Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Wizards vs Aliens Season One

In the wizards camp you have Scott Haran as Tom Clarke – a Harry Potter wanabee in that he is an emerging wizard who has lost his mother under dramatic circumstances. Not a bad little actor but a perhaps a little too sensitive considering his masculine nature is referred to in the script quite a few times. Likeable, but not developed as much I would like. There’s not a great deal of difference between the Tom of the opener and the Tom of the finale besides his friendship with Benny and his opinion of one of the Nekross. Percelle Ascot as Benny Sherwood is slightly wooden to begin with, as though he has trouble saying his dialogue naturalistically (but then so did Daniel Radcliffe at first and look how well that turned out). Dressed to look younger than he is and given the most hideous specker glasses, Ascot is strangely the better looking of the two. Goes on a much more interesting journey than Tom and is far easier to sympathise with (everyone loves the downtrodden character). Finds his confidence and reveals his ability far more than the central character.

Micheal Clarke is a forgettable character and yet at the same time the character who surprises me the most because of it. He’s pushed to the background more often than not (in a way that the Sarah Jane Adventures was equally child and adult oriented, this show is far more involved with the kiddywinks) but Higgs is clearly a very capable actor and when given the right material delivers in spades. He needs more screen time. On the other hand Annette Badland as Ursula Crowe is by a whisker the best character and proof if it was needed why an adult presence is desperately needed in this series. She’s everything that the scripts want her to be; funny, scary and a bit batty. I love how she can swing from being a forgettable old crow to a formidable witch in the blink of an eye. Again the stories aren’t necessarily about her but when she is given the chance to stand out (Fall of the Nekross) she wipes all the characters off the screen. At first I thought Randall Moon was the weakest character and the reason this felt much more immature than its predecessor but continued exposure proved that his presence was well judged and he showed more potential than simply a comedy hobgoblin his initial appearance suggested. Starkey is an actor of no small talents and he inhabits this creature with a great deal of believability, even if the makeup lets him down slightly.

On the side of the aliens you have Brian Blessed as the Nekross King, an irritatingly awful special effect and a standard, one note villain. Blessed deserves much more, he’s an incredible actor. My gut reaction was that Lexi she was going to be the weakest character after Dawn of the Nekross pushed her brother centre stage but somewhere around the middle of the season she became my favourite, just edging out Ursula. Of everybody she goes on the most interesting journey and by the end of the season you don’t know if she is ally or enemy and it’s a kind of ambiguity that you wont really find anywhere else in the show. Christie, hot from the second season of Game of Thrones, let’s rip once she is inside the mask which affords her the opportunity to show surprising depths and underplay the role the further we greater understand the character. Only in the last story does she disappoint, Phil Ford seemingly wiping away all of her development by simply ignoring it. I loved how Varg started out with such confidence and by the end of the season he has been completely castrated by his father. It reminds me strongly of the journey that Crais goes on in the first series of Farscape, going from a standard, one-note villain to a more sympathetic victim in a short space of time. It might not have escaped your attention that I found the aliens far more interesting than the wizards. I’m as surprised as you are.

Its natural to make comparisons between The Sarah Jane Adventures and Wizards vs Aliens and I have to say I found the new show wanting in this respect. Its perfectly acceptable on its own terms but it doesn’t quite match up to the consistent quality of its predecessor. The storylines aren’t quite as involving and the overall look of the show isn’t quite as polished (but then they can’t dust down old Doctor Who costumes and props like the other show could). What I did find when thinking about the two shows was that Wizards vs Aliens lacked a strong adult presence which Elisabeth Sladen brought to the show and as a result this felt far more geared towards young children rather than a family audience. One thing that always impressed me about SJA was how innovative the scripts were right through to the climax, aside from one adventure each Wizards vs Alien script of the first season had a far superior opening installment than closing one.

Dawn of the Nekross: A bit uninspiring and feeling like too much is thrown at you too quickly, this is actually a rather messy introductory story. Phil Ford is capable of terrific character work but his handling of the regulars feels overly simplistic and the story hops from one set piece to another with little in the way of an engaging narrative to string it all together. There’s nothing that feels particularly original here, the core of the show seeming to be inspired from a mixture of Harry Potter and Doctor Who. The sequence with the car in space is a highlight and should be the sort of set piece this show should be aspiring too but more often than not we’re cutting to the rather embarrassing Nekross King which blows any credibility for the series out the water. I wasn’t convince of this series’ potential by the conclusion and that wasn’t a great place to start. And it might be fatuous of me to say but that is the gayest looking magical fairy dust I have ever seen: 4/10

Grazlax Attacks: Better, if not perfect. Watching this I began to see the chemistry emerging between Haran and Ascott it made perfect sense to give them an adventure on their own. It develops in surprising ways (I never thought they would destroy Benny’s house in such a unsalvageable way and Ursula’s kiddie friendly spells going awry to restore the place to its factory settings was delightful) although if you’ve seen Gremlins there is very little that is original. It’s a fun action tale with nothing deep going on (which makes that two for two in the respect), this is only really let down significantly by the horrendous realisation of the Grazlax itself. A marketing opportunity hitting the screen, me thinks, but more suited to a childs bedroom than on screen because they lack any sense of realism whatsoever. SJA never suffered production values quite this poor: 6/10

Rebel Magic: Along comes Joe Lidster to salvage the show and explore the potential in the central characters of Tom and Benny. Lidster has a way writing sophisticated scripts without making things incomprehensible for the kids which I really like. His strengths are thematic depth and strong characterisation and both are very much in evidence here. Responding to the mature writing, the direction is suddenly far darker and much more watchable. Whilst Jackson Hawke’s storyline is mapped out thanks to the flashbacks which hint at the twist long before it is revealed, the actor chosen to play the part is very strong and he injects a great deal of subtle menace into the way he bewitches Tom. The only story of the season where the climax didn’t let me down, this one played out unpredictably throughout and was one of the highlights of the season: 8/10

