Wizards Vs Aliens: Drama vs brightly coloured goo

WVA

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:

WVANekross

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?).

WVATom

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.

WVAGoblin

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.

WVAKing

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:

WVAGrazlax

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.

WVAGoo2

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:

WVAJackson

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.

Lucas, Sarah and Jo

“Do you have a hobby?” the spiky haired, unconvincingly American hacker girl asked Lucas in Spooks this week. Of course he does – Lucas’ hobby is brooding. Although he also enjoys scowling, and thumping the steering wheel of his car.

Reliably barmy as usual, this week’s episode saw a group of cyber terrorists from the Russian and Chinese secret services compromise the Grid. This caused Ruth’s usual pinched frown to virtually collapse in on itself as she tried to communicate this information to Harry without the Cybermen seeing. The voyeurs themselves were based in the usual empty high rise office with full length windows that nobody looks out of. Except Lucas when he’s brooding. Quite why Section D doesn’t maintain a special database of empty offices with big windows I have no idea. Perhaps because it would make the episodes shorter?

This season, Lucas has more than usual to brood about. After three years on the show, he’s been confronted by a shifty looking Iain Glen, who knows his secret identity. Apparently, before he was Lucas North, he was Guy of Gisburne. Or something. Anyway, in order to prevent this becoming public knowledge, Lucas has framed an office junior at MI5 and allowed the aforementioned hacker girl to bleed to death so she didn’t spill the beans about the Albany file that Glen is so keen to get his hands on. But he’s getting his hands on it from Malcolm! Yes, the least cool and yet most lovable techie the series ever had has come back to hint that he knows more than we thought he did. Or something. Which leaves me torn between wanting him back on the grid full time, or sticking with the less lovable but much prettier Tariq.

Also in the pretty camp is new boy Dimitri, played by Max Brown. You can tell Max is quite a talent from his background in Hollyoaks. But he is nice to look at, and sensibly, the writers don’t give him much to say. His usual function is to defuse bombs, which he seems to have done in every episode he’s been in. So, logically, this week he was practicing defusing bombs. With an actual bomb. As you do. Still, this came in handy when the cyber freaks locked the Grid down and Dimitri was able to blow his way out. Or something.

Without even a brief pause for the audience to figure out how he did it, Harry was onto the cyber agents in a flash, displaying the customary cool that’s left him the only original cast member standing. But as yet, he knows nothing about Lucas’ treachery, all for the love of Laila Rouass, with whom he shares no chemistry whatsoever. The flaringly nonsensical and yet compellingly watchable saga continues next week…

Meanwhile Laila Rouass was also busy as an equally treacherous UNIT Colonel in this week’s guiltily enjoyable Sarah Jane Adventures. This series has gone from strength to strength, with some intelligent, perceptive writing acted by a talented cast who deserve to go on to bigger things.

Joe Lidster’s season opener The Nightmare Man was one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever seen in children’s television, bolting its dream haunting bogeyman (played with astounding creepiness by Julian Bleach) onto a character heavy story that directly and indirectly summed up the tumultuous changes when children grow up and leave the nest. Luke, played by the sweet Tommy Knight, was written out as he went off to uni, and the script cleverly drew on his, his friends’ and Sarah Jane’s fears to enhance an ethereal, Neil Gaiman like tale of a creature who wants to destroy the world’s dreams. One of the most talented writers working on the show, Lidster too deserves to go on to bigger things.

After this haunting, Sapphire and Steel like opener, Phil Ford’s follow up Vault of Secrets was a broadbrush comedy romp that felt far less sophisticated, with aliens, android Men in Black and a comedy UFO group ‘amusingly’ called BURPSS. Still, it was just a brief interlude before the story all fans were talking about – Russell T Davies’ Death of the Doctor. (Not The Death of Doctor Who – that was episode 5 of 1965 serial The Chase).

So, how would new boy Matt Smith bond with Sarah Jane, who’d already forged a real chemistry with David Tennant? In order to make it even more challenging, Russell upped the ante by bringing in yet another old companion – none other than the much loved Jo Grant, played by the incomparable Katy Manning.

As makes sense for a show revolving around one of the Doctor’s companions, it was the companions themselves who had the lion’s share of the action – the Doctor didn’t even show up until the end of part one! That gave Katy Manning the chance to… well, be Katy Manning. Scattily running around spouting enthusiastic nonsense while knocking things over, it didn’t seem like there was much actual ‘acting’ involved. It was a joy to see Katy again, and she managed to perfectly upstage Lis Sladen at the funeral, leaving her gaping speechlessly. Although, a more cruel mind than mine might have assumed Sarah Jane was simply jealous at the far larger amount of work Jo had had done to her face.

The Doctor noticed too. “You look like you’ve been baked,” he cried, with his usual marvellous lack of tact. Matt was as excellent as ever, and if anything forged a better chemistry with Jo than he did with Sarah Jane. Fittingly, the script allowed Jo the most screen time with him, and while it was basically a retread of the similar scenes involving Sarah Jane in 2006’s School Reunion, the interplay between Matt and Katy did bring a lump to the throat.

The Doctor was also more satisfactorily involved in resolving the plot than he was in his previous Sarah Jane appearance, where he just ran about and frowned a lot while caught in a parallel timeline. This time, it was a joint effort – the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Jo were all instrumental in defeating the less than convincing giant vultures’ plan to break into the TARDIS.

And what a joy to see so many and such well-chosen flashbacks. Hopefully the kids of today are already asking their mummies and daddies about Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. It was of course, a typical Russell tear-jerking stunt, and you could say that there were, well, rather too many flashbacks, actually. But it’s hard to carp about that when the resolution of the plot depends on an overload of memories. And I can forgive Russell – just – for having Jo officially remember her visit to Karfel as referred to in that 1985 trash heap of a story, Timelash.

But, as I say, a romp and a good tearjerker. As a piece of writing, it wasn’t up there with Joe Lidster’s opener, but as a fanboy wet dream it was second to none. The cherry on top was Sarah Jane’s final eulogy to every Earth based companion still – in the show’s continuity at least – alive and kicking. Especially affecting were the references to Harry Sullivan and Ben Jackson, both sadly no longer with us in real life.

So, typically of Russell, the tale was “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. But good fun, nonetheless. I can’t help feeling that the next three stories will have very hard work not seeming like an anticlimax. Perhaps Sarah should meet Lucas North and Harry Pearce? Or something…