Tuesday 4 December 2012

Wizards Vs Aliens - Fall of the Nekross

The two episodes of “Fall of the Nekross” by Gareth Roberts, are perhaps the two most event-packed episodes of Wizards Vs Aliens so far. A lot happens in these two episodes, and they move along at quite a break-neck pace right from the opening moments of Part One. Overall, they form an excellent story: exciting with good character moments, a few revelations, and some seriously dark moments. Unfortunately, “Fall of the Nekross” does have some significant flaws to it, but despite these flaws, it manages to remain highly entertaining, and that, in the end, is the most important thing.

When I say a lot happens in these two episodes, I am actually leaving the statement incomplete in order to avoid spoilers in the opening paragraph. For the same reason, I’m forced to keep the non-spoilered opening to this review exceptionally short, as it’s impossible to discuss the story without mentioning the ending—not the little hook for next story, but the resolution of this one. I refer, of course, to the dreaded reset button. Yes, a lot does happen in “Fall of the Nekross”, but a lot also un-happens. In the space of these two episodes, the story moves from Tom and his friends having made virtually no progress in the “war” against the Nekross (apart from the burgeoning trust between Tom and Lexi) to the complete and utter defeat of the Nekross, and then right back to zero progress again. All, apparently, in the space of a little over an hour (and I don’t mean the real-world length of the two episodes run back-to-back, but the length of time that passes in the story itself). As exciting as the story gets (and it is exciting and action-packed), in the end, it’s somewhat pointless. By the end, everything is essentially back to the status quo, with the only changes being that maybe Ursula has learned a lesson (and whether it’s the right lesson will no doubt be a matter of some debate). What could have been a massive game-changing story ends up changing virtually nothing.

Of course, it’s probably a bit early in the show’s run to bring in changes as big as the ones “Fall of the Nekross” almost does. In that case, though, I have to wonder why it even bothers to go as far as it does. Ursula could still learn the same lesson in a smaller-scale story, more like last week’s “Friend or Foe”, one that involves Benny nearly killing and then having to save just a couple of the Nekross (perhaps just Varg and maybe Jathro, since “Friend or Foe” involves Lexi). I suppose that might make it a bit too similar to “Friend or Foe”, but it would remove the need for the huge reset at the end (reset buttons are a bit of a pet peeve of mine). Ursula could still show her ruthless side, Benny could still show his morality, and we’d have a story about character progression instead of having to undo too much plot progression. Of course, it would probably mean fewer explosions (though I do have to wonder why the virus shutting systems down on the ship causes them to explode), and perhaps some of the excitement value would be lost.

Another problem I have with the story and its resolution is the time-frame under which it happens. From the moment Varg first announces that they have an hour of life-support left, Tom and Benny manage to reverse everything whilst travelling around quite a bit. I’m not entirely certain of the geography of the area they live in, but presumably Tom and Benny live relatively close to each other, so I can easily believe that they can get from Tom’s house to Benny’s place in just a couple of minutes. When Varg announces there are just twenty minutes left, Tom and Benny are still in Benny’s shed. From here, they travel out to Burnt Hill where Tom successfully communicates with the stones and sends Benny to the Nekross ship. Clearly, Burnt Hill isn’t particularly far away as they’ve previously gone there on a school trip and still gotten back for more classes. However, Tom and Benny clearly live in the city, and there’s no sign of habitation surrounding Burnt Hill. Can Tom and Benny really walk (or perhaps run) there in under twenty minutes? Intriguingly, it seems to take Ursula and Michael just as long to reach there by car. Perhaps Benny’s house is farther away from Tom’s than I thought (after all, they had up to forty minutes to get there) and Burnt Hill is just around the corner from Benny’s? Even so, the one-hour (and then twenty-minute) time-frame seems to be there just for dramatic effect rather than any consideration actually going into how much time it takes people to go from one place to the next. Then again, this is a long-standing problem in television drama, one that seems particularly rampant in science fiction (I’m reminded of the classic Doctor Who story, “Genesis of the Daleks”, in which the cities of the warring Kaled and Thal civilizations are apparently a short stroll from each other), so maybe I just shouldn’t worry about it.

