Friday 16 November 2012

Wizards Vs Aliens - Grazlax Attacks

I was quite impressed by “Dawn of the Nekross”, the opening story of the new CBBC series, Wizards Vs Aliens. While I had a few reservations, I felt there was a lot of potential, and it was a great deal of fun. With the second story, “Grazlax Attacks”, I still see that potential. Alas, it has yet to realise itself. In many ways, “Grazlax Attacks” is a typical second episode (technically, it’s the third and fourth episode, but with the two-part structure for each story in the series, it behaves as a second episode), following patterns seen in many, many shows. The second episode is generally a “stand-alone”, light-hearted, doesn’t do a whole lot to advance the show in terms of character development or meta-plot, and pretty much leaves things exactly the way they were after the first episode. To a certain extent, it’s understandable why shows tend to follow this pattern. It allows audiences to become comfortable with the “status quo” of the series before introducing any significant changes or development. Unfortunately, it can also leave audiences with a feeling of, “Well, that was kind of nice, but the first one was better.” This is very much the case with “Grazlax Attacks”. There’s some very minor development of Tom and Benny, and we are introduced to Benny’s parents, but nothing of any real note happens in the story. It’s not bad, but overall, I’m left feeling rather indifferent about it. Like so many second episodes out there, if it had been the first story, I probably wouldn’t have continued watching.


The story opens with Ursula, Randal Moon, and Tom casting a shrouding spell around the planet to prevent the Nekross from being able to find wizards from space. They’ll need to come down to the planet in order to find them. This is not what the story is about, however. While it does provide a tidy way for the series to explain why the Nekross aren’t rounding up every other wizard on the planet, after the spell is cast, it’s surprisingly not referred to again in the entire story. There isn’t even a scene with the Nekross reacting to being unable to detect any wizards (other than the King complaining that he’s hungry). Instead, the story switches to the Nekross sending a creature called a Grazlax to hunt down and kill Tom, apparently just out of revenge for the events of “Dawn of the Nekross” rather than as any sort of reaction to the shrouding spell. The rest of the story then focuses on Tom and Benny trying to fight off the ever-multiplying Grazlax whilst simultaneously trying to make sure Benny’s parents and then their schoolmate Katie don’t discover what’s happening.

The story does provide some additional background for Benny but does little to develop him beyond the stereotypical nerd he is in “Dawn of the Nekross”. We learn that he’s embarrassed by his “uncool” parents, but this doesn’t really set him apart or make him unique in any way. That said, Benny’s feelings about his parents are somewhat understandable because they really are nothing more than embarrassing caricatures. It’s something of a staple in children’s television for the children to be embarrassed by their uncool parents, and in a lot of shows, the parents are presented as being over the top in their “uncoolness” and unsympathetic. However, I expected something a little better from the makers of the Sarah Jane Adventures. In Sarah Jane, there were stresses and conflicts between the children and the parents at times, but the parents were still presented as real, believable people. Even Rani’s mother, who could be obsessive and rather dim-witted, was still believable and sympathetic. In the case of Benny’s parents, they are both presented as the absolute extremes of their stereotype. At least with Benny, there’s a hint of depth to come; with his parents, not even that hint is there. Hopefully, future episodes will paint them in a better light, but this is not a good start.

The story also delves a little bit into how Benny fits in (or rather, doesn’t fit in) at school. This is mostly through reactions of characters like Katie to Tom hanging out with Benny, but there is also a little bit of reflection from Benny himself, and this definitely seems to be the start towards making him something more of a unique individual rather than just a stock nerd. One odd thing is the continuing references to him blowing things up at school, and a rather bizarre explanation for why he’s never been kicked out because of this. To be honest, I took the references to this in “Dawn of the Nekross” to be exaggerations made by his schoolmates to make fun of his over-ambitious attempts to do science. It seemed to me that he sometimes caused a few minor accidents in the science lab but he didn’t literally blow things up. However, this story definitely makes it seem like he really has blown things up on multiple occasions. This really does make me wonder why he’s still allowed to step foot in the school and why greater disciplinary action hasn’t been taken against him. We’re told in this story that it’s because he’s gifted. Really? Being gifted gives you licence to blow things up in your school? Regardless of his intelligence, he’s a potential danger to the other students and to the teachers. At the very least, he should be barred from doing any science experiments except under the strictest of supervision. The explanation that he’s not kicked out because he’s gifted just doesn’t cut it, and ultimately turns him into even more of a stereotype than he already is. I keep hoping that maybe I’ve misunderstood something about that conversation between him and Tom, and there’s some deeper meaning to Benny’s statement of, “Haven’t you ever wondered why they don’t kick me out? Think about it.” But I’ve rewatched the scene a few times and I can’t come to any other conclusion than it’s because he’s gifted.

However, I don’t want to make it sound like this is a terrible story. It’s not. There are things I like about it. There’s still a sense of fun to it, and while Ursula’s not in much of the story, the parts she is in are particularly entertaining. Her attempts to clean Benny’s house at the end are predictable but funny nonetheless, and I really like that even when she seems to get it right, it turns out that all the imitation items in the house have been converted into genuine priceless treasures. The set-up for sound defeating the Grazlax is also very well handled. The jack-in-the-box and the doorbell provide a good segue into how Tom devises his plan. And while it’s rather convenient that, despite knowing nothing about opera, he manages to select perhaps the only opera in which the singers really do screech like that, it does make for an entertaining ending. The gushing slime/blood is a little overdone, but no doubt child viewers will find that moment particularly funny. I was actually quite surprised by the “blood” when it first appears after the Grazlax splits at the end of part one. It’s extremely obvious that it’s not real blood and there’s only small amounts of it at that time. Nonetheless, it’s very unusual to see even the suggestion of blood in a British programme aimed at children. The ending made it clearer why it was included, but still, if you pause to think about what’s actually happening, it’s really rather gruesome.

Regarding the Grazlax, I must say I’m not taking to the puppetry in this show. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with using puppets to create aliens. Farscape did this all the time and the aliens looked great. However, in Wizards Vs Aliens, the puppetry just doesn’t fit in well with everything else. The Nekross King looks quite inferior to the rest of the Nekross, who are realised with actors in make-up and prosthetics (with a bit of animatronics for the tentacles). The Grazlax in this story looks like a hand puppet (and probably is). The effect used when the Grazlax stands on its two small legs is fairly well done, but otherwise, this creature does not look like something that is alive and it most certainly doesn’t look threatening. Its teeth look like they’ll bend if they actually bite anything. I’m not a stickler for perfect special effects, and if everything in the show looked like this, I honestly wouldn’t be bothered by it. It might even add to the silly charm of the show. But consistency is the problem here. When the Nekross spaceship, the Nekross themselves, the casting of spells, and so on, are created with high-tech special effects, the hand puppets really stand out—and not in a good way.

Overall, “Grazlax Attacks” is a fairly forgettable story. It has its moments of fun and charm, but it does little to develop its characters or to progress the show forward in any manner. It just sort of happens, then it finishes, and everyone’s back where they started, neither better nor worse off than they were. I suspect it would be possible to watch “Dawn of the Nekross”, then go to episodes five and six, “Rebel Magic” and not even notice that you missed two episodes. I still see potential in this show, however, and hope that future episodes will start to live up to that potential.

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