Wizards vs Aliens Season 2

The children’s drama series co-created by Russell T Davies returns for its sophomore season with renewed intent. The opening story `100 Wizards` feels sharper and more self-assured and if some of the same drawbacks remain, at least matter s are propelled at a speed that allows the viewer not to notice. Tom Clarke in particular seems to have had a burst of wizard energy and become a far better written and played character who now justifies Scott Haran’s position as lead of the show. Unlike much of the first season where he was outshone by others Haran is front and centre with a more nuanced character who has clearly learned from his experiences and feels emboldened. There is both light and shade; a budding romance with fellow wizard Chloe is perfectly played and contrasts with his new found defiance against the Nekross. Thus there is also a much sparkier relationship between Tom and Benny reflecting their developing friendship.

Phil Ford’s lively script makes the best of the series’ insistence on using the Nekross every story by devising an ambitious plan worthy of their place. It is predictable to some extent – who didn’t know that Chloe’s `agent` was a Nekross in disguise- but not in others especially when the aliens’ plan is fully unveiled. It also has a strong sting in the tail at the end – a simple final shot that proves to be one of the most powerful this series has so far managed. One major issue remains with the Nekross King an enormous prosthetic voiced by Brian Blessed which just does not look convincing enough to match the standard of other effects. Perhaps if it wasn’t lit so brightly it might look better but at the moment it detracts in a manner that surely even the youngest viewers will find silly rather than dangerous.
Much of the dialogue suggests a wizard community ready to be more proactive with rousing intent though Ford rather kindly allows Tom’s un enchanted father to inspire the gathering to take action allowing Michael Higgs the chance to be more than a character who looks on to one side. 

`Vice Versa` heralds the Hobbledyhoy, a sort of “head with feet” that speaks only in rhyming couplets and which causes the principal characters to swap attributes. Hence Tom becomes a brainiac while Benny is able to do magic. Not only that but Ursula and Nekross prince Varg also swap and the results provide a highly entertaining romp. Writer Clayton Hickman manages a delicate balance between making interesting comparisons with moments of both verbal and physical comedy. This type of plot is often used in sci-fi / fantasy and gives the cast a chance to loosen up and temporarily escape the confines of their character and it’s in this aspect that all four excel here.
Scott Haran’s interpretation of Benny’s genius is spot on while Percelle Ascot is excellent as Benny accustoms himself to using magic. Hickman seems to suggest it is the latter character who gains the most thrill from it though it also provides Tom with a new perspective on his friend. Save for one extremely cheesy line near the end the dynamic between the two sparks very well.  Jefferson Hall has a great time as Varg gradually takes on Ursula’s mannerisms and flounders about the Nekross ship for some reason creating chickens whenever he uses magic. We’re not told why but it’s actually a funny motif. As for Annette Badland she relishes toughening up and showing her aggressive side.
The Hobbledyhoy itself is a just about passable puppet though it’s resemblance to some children’s toy does add something to its mischievousness. The character’s attempts to rhyme are amusing too.
Like some of the best scripts for The Sarah Jane Adventures, the denouement relies on brain power and words as much as it does action and as it should be the viewer is disappointed when people have to change back. This story could be something from which the series producers can also gain a new angle as it shows they don’t really give either lead actor enough variation from their standard magic is cool / science genius type and it’s nice to see some of their school mates too even if they do only get a handful of lines. It was starting to look as if these two never actually went to school any more.

The uneven third story `The Cave of Menla-Gto` seems unsure how to pitch. For every serious reflection on the wizards’ life there is a contrasting bout of silliness and the two don’t meld well. Entertaining though it is to see Randall Moon outside his and Benny’s sojourn seems far too jokey and stately given the dire danger we are continually reminded of by the others in Tibet. This jars because Benny seems too willing to muck about when he knows how little time there is. The philosophical side of the tale works much better though once the family arrive at the famed cave people seem to start making speeches rather than having conversations. It’s noticeable too that the Clarke family appear to be playing an increasingly prominent role in wizard-kind life and you wonder what all the other wizards are up to on a regular basis. Are they all a bit useless?

