Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Wizards Vs Aliens - Dawn of the Nekross


Wizards Vs Aliens is a new children’s series from creators Russell T Davies and Phil Ford, the same team behind The Sarah Jane Adventures. And it’s very much in the same vein as Sarah Jane: a small group of characters defend the Earth from evil threats, in this case, the alien Nekross. There are, of course, significant differences between Wizards Vs Aliens and Sarah Jane, notably the titular wizards, but the influence of the earlier series over the newer is quite clear and easily felt. It’s well known that Davies and Ford had plans for more Sarah Jane (at the very least, the remainder of the fifth series; it was only Elisabeth Sladen’s untimely death that ended the show when it did), and I suspect many of those plans have been given a slight facelift and shifted over into Wizards. Indeed, I can totally imagine Sarah Jane Smith delivering the speech that lead character Tom gives at the closing of part two of “Dawn of the Nekross”. It’s completely in the same style as numerous little speeches she gave in her own show. Indeed, the entire show seems at times almost like a tribute to Elisabeth Sladen.

I’m a great fan of The Sarah Jane Adventures—indeed, I think the fourth and fifth series of that show are better than the fifth and sixth series (which aired at roughly the same time) of its parent show, Doctor Who—and the similarities Aliens Vs Wizards has with Sarah Jane mean that I can’t help but like this show a great deal, too. It’s cheesy and over the top (even moreso than Sarah Jane), but it revels in that cheesiness with wonderfully bombastic performances by Brian Blessed and the other Nekross. It knows its premise is silly and absurd, and runs with it. Yet at the same time, it treats that absurdness with just enough seriousness to make it believable, wrapping the viewers in and making them care about the events. The characters might be a bit like caricatures at the moment, but there’s a lot of depth hinted at in the first two episodes that I have no doubt will develop over time.

The premise is simple: Wizards exist and have been secretly coexisting with the rest of humanity throughout all of history. Tom Clarke is a teenage wizard, who hasn’t quite learned responsibility yet (he still sneakily uses spells to do his homework or win football games). He finds himself caught up in an alien invasion. The aliens have come to drain the Earth of all its magic.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Tom is something of a cliché (as are all the characters in the show, really), and unfortunately a little on the annoying side. If I have a least liked aspect to the opening two episodes, “Dawn of the Nekross”, it would be Tom, and as he’s the central character, that’s potentially problematic. He’s a bit of a jock and a bit full of himself. He’s clearly set up as a character who will grow and become more responsible over time, and indeed, there’s some of this in the opening episodes, so he will likely become less annoying. However, actor Scott Haran plays him with a certain smugness that I fear might not go away. That said, there are certainly far worse characters on other shows out there, so this is really only a minor point, and I like the hints at the background of his family, that the line of Crow is one of warrior wizards, something that Tom will presumably grow into. The hints about his mother, who was apparently a very great warrior wizard, add a lot of potential depth to his character arc.

Tom’s nerdy sidekick, Benny (played by Percelle Ascott) is another cliché, but a more likeable one. Even though he’s initially sceptical of magic, once he’s presented with it, he starts to accept it much more quickly than the wizards accept the science and the aliens (indeed, I rather like the humour in how the wizards, who have dealt with demons and dragons, are so unwilling to believe in aliens). Of course, he tries to think of magic in scientific terms, which Tom and the other wizards scoff at, but this gives him a unique position in the show. He’s the only human who’s actually interested in how magic works in regards to the rest of reality, the only one willing to look for the link between the apparently opposing sides of magic and science. I have no idea how far the show will actually take this idea, but it’s one potential way for him to rise beyond his otherwise stereotypical role, and I hope more is made of it (especially by having him vindicated by being right).

The Neckross in the opening two episodes are quite two-dimensional, but this is obviously intentional. The idea is to set them up as absolute villains, and totally evil. The best way to do that within the limited timeframe of a tv episode is to go for a bit of the pantomime. Perhaps more development of the individual characters (particularly Varg and Lexi) will come later, but they work as is to start with. In particular, the Nekross King, voiced by Brian Blessed, is a pure joy to listen to. Blessed is well known for over-the-top, bombastic acting, and this role fits his style perfectly. He clearly revels in every over-the-top line and his evil laughter is just delicious.

The highlight of the show, however, is definitely Annette Badland as Ursula Crow, Tom’s grandmother. Doctor Who fans will recognize Badland as Margaret Blaine, one of the Slitheen, from the series I stories, “Aliens of London”/”World War Three” and “Boom Town”. Her role here, however, is quite different. Ursula is the slightly senile elderly wizard who shows both moments of bumbling and moments of great wisdom and insight. However, she is the one character in these opening episodes who manages to truly rise beyond the stereotype on which she’s based, and this I would put down almost entirely to Badland’s performance. She switches effortlessly and believably from amiable bumbler to seriousness, and shows real emotion. Her admittance to the other captured wizard on the Nekross ship that she can barely remember her spells these days is engaging and heartfelt. Although we don’t learn exactly what happened to her daughter, Tom’s mother, we can see the sadness and heartbreak in her eyes at her daughter’s mention, hear it in her voice, and we can feel for her. While I enjoyed the episodes as a whole and the scenes with Tom and Benny, or the aliens, Ursula is the only character I truly grew to care about by the end. While I’m sure over time, I’ll grow to care about the other characters, too, the fact that Ursula is instantly likeable from her first scene and so quickly grabs hold of my attention pretty much ensures that she will remain my favourite character (barring something really strange happening).

