With the opening adventure in the series out of the way, and the important characters and concepts introduced, this second week of Wizards Vs Aliens gives the production team their first opportunity to let their hair down and show us what the series might really be capable of delivering. It could have gone either way; a show as young as this one might easily have taken the conservative option, and created a second story that very carefully avoided any possibility of alienating an audience that still hadn’t had the opportunity to fully adjust to what the series was. Or Phil Ford and company could hang caution to the wind, choose attack as the best form of defence and simply produce the most barnstorming pair of episodes they could afford, complete with more laughs out loud than most series gather across an entire run, a pair of central characters who behave like they’ve being doing this kind of thing for a lifetime, and the most ridiculous-looking alien creation ever committed to videotape.
The fact that Phil Ford and company not only chose this route, but pulled it off better than anyone could have possibly foreseen, has to be down to the confidence of a crew that have been together for the better part of the past five years. Even Russell T Davies wouldn’t have had quite this amount of gall back in the day – although having said that, The End of the World is quite obviously the Doctor Who episode whose tone is most obviously invoked, not least in the odd combination of comedy and suspense that had me gripping my partner’s knee in anticipation, while simultaneously erupting in unforced laughter (thankfully, she was laughing too).
Grazlax Attacks is essentially a “bottle” story, taking place more or less entirely in the home of Benny (the ever more charming Percelle Ascott, every bit as much a star in the making as his more traditionally heroic counterpart), our science geek half of the central duo. But before we get to Benny’s house, the episode deals with a couple of important points, one of which will have a longer-lasting consequence and effectively sets up the rest of the series. We open in the school yard, and while this first scene operates at its most basic level as a quick catch-up on events for those who might have missed last week’s debut story, it also demonstrates how the relationships between these schoolchildren have developed since the events of Dawn of the Nekross, and allows for the character beats that are to come. But the next scene, in which apprentice wizard Tom (Scott Haran, who proves in these episodes how deft a touch for comedy he possesses), his grandmother Ursula (Annette Badland, whose three spells at the end of the second half of this story provides its most enjoyable moment amongst many), and their “pet” hobgoblin Randal Moon (an immensely enjoyable turn from Dan Starkey) create a shroud around the Earth, is vitally important for the series’ longevity – the effect of this will be to effectively remove the most direct element of the Nekross’ threat. Without this sequence, the entire concept of Wizards Vs Aliens would very soon have challenged the audience’s ability to suspend its disbelief; now, thanks to a very simple fix, out of which the need for more direct confrontation arises, Ford and his fellow writers can get on with the business of telling as many stories as they like without having to explain why the Nekross can’t just come and take what they want as and when they please. Simple, clever, effective.
Benny’s parents – a delightfully knowing pair of performances from Don Gilet and Nina Sosanya – are the cause of much embarrassment for poor Benny, and the chemistry between the four actors in these scenes is terrific to see. This whole section of the story might be written and played with undoubted archness, but because it’s played so well and written so empathetically, we can feel every nuance of the schoolboys’ discomfort, and the scenes serve to heighten the dramatic tension before we even arrive at the drama.
And then the Grazlax itself. Obviously inspired by Gremlins (its mode of reproduction is awfully familiar), the Grazlax actually reminded me of the Sesame Street character Grover, by way of the reimagined Cybermats from last year’s Closing Time. Cute, hilarious, and absolutely terrifying, the Grazlax allowed for masses of physical comedy, while simultaneously providing all the forward thrust a story of this kind might need. It might have been a huge risk putting something so idiotic-looking up on screen, but it pays off tremendously. I haven’t enjoyed myself watching something on television quite as much since, well, since Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.
The resolution to all of this was also very familiar to old-school Doctor Who fans, and was ultimately just a touch predictable. But that’s not a criticism; even if you can see the solution coming, the value of the story is in how much fun the ride is before you get there, and Grazlax Attacks is a gargantuan amount of fun. Even the bookending scenes that occasionally dogged The Sarah Jane Adventures, in which the “moral” of the story is spelled out for the youngsters in the audience, are toned down in Wizards Vs Aliens; without the recurrent use of voice-overs to take you in and out of the story, this series has to make such sequences play more naturally, as dialogue between the characters, and they’re a lot less mawkish as a result.
I cannot imagine Ford and his team having as much fun with the rest of Wizards Vs Aliens as they do here, but they’ve certainly displayed a lot more confidence in their material than anyone might have expected, and it’s to the credit of their actors, and particularly Haran and Ascott, that Grazlax Attacks is as enjoyable as it is. The two boys rise to the challenge magnificently, and it’s in the plethora of tiny, personal moments they bring to the material that the episodes really, really work. A rollickingly successful story.