Ah, K9. The tin dog, man’s best friend, or one of the most irritating talking props in geek history? It’s all up for debate in K9 Tales. K9 Tales! Because he looks like a dog, do you see?
Presumably released on the back of K9’s cameo turns in 2006 episode, School Reunion, and CBBC’s The Sarah Jane Adventures, this classic Doctor Who boxset includes the fourth Doctor serial and K9’s debut, The Invisible Enemy, and A Girl’s Best Friend, the pilot episode of abandoned spin-off series, K9 and Company, which is still being snarked about amongst Doctor Who fans despite having aired over 25 years ago.
Set in the ever-popular 51st Century, The Invisible Enemy sees Tom Baker’s Doctor and companion Leela answering a distress call from a shuttle crew on their way to the planet Titan. Arriving onboard, the Doctor finds the shuttle’s inhabitants either dead, or under the influence of a virus which both exerts psychic control over them, and proffers a set of fabulous glittery eyelashes that Girls Aloud would be proud of.Whilst certainly not the most memorable of serials, The Invisible Enemy is not without its charms; despite never quite picking an accent and sticking with it, Frederick Jaeger shines as K9 inventor, Professor Marius. Tom Baker’s Doctor is as funny as ever, particularly in the third part, where – brilliantly – he and Leela are shrunk down to minus-size and, erm, injected into his own brain.
There follows some fairly sizeable stuff on the differences between the brain and the mind, played out on a wobbly set of frontal lobes in which Leela is almost garrotted by the Doctor’s white blood cells (balloons with cotton wool stuck on them, but it works) as well as half a dozen Psych 101 jokes, but the effect is somewhat muted by cutting to scenes that see Professor Marius facing off against ‘hordes’ of the glittery-browed infected, indulging the Doctor Who standard of frantic standing about.
It’s a pacing problem that the serial never quite gets over, as part four draws to a close and – despite an impressive build up – the titular enemy turns out to have been a lobster that looks like it’s off down the disco. Cue the Doctor, running hither and thither, trying to save the afore-mentioned Titan, before taking Leela’s decidedly unDoctorish advice and blowing the whole place up.
Despite being his debut episode, K9’s appearance is fleeting; he doesn’t even turn up until part two, and is pretty much reduced to a wobbly-wheeled talking cannon throughout. There’s none of the – ahem – sparkling wit of his later appearances, as he becomes the Doctor’s companion, although it’s a decent enough introduction.
Despite being almost universally derided amongst fans, K9 and Company fairs slightly better in terms of the finished product. Whilst not exactly ground-breaking, this well-worn supernatural story of regional-accented hill folk versus book-reading boffins – like a teatime edit of The Wicker Man, complete with pagan rituals, goat masks and pentagrams – is an interesting direction for a Doctor Who spin-off; indeed, K9 is the only thing approaching science fictional, and the titular company and a few brief mentions of the Doctor the only thing linking this to the Whoniverse at large.
Again, however, the episode is less about K9 and more about the company he keeps. Namely, Sarah Jane Smith, played – brilliantly – by Elisabeth Sladen. Sladen’s Smith – decidedly frostier now than when she travelled with the Doctor (as you would be, if you’d seen all the wonders time and space had to offer, only to be dropped off in Aberdeen, of all places) – carries the episode as it becomes increasingly ridiculous, somewhat laden down by her companion, Brendon. Shoe-horning in someone for the younger viewers to get attached to in the form of Sarah Jane’s cousin – a boarding school boy with a penchant for botany and getting captured by crazy pagans at the drop of a hat – was never going to be a wise move, particularly when the character in question is a slimy smart-arse with a haircut at least two decades out of fashion.
But, whilst far from the best television has to offer, it’s a reassuringly good-natured production, with everything back in its good and proper place in time for a resolution of tea and crumpets and K9 singing ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’. Yes, really.
Both DVDs come with the usual wealth of extras, including commentary tracks – sadly lacking Tom Baker – and the obligatory handful of celebratory documentaries; mostly, Terrance Dicks, John Leeson and whoever was making tea in the office when the respective episodes were written waxing lyrical on the tin dog’s virtues, explaining – perhaps even justifying – his perceived popularity. Whoever had the genius idea of interviewing K9 as if he were a real actor obviously hadn’t seen the rest of the supplementary material, where the same joke is used at least three times. In a neat touch, however, K9 and Company includes downloadable PDF files of a series of children’s books, written by K9 co-creator, David Martin.
Though certainly popular with the younger set – and the vocal minority of fans still championing animated spin-off, The K9 Adventures – it’s hard to see just how the tin dog merits his own boxset. Whilst occasionally witty, if you like that sort of thing, he is – essentially – an exposition machine, serving as a shortcut for writers in much the same fashion as the Doctor has been using his souped-up sonic screwdriver in the revamped series. The extras will certainly satisfy the die-hard fans, but for the rest of us K9 might just as well be reserved to fond memories and the occasional cameo.