Wizards vs Aliens: Mixed Results

Following the promising first two episodes, the debut season of Wizards vs Aliens proved to be a very mixed bag.
The second story is intended to allow us to better know both Tom and especially Benny. While their appearances conform to stereotype, it is refreshing to see that cool Tom soon becomes panicky Tom once danger is about and he has- once again- wasted his triple spell supply on trivial things. It takes a reviewer more generous than me to let the story’s menace through without at least mentioning the word `Muppet`. I know budgets are tight but there are times when we can almost see how these furry blue ankle biters are being controlled. It might be CBBC but there have been more menacing things in Tracey Beaker than these and if you want to see how to create something dangerous on a less than stellar budget have a look at Attack the Block.
  Thankfully though, the boys’ reaction just about compensates and suggests dedication to the series; how else could they manage to look realistically scared of such things?  Phil Ford constructs a good pull and push between the two; emphasising how working together they double their effectiveness. They are perhaps a little too buddy tight considering they don’t know each other that well. Inevitably they end up covered in an orange version of the gunk which the young cast of The Sarah Jane Adventures regularly used to find themselves plastered in. It must be in the job description!

It might be a bit early for a storyline like third story `Rebel Magic` in which Tom’s adherence to the rules of magic is challenged by outsider Jackson Hawke who uses his own powers for his enjoyment.

We don’t really know Tom and Benny well enough for their fledgling friendship to be threatened- a second season story on this level would work far better. Even so there is much to enjoy with the levity quotient substantially reduced from the previous story and restricted to bickering amongst the aliens. These lurches between very serious and very silly appear to be a common aspect of children’s television drama so presumably appeal to the target audience. For anyone else they can sometimes seem irritating and detract from the peril.

This is especially true of this story in which Joseph Lidster has included a lot of content concerning the nature of friendship while the central story is akin to a drug allegory. Tom soon comes under the influence of Jackson especially when it comes to a plot to defeat the Nekross. Scott Haran handles what is a slightly over wordy story well enough- and seems to be going hoarse towards the end of part 2 with all the shouting he has to do but it really belongs to Percelle Ascott. With half as much yelling he manages to put across twice as much emotion and is fast becoming the character we can empathise with. Lidster just about swerves clear of over moralising but the balance of the story is weighted too much towards the second half. Had there been less shenanigans between the Nekross in part 1 things might have levelled out more evenly. Hence the ending is rushed and Jackson too easily brought back to his senses but this is the most satisfying story of the first half of the season. 

"I will defeat you with this large mint"

`Friend or Foe` is a story of two halves. The first episode seems like an out and out comedy with Nekross’ Lexi disguising herself as a human in an attempt to integrate Tom’s circle. The tone is light so the now human Lexi comes across as behaving too unusually for the kids- and especially Tom- not to notice but they don’t. Despite Tom’s football prowess already having been established he readily accepts her offer of more training; if writer Clayton Hickman is suggesting Tom has a crush on her this doesn’t really show on screen. Next thing both Tom and Lexi are captured by the rather manic antagonist Stephanie Gaunt who is so delighted to have caught both a wizard and an alien that she leaves them alone and unguarded to plot their escape! Meanwhile Benny has seen the kidnap and in order to get him to recall the licence plate of the van used Lexxie’s brother Varg suggests a `brain scrape`.

This story teeters on the brink of unsubtle slapstick but Hickman rescues it with later aspects that see a developing relationship between the two detainees. It must be tricky to emote through a banana yellow monster prosthetic but Gwendoline Christie manages to do so and the dialogue between her and Tom is thoughtfully constructed. The scenes they have prove to be Scott Haran’s best to date suggesting that if Tom did less shouting and more talking the tone of the show might settle into something more substantial.

The overall plot remains patchy however with Gaunt’s vague plan to force her prisoners to steal things and an over contrived resolution but what remains is the touching bond between wizard and alien something that is further explored in the subsequent `Fall of the Nekross`.

