K-9 pilot episode review

K-9 has got a TV show all to himself (again), as the robot dog's original co-creator, Bob Baker, sets him off on new adventures...

It’s a strange time for the long-term Doctor Who fan. Ten years ago, it was less embarrassing in some circles to admit to liking knitting than it was to be a Whovian (though, admittedly, part of the embarrassment came from using the term ‘Whovian’). And yet here we are in 2009, with a main series going from strength to strength, two spinoffs, (one starring Sarah Jane bloomin’ Smith! From the 70s!), and a new animation on the way. These kids don’t know they’re born, they really don’t.

It was almost inevitable that the franchise would eventually break free of its Cardiff bonds, which brings us to the first episode of K-9, the new Australian spin-off series from the mind of K-9’s creator, Bob Baker. That’s right, I said ‘Australian’; the BBC opted out of this one (Bob Baker’s been trying to launch a K-9 series for over a decade), so Baker was forced to seek finance elsewhere.

The upshot is that, while fans may know the history of the character, the characters aren’t allowed to discuss any of it on screen lest the Beeb go after them. Which is a shame, because this is apparently the K-9 who stayed with Leela on Gallifrey, and would likely have gotten caught in the Time War. But I digress…

It’s a little hard to fathom some of the plot of Regeneration (see what they did there?), since we’re thrown in at the deep end almost immediately.

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The series is based in London in the near future, and off the bat we’re introduced to young rebel Starkey, who goes by the cringeworthy codename ‘Stark Reality’. Quite what he’s rebelling against and why isn’t made clear during the pilot, except that there’s a mysterious ‘Department’, who I presume are somehow related to the government.

Starkey is quickly joined by Emma Watson-alike Jorjie, and together they inadvertently ruin an experiment being run by the mysterious Professor Gryffen, which results first in the appearance of some alien monsters rejected by Power Rangers for being too unconvincing, and the titular metal mutt, who promptly gets rid of said aliens by blowing himself up.

There’s little time for mourning, however, as K-9 is soon reborn, in a new body for the Aibo generation. While Gryffen tries to learn more about his robot saviour, Starkey is locked up by the Department, and discovers that the aliens aren’t quite as vanquished as he thought…

When assessing K-9, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with The Sarah Jane Adventures (which, of course, currently has its own K-9 model running around), as they’re aged at roughly the same age group. And at first glance, the comparison isn’t a flattering one. Putting aside the actors’ sometimes-atrocious attempts at English accents (it never quite falls into Dick Van Dyke territory, but there are times when it comes close), a lot of the acting, from the young cast in particular, leaves something to be desired; I never thought I’d find myself longing for Tommy Knight’s stilted delivery, but there were moments in this when I was. 

Even John Leeson, who lends a touch of authenticity to the proceedings by reprising the role of K-9, seems to have a little trouble finding himself as the new model. Not only has the pooch had a physical makeover (which I don’t think looks too bad, though I’m sure it’ll have the fans frowning when the series hits properly in 2010), but he’s had a mental one, too.

The subtle wit and arrogance the dog had during the Tom Baker era are long gone, replaced with groanworthy lines like “Destroy this, human!”. That said, the old K-9 was never a leading man, so it’s easy to understand why a few changes had to be made.

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Sadly, K-9 doesn’t have the budget of Sarah Jane, and it shows. Rubber monsters, unconvincing CGI, and a general feeling of cheapness abound. It’s almost like being in the Colin Baker era all over again! The Professor’s house is vaguely impressive, but on most other occasions it feels like the camera is having to pull in tight on the actors in a given scene, for fear that we might spot the edge of the set.

It’s easy to focus on the negatives, but it’s not all bad; in terms of plot, the opener asks a lot more questions than it answers. Who are ‘The Department’? What will become of the aliens who came through the portal? Will the producers ever stump up the cash to have K-9 use the word ‘Gallifrey’?

There’s hints of darkness too, not just with the shady government branch, but also with Professor Gryffen himself, who is trying to master time travel so that he can revive his dead family (Tsk! Whatever would the Doctor say?). There’s also potentially interesting character-building for Jorjie, whom we see trying to balance the life her mother (whom we never see…) wants her to lead, and the life she wants to lead. And the Department really wants to get its hands on K-9…

Based on the pilot, K-9 is far from perfect, and there’s every chance that it’ll soon be sitting next to K-9 And Company and Eastenders crossover Dimensions In Time as the black sheep of the Who family.

However, it’s been given 26 episodes to prove itself, and there’s the odd hint that it could yet surprise us. I know I’ll be tuning in with a mild curiosity when the series starts properly in 2010.