At any rate, despite my concerns about the speed of resolution and the reset at the end, there is a lot that is very good in “Fall of the Nekross”. Similarly to the the previous two stories (“Rebel Magic” and “Friend or Foe”), it continues to delve into slightly darker material. For the first time since “Dawn of the Nekross”, we see the Nekross actually drain a captured wizard of magic. What’s more, we learn that the Nekross haven’t been expending all their energy on Tom—it would seem that only Varg and Lexi have been doing that while other Nekross on the Zarantulas have been searching other areas of the planet for wizards. This expands the scope of the Nekross, showing that they’re not fixated entirely on England (which, let’s face it, is a pretty small island on a much larger world) and that all those other Nekross on the ship do something other than just stand around. It also re-establishes the threat of the Nekross. Tom and Benny may constantly outwit them, but their “master plan” continues to move forward mostly unabated.

But the thing that most firmly re-establishes the threat of the Nekross is not the draining of the Japanese wizard, but what we learn of the fate of Ursula’s friend, Cammy. This is without a doubt the darkest the show has gone yet, and perhaps pushes the boundaries for what can be done on a children’s show. Until now, we’ve not learnt what happens to wizards after they’ve been drained. The Nekross let them go, but then...? Even now, we don’t learn the exact reasons for Cammy’s death. Ursula merely says, “She only lasted a few more days.” Did her body simply give out on her? Or is it something more ominous. Such a thing would never be stated directly on a children’s programme, but I can’t help but feel the implication here is that Cammy, unable to deal with the loss of magic, committed suicide. Whatever the actual cause of Cammy’s death, it makes Lexi’s question, “Is it really such a kindness to let them live on?” far more ominous. Lexi is, of course, referring to what the magic extractor does to the wizards’ physical appearance, but when taken with the fact that the wizards either die shortly after from natural causes or must live on in abject misery, it heighten the evil of the Nekross even more. This is what they consider a kindness. It also adds terrible implications to what might have happened to the drained 12-year-old boy from “Dawn of the Nekross”. We can only hope his father’s magic ring of healing helped in some way.

Although Lexi doesn’t do a whole lot, this story does continue her development as a character—development nicely begun in “Friend of Foe”—making her, by far, the most well-developed character on the show. She is still evil. There’s no doubt about that. She is still willing to casually throw Benny to his death. However, she also cares about Tom. She is capable of fear and anger, can feel sadness and betrayal. And despite the care she feels for Tom, she’s still capable of manipulating his own feelings for her own gain. She has become a wonderfully complex character, and I remain even more eager to see how she develops in later episodes.

Fall of the Nekross” also introduces us to the first named Nekross character other than Varg and Lexi (even the King has never actually been named): Technician Jathro 15. In “Friend or Foe” Varg refers to one of the guards by only a number. Here, we learn that the lower classes do indeed have names; the upper classes just don’t “honour” them in that manner. More interestingly, we also learn that there are different racial groups amongst the Nekross. (I wonder if this is also meant to imply that class divisions in Nekross society occur along racial lines.) Jathro has red skin and his tentacles don’t appear to have an eye and a mouth like Lexi’s and Varg’s, instead being closed right over. Although Jathro doesn’t do a whole lot in the story (other than announce his improvements to the magic extractor), his presence does serve an important function: that of showing more about Nekross society. In “Friend or Foe”, Lexi tells us a little about it, but here, we actually see it—an important development.

As much as I love the development of Lexi’s character, Ursula is definitely the highlight of this story, simply because she gets to do a lot more. In “Dawn of the Nekross”, I felt she was the only character who managed to rise beyond just a two-dimensional stereotype like all the other characters. There were just a few hints at greater depth, but they were there. Unfortunately, she has become one of the last characters to get further development since then. However, in “Fall of the Nekross”, we see Ursula like we’ve never seen her before, more than just the doddering old wizard with flashes of insight. Annette Badland gives a brilliant, at times very moving, performance. Here, Ursula is more than just the comic relief. Here, we see everything about her: her sadness at the death of her daughter and Cammy, her frustration at her imperfect control of magic, her love for Tom, her joy, and most importantly, her rage. Here, we see just how ruthless Ursula can be when pushed to the edge: the only one willing to let the Nekross die (indeed, I love that Varg ends up respecting her because of this fact).