Penned with a superior flourish by Gareth Roberts this busy story provides Benny with a moment of glory when a computer virus he uploads into the alien’s system (yes, there’s plenty of technowaffle!) has the result of condemning the intruders to a frosty demise. This in turn provokes some heart searching amongst all the characters- seemingly dotty granny Ursula is all for letting them perish pointing to the way they have ruthlessly drained wizards while Benny is filled with guilt over the results of his actions have caused and wants to make amends. The point that Roberts eloquently makes is that they are both right and when Lexi appeals to Tom directly it puts the ultimate responsibility into his hands.

"Are you sure we can't get Coronation Street?"
This is the sort of dilemma that the series should be exploring. Previous episodes have seemed to talk down to the perceived audience in a manner that The Sarah Jane Adventures rarely did whereas this story demands more of the viewer than simply being amused or diverted. There are perhaps too many heroic speeches near the end but Roberts brings matters to a satisfying conclusion and seems to have found a way of making each of these characters work more dynamically than they so far have. In particular he brings Benny’s geekiness to the fore but gives him more of an everyman angle which allows Percelle Ascott   to give a strong performance and add much to someone who could easily become a one note character. The story does also bring into focus the fact that the Nekross’ story potential is rapidly evaporating. Mega shouty Brian Blessed puppet aside, the race have proved more agile in story telling terms than initially seemed possible but it is to be hoped that a second series would introduce different antagonists to avoid settling into a rut.

Matters conclude with `The Final Day`, a more emotional story than the series has thus far attempted in which writer Phil Ford has to work hard to encompass the effect he wants to achieve. It is a stretch to imagine that all this time the Nekross have been building clone factories around the world especially as pervious stories have suggested they rarely beam down to the planet. Even if you accept that it is even less likely that the very wizard they use for the clones is Tom’s late mother. To be fair, the backstory sets up her death battling some sort of light creature but then you ask yourself if this was six years ago and the Nekross are so desperate to feed on Earth’s magic would they have waited this long, especially when they have such advanced technology? .The story inadvertently upsets the premise of the series to date in that we have imagined there is just the one Nekross ship; surely they alone have not built all these factories? If there are others how come nobody came to their rescue two stories ago?

While these questions pile up, there are so many moods to get through that the second episode in particular seems rushed. No sooner has Tom got his head round the fact that it is his mother than she reveals she won’t be there for long and then there’s the world to save. It is too much for one character to deal with in 25 minutes and to his credit Scott Haran does his best but there is so much orchestral swell that by the end you can barely hear what he’s saying. There is no doubting the power of the scenario nonetheless and if this were a 3 part story it would work much better.

This first season is very schizophrenic in nature. At some points it seems aimed at the under fives with unconvincing puppets and running about. In more thoughtful or powerful moments there are echoes of The Sarah Jane Adventures but generally it seems a less sophisticated show, which may well be the intention. I didn’t feel the main character Tom Clarke was defined strongly enough at the start nor was the potential of his dealings with magic really explored except in` Rebel Magic` which should have been the approach of the whole season. The mooted difference between science and magic that the friendship between Tom and Benny was supposed to represent got mostly lost and the two seem out of context as we see less and less of their friends.

As mentioned earlier, the fact that the antagonists are the same in each story while no doubt born of budgetary restrictions adds limits to the story telling that show badly at some moments. Plus points are the good cast who add believability to some of the untenable scenarios in particular Gwendoline Christie and Jefferson Hall whose hard work underneath those prosthetics deserves praise and also Percelle Ascott who ensures Benny adds an identifiable, human dimension to proceedings. Puppets aside, the series always looks slick and impressive with strong FX and I do love those 1950s style opening titles.

Perhaps giving the series such a melodramatic moniker its makers have over sold what could be the story of a boy struggling to deal with his magic powers and how it conflicts with his school life. It may easily be the case that the target audience enjoys it and it is clearly not designed for adult viewers but at present the show’s ambition seems beyond its reach while something smaller might give more satisfying rewards.


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