched at a far younger child audience than the frequently mature Sarah Jane Adventures, which never talked down to the youngsters watching it. Phil Ford’s stories really did feel like they were aimed at very young children (which must be a conscious decision, as his previous work was often very sophisticated). But as ever, Joe Lidster produced something thoughtful and thrilling as well as comic, while Clay Hickman’s almost camp adventure romp still had plenty of character development for both wizards and aliens.
It seems to have got off to a much shakier start than SJA, but it’s improved as it’s gone on. With a story by the usually marvellous Gareth Roberts up next, I’m hoping that trend will continue. Nonetheless, I still have a nostalgic hankering for when kids’ fantasy drama took itself a mite more seriously than even SJA did, and wish we could have something more along the lines of those mentioned above, or even 90s classics like Dark Season or Century Falls, created by that very same Russell T Davies. You know, when thrills didn’t have to be offset by relentless and annoying slapstick involving brightly coloured goo.