Tuesday 27 November 2012

Wizards Vs Aliens - Friend or Foe

In my reviews of Wizards Vs Aliens, I’ve commented on potential. In a young show, this is perhaps one of the most important things, as it’s that potential which might allow it to go on to do great things. In “Rebel Magic”, I felt the show was starting to realize some of its potential, as it started to develop the characters a little and build a bit on its own mythology. In the fourth story (seventh and eighth episodes), “Friend or Foe” by Clayton Hickman, this definitely continues. The story is really quite a delight with real character and story progression, and some truly heartwarming scenes. It’s still bombastic and fun with some nice touches of comedy, and it still has its over-the-top performances from Brian Blessed, joined this time by guest-star Ruthie Henshall. However, the show is starting to elevate beyond that without losing those qualities. It’s starting to change from a show to watch for mindless entertainment into one where you actually start to care about its characters. Perhaps the best thing about “Friend or Foe” is that you also start to care about one of the Nekross.


Friend or Foe” is the first story to move a little outside the realm of just the wizards and the aliens. Until now, the only non-wizard humans seen on the show have been friends or family of Tom, such as Benny and Michael, or simply background characters who have no impact on the story itself, such as Tom and Benny’s teacher in “Dawn of the Nekross” or the pizza girl in “Rebel Magic”. In “Friend or Foe”, we meet Stephanie Gaunt, an extremely rich woman, apparent owner of Gaunt Technologies, and someone with goals separate from the wizards or the aliens. Of course, those goals interact with the wizards and aliens (there wouldn’t be a story if they didn’t), but it gives a first glance (albeit a one-sided glance) into the world at large and how it operates within the universe of Wizards Vs Aliens. Gaunt is determined to capture a wizard and ends up catching an alien as well.

Gaunt is something of a one-dimensional villain. We don’t really learn anything about her other than that she wants power and that she has lots of money to buy it with. In Part One, I thought the show was setting her up to be a bit of a mystery character—who is she? how did she first learn about wizards?—who might end up becoming an occasional recurring villain. When she reveals herself to Tom for the first time, she says, “Don’t recognize me? Good. I paid a great deal of money to make sure nobody ever does.” This seems to indicate somebody that Tom would otherwise recognize—and not only Tom, but lots of other people. This certainly seems to suggest a mystery about her character. However, as the story progresses and we see more of the complex that she runs, we start to see the Gaunt Technologies logos on the walls. This makes me wonder how she intends to remain anonymous if she’s going to run a company with her name plastered on it. However, given her fate at the end of Part Two, it seems somewhat unlikely now that Gaunt will become a recurring character and that any mystery around her will be explained. It seems she really was just intended as a bit of a pantomime villain, someone simply there to be evil and thwarted. And for what it’s worth, the character works in this story, as the story really isn’t about her and her plots anyway (more on that later). While it would have been nice to see a bit more depth to her character, she does make for an imposing presence and a credible threat to Tom and the others. In many ways, she’s similar to the Nekross King. Guest-star Ruthie Henshall certainly relishes in her over-the-top performance. She’s not quite as over-the-top as Brian Blessed is as the Nekross King, but then, few could ever match Blessed in that regard. Gaunt is also somewhat reminiscent of some of The Sarah Jane Adventures villains—the weaker ones admittedly, but she has that same sort of role as the head of a corporate evil trying to take over the world.

But as I said, the story isn’t really about Gaunt, and as the real story is so strong, I can ignore the weaknesses in her character. She’s ultimately nothing more than the backdrop that allows the real story to unfold—the story of Tom and Lexi, particularly Lexi. Lexi is quickly becoming one of the most interesting characters on the show, with a depth not yet seen in most of the other characters (including Tom). It’s good that the show is finally showing a sympathetic side to some of the Nekross (even Varg). In “Dawn of the Nekross” and “Grazlax Attacks”, they were very much one-dimensional villains (just like Gaunt in this story), and while this worked in the opening story (and less-so in the second story), it could not sustain the entire series. There needs to be more to these characters. In “Rebel Magic”, we got to see more of the relationship between Lexi and Varg, and now in “Friend or Foe”, Lexi starts to become a full individual in her own right. Part of the praise has to go to Gwendoline Christie, who, free of a one-dimensional character, gets a chance to shine in this episode. She does a great job playing Lexi playing Lucy, providing some very funny moments with the Nekross princess trying to mimic human expressions and emotions. More than that, though, she successfully presents both Lexi’s harsh, cruel side, and her burgeoning but grudging respect of humans. Lexi starts to become a truly sympathetic character in this story.

