Wizards Vs Aliens series 1 episodes 7 and 8 review

Review James Peaty 21 Nov 2012 - 09:31

Wizards Vs Aliens delivers an episode reminiscent of The Sarah Jane Adventures at its romping best. Here's James' review...

This review contains spoilers.

1.7 & 1.8 Friend Or Foe

After a couple of enjoyable, yet tonally uncertain stories, BBC Wales’ Wizards vs Aliens finally begins to live up to the potential of its opening episodes' story with this hugely entertaining fourth adventure.   

Written by former Sarah Jane Adventures co-writer Clayton Hickman, Friend or Foe is packed to the gills with incident and adventure and establishes a cheeky pace and energy that’s reminiscent of SJA at its romping best. 

Based around yet another tried and tested genre staple (a card that WvA seems to play extremely well) Hickman’s first solo TV script follows the story of female Nekross princess, Lexi (Gwendoline Christie) as she adopts human form as a way of ensnaring series lead, Tom Clarke (Scott Haran). 

However, the Nekross aren’t the only ones with their eyes on Tom. as the mysterious, scheming human billionaire Stephanie Gaunt (Ruthie Henshall) also has designs on the young wizard for equally nefarious reasons. 

Thanks to the intervention of Gaunt, Lexi is captured while in pursuit of Tom and soon both are forced to work for the billionaire as she plans to steal the Crown Jewels using a combination of magic and alien science. 

Playing with the established WvA format, Hickman clearly has a lot of fun with Lexi’s human guise, recasting her as the plummy and strikingly leggy ‘Lucy’. Easily the more interesting of the show's two lead aliens, Christie goes to town playing a decidedly ‘jolly hockey-sticks’ version of Lexi, an incarnation which owes more than a passing nod to WvA regular Annette Badland’s turn as Margaret Slitheen in Doctor Who.     

Similarly channelling Russell T Davies’ era of Who is Ruthie Henshall as the scheming, Stephanie Gaunt. Seemingly born to appear in one of the renowned writer's various shows, it’s no surprise that Davies himself recently stated that Henshall would have been his choice to play the Rani if he’d ever brought that character back into Doctor Who

How much of that statement is just PR hot air is inevitably open to debate, but you can certainly imagine Henshall stepping in for Kate O’Mara as Stephanie Gaunt is undoubtedly a character drawn from the same, defiantly camp well as the legendary Time Lady.   

But despite all the fun Henshall brings to the party, sauntering around in her killer heels like a modern Wicked Witch of the West, the real meat of this story comes from Hickman exploring the culture and genre clash that exists at the heart of the show. 

Similar genre mash-ups, including 2011’s mega-budget flop Cowboys & Aliens, have arguably failed because they’ve been content to simply let the clash of genres and icons act as a cool ‘hook’ without ever really allowing that clash to develop into a catalyst for real or engaging drama. 

Wizards vs Aliens' own version of this pitfall would be to let the relationship between the Nekross and the Clarkes remain static and simplistic. Thankfully, Davies and co-creator Phil Ford have been wise to this potential flaw and since the series’ opening story have slowly planted seeds to establish a more complicated relationship between the show's two opposing factions. 

Key to this has been the character of Lexi, who since her very first moments onscreen has been cast as the odd one out among the Nekross, with the King (Brian Blessed) clearly favouring his son, Vorg (Jefferson Hall) in the familial pecking order. 

This has added a real bite and frisson to the material aboard the Nekross mother ship and I’ve generally enjoyed the scenes with the aliens far more than the moments where the various humans, wizards and hobgoblins demand attention. 

There’s something sharper, clearer and more distinct about the Nekross that throws the sometimes cluttered and unfocused earthbound material into sharp relief. However, by genuinely blending the two sides of the show together in this adventure, both aspects seem to benefit. 

Unsurprisingly, by the episodes' end the series’ usual status quo is restored, but it seems clear that the key to WvA’s long-term success is to exploit the contradictions in the show's core concept and take both the Nekross and the wizards into ever more unpredictable and ambiguous areas.

While the series so far has been well made, stylishly directed and highly entertaining, Friend or Foe is the first story since co-creator Phil Ford’s opening adventure that feels essential to the overall development of the show. Here’s hoping that the bar continues to be raised. 

Read Pete's review of the previous two-parter, Rebel Magic, here.

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