Wizards Vs Aliens has a deceptively simple-but-complicated idea at its core, dealing as it does in what must be a unique fusion of pulpy sci-fi and pure fantasy: grotesque yellow-faced aliens arrive on Earth with only one thing on their mind – magic. Or to be more precise, the locating of wizards, those who deal in magic, so that these Nekross can feed on the magic that the wizards possess. It might have been so horrible; in the wrong hands, such a conceit could have unbalanced itself spectacularly badly, and tipped too far in the direction of Harry Potter or Doctor Who (or even Grange Hill!), unsettling the delicate distribution of elements required to keep such a concept fluid. Fortunately, we’re in the hands of the people who brought us The Sarah Jane Adventures.
The counterpoint, then, to the tricksy conceit of magic versus science, is the relationship between the central characters. And if Phil Ford and Russell T Davies can’t do character, then no one can. The most brilliant, most obvious (and yet often most elusive) choice as regards fictional protagonists is in giving us something we knew we expected once we’d seen it, but could never have predicted before we did. Meet Tom Clarke, the ‘ordinary Joe’, a football-loving high school kid who just happens to be a wizard. And Benny Sherwood, his class-mate, the science geek. They’re not the best of friends. But what comes out of the blue is that it’s the jock, the sporty one, who’s the central character, the one around whom this opening instalment rotates. In any other drama, the jock would have been the support, and the geeky kid would have been the one with the tricks up his sleeve. It works so well, you can’t imagine Ford and Davies having any other choice to make.
And while Scott Haran has been receiving all the early plaudits in the role of Tom, actually I do believe the charmingly upbeat Percelle Ascott (Benny) gives more than as good as he gets. They both offer occasionally unexpectedly subtle performances in what is, and perhaps given the 25 minute running time not unpredictably, quite a broadly brushed-in first instalment. When we first meet the whole class out on a field trip, some of the humour deployed in order to sketch in the relationships as they currently exist (and are about to be altered irrevocably) is not just obvious but almost cheekily so; it’s the performances of the actors (and not just the central pair, but those surrounding them as well) that sells the reality of the interactions. They seem a natural bunch, they feel like they’ve been together for years, rather than performing like a group of actors out on their first job – always a risk in these situations. Our first glimpse of Tom and Benny (at the football field) includes the most obvious punch line of the whole episode, but Haran performs it so beautifully it will only make you smile to see it played out.
Also an unexpected delight is the tone of the series. For while it shares the ‘feel’ of The Sarah Jane Adventures – that unique combination of brashness and delicacy that was borne out of the parent series and honed for the CBBC environment – Wizards Vs Aliens eschews many of the trappings that we might have predicted it would embrace. Ford and Davies both stated in interviews beforehand that the series, while sharing common ground with Doctor Who and Harry Potter, would actually stand apart from those apparent influences and be something unique and unto itself. They weren’t wrong. There’s an early joke at the Rowling saga’s expense which should help to distance WvA from the ‘competition’, and while it would be too bizarrely post-modern for a programme from the same stable as Doctor Who to name-check that series as well, there’s a running debate during the second half of the opening story about magic versus science that pretty much sums up the relationship between this series and those others. Ford and Davies aren’t afraid of where Wizards has come from, but at the same time, they’re not interested in simply repeating the same formula.
By the same token, there are – and largely because of the budget and the slot – a lot of familiar elements: Wizards is on the same playing field as Sarah Jane, and the way the plot develops feels natural in the same way as it was all that SJA’s 2 x 27 minute running time would allow. The inclusion and influence of family is also part of what the team behind the two series feel is important (for although it’s a CBBC standard, the way Ford and Davies write it is uniquely their own), and the aliens themselves, while brand new, are very much along the lines of what The Sarah Jane Adventures might have presented.
Ah yes, the Nekross. The be-helmeted foot soldiers have the appearance of rather tall, slightly athletic Sontarans (and that’s in part because of the colour of their costumes), but once the helmets are off the Nekross themselves are surprisingly frightening – perhaps not for adult viewers, but certainly for the regular audience of Children’s BBC. Indeed, they reminded me a fair bit of Predators (albeit yellow ones), with their slightly crumpled faces and mane of alien “hair”, and the prosthetics are so good that the very young among the watching public might well be induced into having nightmares once they’ve seen an episode or two. The Nekross are an impressive creation, and we don’t have to wait long to see them either. I had a feeling that the series might be cagey about their use at first, what with twelve episodes to fill, but I’m pleased to say that under this production regime, we get the Nekross early and we get some quality time with them too. In fact, it’s refreshing how the series pays off on things in good time, rather than setting things up only to frustrate the viewer by making them wait for a resolution.
Something else we get rather earlier than anticipated is... well, that would be telling. There’s a character that turns up in the Part One cliffhanger that I’d expected would be held back for much later in the series, and while this character’s appearance is largely rather similar to something we’ve seen before (in the very first Sarah Jane Adventure, in fact), that’s completely forgivable; it’s easy to forget how small a budget Wizards must be operating on, especially given the lengths everyone has gone to to impress with this first story. It looks fantastic, and there’s no skimping on the outer space shots or spaceship effects. Patently this episode has been allocated a larger portion of the effects budget than the rest of the series, in order to reel its audience in. I’m looking forward to some cheaper episodes, then, ones which concentrate on the characters rather more. Dawn of the Nekross is by necessity both self-contained and open-ended, and satisfies in spite of its slightness. There’s a lot more to tell in this series, and the conceit brilliantly allows for some variety in the telling. I cannot imagine the programme becoming boring or repetitive.
Oh, and on the subjects of Sontarans and Harry Potter... no. You’ll have to wait until the second episode to find out. Suffice it to say, a familiar element appears, that – just as with everything else in Wizards Vs Aliens – is distinct enough in and of itself to warrant its inclusion. Like I said, sometimes the obvious things just have to be done, but it’s in the how you do them that allows for their validity. Everything that’s familiar in this series is there because logic dictates it be, and the relationships between the characters and other elements are a delicious web that I’m not going to spoil by unravelling here. Sarah Jane fans will be rocked by a subtle but touching nod to the past that might have been bittersweet but instead will undoubtedly result in smiles all around.
Wizards Vs Aliens might be aimed principally at those for whom double-figures are still an aspiration, but if you can barely remember your single-figures, don’t let that put you off. It’s smart, it’s fun – in fact, it rather glories in a cheesy side that modern television doesn’t often dabble in anymore – and it’s refreshing. It might be making hay with the tropes of Doctor Who and the Harry Potter series, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen those elements combined in quite the same way before, and for half an hour twice a week you could do a lot worse than escape into its universe.