There’s some important character growth for Tom, too, as he gets to see one of the Nekross in a vulnerable position for a change. Until now, he has always been the one on the run from them, but this time, they’re in it together. But more importantly, he makes the first real breakthrough in the “war” against the Nekross—by becoming friends with one of them (or as close to friends with a Nekross as one can get). This is a very important development in the meta-story of Wizards Vs Aliens, as it’s something that will affect everything that comes after.

Indeed, I’m very curious to see where the show takes the developments of this story. Obviously, the beginning of friendship between Tom and Lexi is something that is going to impact later events. Will Lexi eventually defect to the humans’ side? That could prove a very interesting development if it occurs. If it doesn’t, how will she handle the conflict? Lexi is rapidly becoming one of my favourite characters on the show (she hasn’t quite usurped Ursula yet, but it could happen), and I’m eager to know what she does next.

Just as “Friend or Foe” gives Gwendoline Christie a chance to shine, it also gives the same opportunity to Jefferson Hall as Varg. There are some great Varg moments as he tries to deal with a situation that has grown beyond his control, even though he doesn’t want to admit it. His admittance to the King that they might need help is a great moment of humility for the character. Like Lexi, he becomes more than the one-dimensional villain he started out as, but unlike Lexi, he’s not gradually becoming a good guy. He’s just starting to grudgingly realize he’s not a smart as his sister. I love his line to the Nekross guard near the beginning of Part One: “Nothing escapes my attention.” Lexi then arrives disguised as a human and he’s stunned that a human managed to get past his attention. He’s then doubly stunned when he realizes Lexi has been working on a secret plan under their father’s orders, and he never noticed it. So much for “Nothing escapes my attention.” This leads to some great compensatory lines later, such as when he’s disguised as Gaunt (and delivered by Ruthie Henshall): “The alien genius, Varg, and his sister Lexi are behind this.” Varg is becoming a character who is desperate to prove that he is great and powerful, desperate to prove to his father that he can defeat halfling wizard, yet knows deep down that he’s not quite up to the job. This gives him a different sort of sympathetic quality to that of his sister. You almost start to feel sorry for him.

There are a number of other small moments throughout “Friend and Foe” that stand out and add to the enjoyment. There’s been humour all through Wizards Vs Aliens, but the humour in this story works particularly well—perhaps because we’re getting to know the characters so much better. The scenes between Ursula and Varg, in particular, are very funny, as Varg reacts impatiently to Ursula’s nervous loquaciousness. There are also subtle moments, like Benny pocketing the Nekross computer-controlling device (something I noticed as it was happening and was surprised didn’t come up later in the story, only to be pleasantly surprised that it’s the basis for the next story) and the fact that the Nekross guards are referred to by numbers rather than name. That latter bit is a nice look into Nekross society, one that shows it from a slightly different angle to how Lexi later describes their society to Tom.

Perhaps the most surprising moment is Gaunt’s final fate. This is the first actual death of a named character on the series (assuming she really did die and the King didn’t change his mind at the last minute, which is possible, but I suspect unlikely). Until now, the Nekross have made lots of threats, but have rarely gone through with them. Those rare moments they actually fire their guns, they always miss. Even the Grazlax, as terrible as it’s made out to be, only succeeds in getting one unnamed Nekross guard (and the explosions of the multiple Grazlaa in “Grazlax Attacks”, while gruesome when you stop to think about what’s happening, don’t really count as deaths in the same way). There have been a few dark, grim moments (such as the boy in the first episode being drained of magic and turned into an old man, or reflections on the death-before-the-series-began of Tom’s mother), but the series has so far shied away from actually killing someone. As a children’s show, this is not surprising. Death needs to be handled with care, and that is perhaps why Gaunt is so one-dimensional. Any depth to her character might make people sympathize with her, and that could make her death truly horrifying. As a one-dimensional character, her death has less of an impact, little more than the exploding Grazlaa. Still, it is a moment that shows that the Nekross can be as ruthless as they threaten. More importantly, as it’s Lexi who brings Gaunt to her fate, it reminds viewers that, despite her growth in this story, she still has a cruel side. She may have discovered that she can respect some humans, but she’s not a good guy yet. And that makes the scene all the more chilling. Gaunt’s final scream actually sent a shiver down my spine as a result. Intriguingly, this is followed immediately by a shot of a plate with the remains of egg and ketchup on it. A subtle, but gruesome suggestion of Gaunt’s current state, perhaps?

Overall, this is probably the best Wizards Vs Aliens story yet. Several of the characters finally rise beyond the stereotypes that they started out as. It’s funny, engaging, even heartfelt. Most importantly, it makes you sympathize with one of the Nekross, and opens up an avenue of great potential development for the series. I’m excited for what is to come.

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