Friend or Foe: A superb first part which had great fun with developing Lexi and pushing her into a spanking new role and was only let down by a slightly underwhelming conclusion that runs on the spot rather than continuing to innovate. Gaunt is initially intriguing but ultimately little more than a pantomime villain that is nowhere near as effective as she is painted. Strong direction again and it was around the first cliffhanger where things were getting really interesting (hero and villain captured and suffering an equal fate) that I saw how the serialised nature of the show could be used to its advantage. A terrific chance to do something different with the Nekross and push the central storyline of their incursion on the planet into a far more interesting direction: 7/10

Fall of the Nekross: The highlight of the first season by a country mile and an enthralling piece of storytelling from Gareth Roberts. How he turns the Nekross, one of the most exaggerated alien races to grace my television screen into victims that I was concerned about is inspired and pushing Benny centre stage means that he is given a great deal of strong, dramatic maturity. Joss Agnew’s direction is second to none and he ensures the destruction that the Nekross face looks absolutely genuine and the whole notion of the compute virus gone awry is brilliantly conceived and even more impressively realised (that smiley face is strangely menacing). In the second part I really appreciated the conflict between Ursula (who is deeply unsympathetic and therefore so much more interesting than anybody else) and Benny because its exactly the sort of moral ambiguity that the show has been lacking to this point, plumping instead for grand adventure. This wasn’t perfect (the alliance between the Nekross and humanity is nowhere near as effectively handled as it was in Friend or Foe) but its as close as season one gets: 9/10

The Last Day: As the first story was underwhelming, thus the finale suffers the same fate. Season one of SJA climaxed on The Lost Boy also by Phil Ford which married the epic (a terrific multi layered plot that saw two sets of villains emerge) and the emotional (Sarah Jane losing Luke and all the drama that surrounded that). In comparison this is flaccid stuff, making a meal out of the return of Tom’s mum because it hasn’t really been explored enough to warrant the emotional investment the script expects us to make in her appearance. Its clear from the off that something is fishy about the whole set up and the concept of cloning the woman guts the story of any sincerity, choosing to go for something quirky rather than giving the story a quiet honesty. By suggesting that she is dead and embodying a clone with her essence, it feels like the show is trying to have its cake and eat it and that isn’t dramatically satisfying. With clones of a regular characters long lost relation wandering about, this had a peculiar air of The X-Files. Haran is fantastic here, his best performance of the year but the rest of the cast is barely given a chance to impress. Ford is easily the shows weakest writer and it seems a pity that he should be its most prolific. One great script a year would be much preferable to three average ones. There’s the odd moment of stinging emotion that sweetens the pill: 5/10

Summing up: There is clearly a great deal of untapped potential in this series and the initial set up has proven to have much more life in it than I imagined. Having seen Russell T Davies’ Dark Season for the first time this week, the main difference between the children’s television he was making at the beginning of his career and the children’s television he is making now is that it is a whole lot fluffier and (dare I say it) safer these days. Whether that is a good or bad thing is up to you to decide, certainly there is more complexity of characterisation nowadays but the trade off seems to be a slightly patronising and far less chilling tone. The season is a serial rather than an anthology series and it enjoys all the strengths (a running storyline with developed characters) and weaknesses (a lack of range) that comes with it. The series needs to try and marry its running plotlines with some standalone stories to see if it can survive without the Nekross presence but at the same I wouldn’t want it to lose its ability to surprise by given the villains such decent exposure. For all that Lexi and Varg are given a chance to emerge as the strongest characters, the Nekross as an alien race are a let down and I really miss the production line of great villains and aliens that the Sarah Jane Adventures offered. The biggest difference between the two shows was that in the first year SJA enjoyed a variety of tales from outright science fiction (Revenge of the Slitheen, Warriors of Kudlak), supernatural chills (Eye of the Gorgon), spellbinding time travel drama (Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane) to searing character drama (The Lost Boy). In comparison Wizards vs Aliens feels oddly one note, the same villains each week and the same tone to each episode. I could tell which stories I preferred but it was usually down to the strength of the characterisation and direction rather than a unique quality of the individual stories. At the same time by following a specific formula it does mean that plot wise it can throw in a humdinger from time to time, like the near destruction of the Nekross in the fifth story which was exciting because it left you wondering where the series would go from that point without its central antagonists. Sam Watts’ score lacks variety (whilst still being excellent) whereas for the previous series he gave every story a unique flavour. The show needs to be lavished with a larger budget, as often its deficiencies lie in its realisation (with particular reference to the Nekross King and the Grazlax). By the end of the year Haran and Ascott both seem much more comfortable with their roles than they did at the beginning (especially the latter) although it still bugs me that I’d rather spend my time with the bad guys. I should be cheering on the protagonists far more than I do. Whilst the evolving plotline gives the season some real impetus (especially in the core stories) it does seem strange that a show that feels as if it is heading somewhere special fails to culminate the Nekross plotline in the finale. Instead it promises that in the next season whilst climaxing on a limp gesture. A real mixture of good and bad with flashes of real inspiration and class but weighed down by some mediocre writing (Ford needs to up his game in series two), Wizards vs Alien is an oddity for sure but one which grew on me exponentially as the series progressed. It doesn’t have the wow factor of the Sarah Jane Adventures but it looks like it could mature into quite a respectable series in its own right with a few niggles ironed out. If this review has felt like a list of complaints, I am excited for series two and that has to be a sign of success. Kudos to Joe Lidster, Clayton Hickman and Gareth Roberts for finding something involving to hang on what is quite a clichéd framework. One question – why didn’t Russell T Davies write for the first season?

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