Perhaps my second favourite character is the hobgoblin (don’t ever call him a goblin!) Randal Moon, Guardian of the Chamber, played by Dan Starkey, primarily just because he’s fun. Starkey’s performance is over the top (though not in the same way as Brian Blessed’s), but like the Nekross King, it works for the character, and highlights the general fun absurdity of the entire show.

The one character who presents a bit of an enigma to me is Tom’s father, Michael. I’m really undecided what to make of him. He’s an “unenchanted”, the word wizards use to describe those who can’t use magic. He comes down a bit harshly (though not unjustifiably) on Tom’s irresponsible use of magic. His similarly harsh treatment of Randal Moon suggests that he still mourns for his wife and he blames magic and wizardry for her death. There’s otherwise not a whole lot of development of him in “Dawn of the Nekross”. I don’t dislike him, but neither do I like him. He’s just sort of there. Hopefully, he’ll be expanded upon in future episodes.

Beyond the characters, there’s a lot of great visual material in the show. The Nekross themselves are well done, imaginative and bizarre in appearance, while retaining enough human-like qualities for the actors to convey expression to the audience. I do wonder what function the tentacles on each side of the face have. One ends in an extra eye and the other in what appears to be an extra mouth. The animatronics that make the tentacles move is very good. The puppetry of the Nekross King, on the other hand, is not quite as good. The King looks like a puppet, while the other Nekross look like real creatures, and this detracts a bit from the overall effect. However, as I’ve mentioned, Brian Blessed’s vocal performance is absolutely wonderful, so I’m willing to overlook the shortcomings of the puppetry.

Perhaps my favourite moment, visually, is when the whole gang pile into Michael’s car and crash out of the Nekross ship to float down to Earth, powered and protected by Tom and Ursula’s magic. While this scene is beautiful in its own right, part of what draws me to it is, years ago I had an idea for something very similar. I envisioned a family driving in a normal car through space to the moon. This image has remained with me for years, but try as I might, I’ve never been able to come up with a story to go with it. It seems Russell T Davies and Phil Ford have beat me to it. The scene is a perfect example of their boundless imagination (probably primarily Ford’s in this case, as he’s the credited writer of this episode). Davies’s time on Doctor Who, Sarah Jane, and Torchwood, and Ford’s time on Sarah Jane simply haven’t drained their ideas. The scene is absolutely gorgeous, and I can’t think of any show other than Doctor Who or one of its spin-offs that would ever attempt something that is so wonderfully absurd, whilst making perfect sense for the story and setting that contains it. Most shows would consider it too ridiculous and not even attempt it. Ford and Davies just run with it. Wizards Vs Aliens may not be a Doctor Who spin-off, but this scene, perhaps more than any other, demonstrates where a lot of its inspiration comes from.

I’ve commented on the similarities this show has with The Sarah Jane Adventures. Both shows are about a small band of people defending the Earth. Both shows employ just a little bit of absurdity, a touch of sentimentality and moralising for the children, and whole lot of fun. However, a couple of the differences may end up as reasons why Wizards Vs Aliens does not end up as good a show as Sarah Jane. The fact that Wizards Vs Aliens is set up to have one constant foe, the Nekross, makes me worry about how much variety the show can maintain before it starts to get stale. At the moment, the format of the show looks set to be one where the Nekross launch some plot or other, and Tom and his friends stop them. Then next time, the Nekross try a new plan. Then repeat. The problem is, the Nekross have apparently drained the entire rest of the universe of magic and have now come to Earth, the only world with any left, to drain it too. There are only so many times a teenage boy and his friends can outwit these supposedly powerful aliens before believability gets stretched too far. It’s fun to watch Tom throw a football (soccer ball for North American readers) at the King, causing enough of a distraction that he and Ursula can escape from a room full of heavily armed guards. But repeat this kind of thing too often, and it starts to become stale. Once the Nekross have been defeated more than a few times, the audience is bound to start wondering why they keep trying, and indeed, how they managed to drain the entire rest of the universe in the first place when they can’t even manage to handle one teenage boy. While The Sarah Jane Adventures had something of a repetitive format as well, it wasn’t confined to the same villains time after time. Sure, there were occasional returning villains like the Slitheen, but on the whole, each story got to create something entirely new, allowing for very different styles of stories and adventures. Hopefully, Wizards Vs Aliens can overcome the limits of the format it’s taken on. There are certainly ways to do it and keep it fresh. One way would be to introduce an overarching plot that the heroes only uncover little bits of at a time. The “plot of the week” could turn out to be nothing more than a series of distractions meant to keep the heroes looking the wrong way until the Nekross are ready to unveil their true might. This would help keep the Nekross a threat, rather than looking like complete incompetents. And there are other options, too. I have faith in both Russell T Davies and Phil Ford that they can pull this off.

But worries about what the future may hold don’t change the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed the opening two episodes of Wizards Vs Aliens. “Dawn of the Nekross” is a great deal of fun, absurd and over-the-top, yet also strangely dramatic and affecting. The characters are a bit cliché-ish, but at least one of those, Ursula, rises beyond the cliché and there are hints at much greater depths to the other characters still waiting to be explored. It will be fun to see where this leads.

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