Of course, the morality of her decision is something that can be hotly debated. The story makes her out to be wrong, and she learns a lesson in the end. However, there are many who would argue that by saving the Nekross, Benny has committed a far greater crime by condemning more wizards to the same fate as Cammy, the Japanese girl, and the boy from “Dawn of the Nekross”. The story touches on this only slightly and puts most of the focus on the importance of not killing and helping others in need. It’s important to remember, of course, that this is children’s show, and it can only go so far with delving into the complex morality of whether you should save the life of someone who will just kill you in return. More than that though, there is another moral lesson at play here, a simpler real-life one—that of mercy and forgiveness. Most children, in real life, aren’t going to be faced with evil aliens trying to kill them. However, they will be faced with situations that make them angry, situations that make them want to strike out in rage. The story teaches the simple lesson of remaining calm and level-headed in these situations.

That said, I find I’m liking Benny less and less every episode. Not because he does the right thing and decides to save the Nekross, but because there’s no real growth to him as a character at all. He’s already morally irreproachable, and he never makes mistakes except with experiments that are way beyond the ability of other people his age (and even the vast majority of adults). He becomes more and more a caricature all the time with his ability to hack into worldwide computer systems in a matter of moments and to decipher alien technology. But these things wouldn’t be such a problem if there was something more to him as a character, something the audience could sympathize with. Sure, we see him shunned by other kids at school and Tom is the first real friend he’s ever had, but it’s difficult to feel sympathy for the shunning if there’s nothing about the character we can relate to. As a nerd myself who was often isolated and shunned in school, I know what it can be like, and I still can’t find sympathy for Benny. His abilities go way beyond what even most nerds are capable of. He needs something humanizing and that’s just not there. As a point of comparison, look to Luke in the Sarah Jane Adventures (made by the same people as Wizards Vs Aliens, so a doubly apt comparison as I know they’re capable of better). He’s another boy genius, with mathematical and scientific knowledge way beyond even that of the nerdiest nerd. But we also get to see Luke struggle with every-day things. He has goals and aspirations that Benny seems to totally lack. Really, if you take away his nerdiness, who is Benny? What’s left? Intriguingly, in my review of“Dawn of the Nekross”, I said that I hope to see Benny be proven right about his belief that magic can be explained scientifically. In “Fall of the Nekross”, that actually starts to happen when it turns out that the stones can remember a technological teleport beam just as easily as magical energy, showing that they are, in essence, the same thing. However, I don’t really care anymore, as I find myself wanting Benny to be wrong for a change.

Oh, and when I say that Benny is morally irreproachable, that’s not entirely true. However, the show never acknowledges his one slip in morality and indeed, even seems to promote it: his complete disregard for school property. In this story, he blows up an entire room full of computers and doesn’t seem to care about the costs needed to repair or replace those computers. It worries me about what this is teaching the children watching the show when he never faces any consequences for these actions. (“Grazlax Attacks” gave a really feeble explanation for why he hasn’t been kicked out or faced greater disciplinary action for blowing up so much stuff at school—namely, because he’s a genius...um...yep, that’s it...yeah, I don’t get it either.) The show almost seems to be saying, “Hey kids! It’s okay to blow up your school just so long as you’re doing it in the name of science!” Honestly, I could forgive the computers in this story (since it does happen while he is trying to save the world) if it weren’t for the fact that this happens all the time.

Despite my misgivings, I do like “Fall of the Nekross” overall. There’s no denying that it’s an exciting story and it’s kept me engaged each time I’ve watched it (I always watch programmes at least twice before reviewing them—once just for general enjoyment and once with a more critical eye). On top of lots of action, it has some great character development for Lexi and Ursula, and it presents a somewhat simplistic, but otherwise important, lesson in morality. I just feel that the story could have been even better. It’s not my favourite Wizards Vs Aliens story, but it’s far from the weakest.

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