`The Curse of Crowe` is where the season starts to get seriously good. It works because of the time the characters have spent together and is a satisfying, beautifully rendered tale of friendship. Tom and Benny are split up by a spell cast by a wizard girl called Gemma Raven, whose mother will otherwise be drained of her magic by the Nekross. Thus the two friends revert to their initial position from the start of the first season only Tom has also forgotten he is a wizard. As if this wasn’t enough meaty drama, writer Gareth Roberts adds in the notion that, due to the way the spell is cast using a drop of Ursula’s blood, if the two boys’ relationship is rekindled, she will vanish and become a Never Was, a concept conveyed by way of a silent grey face in the wilderness.
It’s a terrific premise and everyone delivers 100% to live up to it. Both Scott Haran and Percelle Ascot have never been better as their characters’ reversion comes with feelings of isolation and perhaps a distant memory of the truth. Roberts’ central idea is that friendship is stronger than magic and when this finally turns out to be true it is in a subtle, emotional scene as good as you’ll see in any children’s drama. It’s up to – and perhaps even beyond- the standard of some of those excellent Sarah Jane Adventures stories which is a height I’m not sure this series has until reached until now.
Both episodes also show a refreshing sense of development. The sense of time passing that flashbacks give is backed up by narrative acknowledgment of the Nekros’s high rate of failure. It’s also good that we get to see more of both Katie and Quinn, Tom’s two rarely seen school friends who give the two heroes something to contrast with and a sense that their lives are more complicated than just fighting aliens.  Despite Russell T Davies saying the series won’t be going for a love story, I think it would add a necessary, believable level; after all Tom is supposed to be a16 year old boy and whenever Scott Haran and
Manpreet Bambra share scenes there is clear chemistry. I love the fact too that Quinn has continued to befriend Benny after his football exploits a couple of stories ago. There is potential for fun too as they are such a mis- matched duo with Connor Scarlett giving Quinn a likeable side. There is plenty of action but this is a story that requires its young audience to think a little more. For many shows this would be the standout story but wait a sec….

`The Thirteenth Floor` was apparently originally intended for The Sarah Jane Adventures, and takes Tom and Benny away from their normal surroundings as they embark on work experience in a high rise office block. If traces of the other series are present in the more urban surroundings and –gasp- another creature who is not a Nekross then the writers have successfully retooled the plot to fit in with the on-going improvement in this series that the last story established.
People have been going missing in this spot since before the current building was constructed- it’s a wonder the Doctor hasn’t looked into it! Despite the fact there seem to be no thirteenth floor, the lift is prone to shuddering, shaking and taking people there. Upon arrival they find a lush forest stretching out beyond the doors. It turns out that this is the Neverside, a magic place previously referenced in the show where normality does not apply and time moves a lot faster. Sending victims there is a Troll with a large horn and big teeth, one of which Benny finds on the floor though he disguises himself as a caretaker. When Benny’s work experience boss goes missing the mystery kicks off.
If the route that gets Tom to this mysterious location along with a once again human version of Lexi (who is looking for her vanished brother) is a tad contrived, it is worthwhile. Last year’s story in which the duo were trapped together and gained some rapport worked very well, however this time there is an even more intimate dynamic as they age quickly, have a child and Tom learns to live without hair product. Both actors bring the best out of each other; Gwendoline Christie’s humanised Lexi slowly becomes more open and emotional while Scott Haran is excellent when portraying a much more adult version of his character. Phil Ford’s nimble domestic narrative even has them becoming parents though the identity of the stalking beast they keep at bay is less of a surprise to the attentive viewer. It is an accomplished journey though with a message of making the best of a situation. The more human Lexi becomes the easier it is for us to forget those scenes of wizards being drained of their magic and being left as old people. As she explains this is how she was raised – perhaps Phil Ford is a vegetarian?
Visually the episode gleams in a sunlit woodland sheen and so it is quite a wrench for the viewer when rescue eventually comes. While the ending has to necessarily draw both characters back to their default setting there is a suggestion that they will remember what happened in some scattered form and the final scenes are quite emotional ones. So two great stories in a row. Can they make it a hat-trick?

