31/10/2012

Wizards vs Aliens: Is It Magic?

SERIES PREMIERE!
Russell T Davies and Phil Ford’s new children’s series Wizards vs Aliens has potential despite an uneven first adventure.
 Russell T Davies returns to the place where he started his television writing career with this new CBBC show. Born out of difficult personal and professional problems, Wizards vs Aliens gainfully employs many of the behind the scenes personnel who worked on The Sarah Jane Adventures, with which it is inevitably going to be compared. Unlike that series however, Wizards vs Aliens does not have the protection or heritage of a much loved classic parent show and must stand (or fall) solely on the basis of its own merits. This could be advantageous allowing the writers a clean sheet or it could mean lack of publicity – or even anticipation- will be problematic. Davies has stated how he had to pitch the idea far harder than SJA and it is hoped this will give the new series a rigour it might otherwise lack. As if to buffer themselves from any early doubts, two seasons worth of episodes have already been planned. On the basis of  Dawn of the Nekross`- and bearing in mind debut stories rarely personify a subsequent season- the jury is still out but erring on the positive.

Gran's scarf was a problem in high winds

Whenever reviewing something I usually scribble down a few keynotes and for the first episode it says “spaceship”, “bottle opener”, “colours” and “Brian Blessed”. It’s that sort of an episode.  Whizzing along at light speed, there is barely room to stop and consider anything in detail as the premise is established and a suitably big cliffhanger lined up for the climax. There’s a distinct 1950s sci-fi vibe to the opening titles and this is reflected in the episode which, while set in present day, uses a minimum of contemporary references.
Davies and the story’s writer Phil Ford are canny enough to include a limitation that magic can only be used three times a day, a cute riff on three wishes. Even so we hardly get to know main character Tom Clarke before he is plunged into his first adventure. Similarly, too large an amount of the series mythology tumbles out but not enough about the characters or where they live. The result is sometimes like watching episode 6 of a show rather than its debut.
I suspect that the intended audience will notice little of the above and find Wizards vs Aliens  to be exciting and colourful to watch. Visually it looks expensive for a children’s show with an impressive spaceship and some very colourful magic effects. The direction is taut and as we seem to be in a coastal town, things immediately seem less cramped than in The Sarah Jane Adventures.
As the characters are not yet defined it’s difficult to pass judgement though I suspect science nerd Benny (played strongly by Percelle Ascott) will be the younger viewer’s favourite with his slightly quirky behaviour while Tom seems to have been chosen to widen the show’s audience demographic to girls who might not otherwise watch. As Tom, Scott Haran does appear slightly too old to still be at school or at least in the same year as Benny but convinces as a protagonist. The banter between the two is well written though and there is none of the awkwardness sometimes seen from younger performers in this kind of show. However, some attempts to talk about the difference between science and magic are too pat, another example of there being too much information in the story.
There’s a delightfully dotty performance from Annete Badland as Tom’s gran while the incomparable Brian Blessed provides the voice of the Nekross king as only he can, as if bellowing from the top of a mountain. The design of the king owes something to Farscape. The Nekross themselves are slightly generic aliens for those of us who’ve seen every alien British television can muster but effective enough though they might be more menacing if their faces were not banana yellow in colour.
There’s light and shade to and one very funny visual gag in episode 1 establishes the tenor of the series though not all the funnies hit their target, especially in part 2 where the threat of Nekkros is undermined by a poor resolution to the cliffhanger. The second episode also introduces us to an amusing hobgoblin that lives in the magic room at Tom’s house which again tilts towards humour but the episode redeems itself near the end with an elegant sequence in which our heroes escape from the Nekross ship in a car. This memorable image will linger long after the details of the story have faded and suggest that there is a lot of potential for the series if it can balance a number of tricky elements.

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