Course they can! The ambitious `Endless Night` adds another level of danger by introducing a peril felt by the whole world when the Nekross manage to push the Moon closer to the Earth during a partial eclipse thereby blotting out the Sun completely. Unless all wizards surrender, the Nekross will keep it there meaning that not only will those daily magic top ups be unavailable but the weather will become crazy. It’s a big, bold scenario that would normally be suited to Doctor Who rather than the comparatively modestly budgeted Wizards vs Aliens. Matters are framed by considerable use of news footage and effective camera filters. Phil Ford’s script is pitched at just the right level of jeopardy and some lighter moments (Randall Moon’s reaction to events is very funny) building to a strong cliffhanger. All the while too, he references the previous story with both Tom and Lexi having strange dreams about something they have theoretically forgotten.
These broader flourishes suggest a maturing show that, if it has a third season, will need to branch out beyond the Nekross threat into other things; after this gambit it’s hard to see how much more the aliens can do. Kudos too for director Joss Agnew who manages to achieve the seemingly impossible feat of making the Nekross King menacing despite all that yellow foam. That it is Benny who has the idea of how to save the world slots in with the magic versus science themes earlier this season and the story also ties in with last year’s stone circle. Having Tom and Lexi needing to work together provides an emotional angle at the end.
It is the contrasts between the big threat and the small character moments that make `Endless Night` particularly good. One scene with Tom, Benny, Katie and Quinn in an empty school sums up everything that needs to be said and spurs Tom on to make a heroic offer to the Nekross. You might think it’s a scene that could easily be cut but in some ways it’s the most important one. It is touches like this that show how well constructed this series has become.

Russell T Davies makes an electrifying return in the final story of the season `All Out War!” which really lives up to its moniker. It’s the sort of rip roaring epic with which he used to conclude each of his Doctor Who seasons, a full blooded romp that manages to skate over any narrative anomalies with sheer energy and exhilaration. It is the best Wizards vs Aliens story, indeed in tone and sheer excitement it surpasses several Doctor Who stories of the past three years. It is important to say though that without the build-up that this second season has provided it would not be nearly as effective. Davies draws together the story strands involving Nekross familial and political developments, the developing relationship between Tom and Lexi as well as Tom and Benny. On top of that there are sizzling action sequences and the best cliffhanger Davies has written since the end of the Doctor Who story `Utopia`. Just for good measure he blows up most of the Clarke’s house and convinces us he’s killed off a main character. In achieving this feat he pushes beyond the strictures of children’s drama into something more mainstream and involving. Very simply it is just thumping good entertainment and races along so quickly it is heart stopping.
Doctor Who watchers will of course notice several familiar goings on, not least the transformation of Tom into a sort of super wizard which echoes Rose’s similar fate but it’s the gusto with which Davies attacks this story that blows you away. Childrens series like this tend to be a little cosy, a little too unwilling to move on and do anything significant. This series has tended to do the same though this second season has added in far more underlying arcs than the first. `All Out War!` manages to up the stakes and pull away any lingering cosiness. Storylines about Tom and Lexi’s Neverworld existence, the revolution going on in Nekross and even Tom’s endlessly cancelled dates with Katie all figure in a series of scenes that pack in so much material. Davies’ love of cliffhangers is especially evident in a glorious multi jeopardy end of part 1 which just makes you go `wow`! The budget is blown on a series of effects shots in space and reducing much of the Clarke house to ruins
Yet it is his grasp of how human dynamics can shape seemingly overwhelming situations that he ultimately builds the story on. This is evident everywhere in part 2 from Ursula’s situation, Benny’s revelation and most of all Tom and Lexi’s most unusual relationship. I don’t want to say too much because, to partly paraphrase an old saying, if you only ever watch one Wizards vs Aliens story make it this one! Who’d have thought that some banana coloured aliens and a handful of wizards could end up in such a great adventure! They’ve got to do a third season haven’t they?

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