Contains spoilers for Wolfblood series 3.
Still teaching ‘grown-up’ supernatural shows how it’s done is CBBC’s exemplary Wolfblood, which yesterday concluded its third run in the UK.
Series three cleared a hurdle at which previous fantasy and sci-fi dramas have fallen by losing its lead character yet continuing to prosper. When Aimee Kelly (who played Maddy Smith) decided to move on after the end of series two, Wolfblood pulled off the smoothest change of personnel since Kirstie Alley joined Cheers, then kept on going from strength to strength.
Having carefully written its supporting cast from day one paid Wolfblood enormous dividends when it came to series three, and made the transition to a genuine ensemble piece look effortless (however it may have felt behind the scenes). Instead of introducing a Maddy-alike to occupy the place left behind by the Smiths, the existing characters swelled up to fill the gap more than satisfactorily.
Jana and Ceri (Leona Vaughan and Siwan Morris) returned, as did Dr Whitewood (now played by Letty Butler). The Ks (Rachel Teate, Gabrielle Green and Shorelle Hepkin) gained further dimensions. Louisa Connelly-Burnham’s Shannon – who’d properly been a co-lead throughout series two – remained central. Bobby Lockwood once again did a terrific job as Rhydian, the series’ emotional anchor. And Kedar Williams-Stirling’s Tom (hallelujah!) finally got the major plotline he deserved – more than one in fact.
Love them as we did, before long there was far too much intrigue in Wolfblood’s newly expanded world to miss the Smiths. Series three took the action outside the parochial confines of Stoneybridge and into the sci-fi corridors of multinational corporation Segolia, which brought with it new additions in the form of Rhydian’s estranged father Gerwyn (Richard Harrington), scary security chief Victoria Sweeney (Jacqueline Boatswain), and scientist Dr Alex Kincaid (the casting coup that is Shaun Dooley). Remember when Buffy first went down that lift into The Initiative, or the revelation of the Augustine Project in The Vampire Diaries? Segolia took Wolfblood out of the village and into the big, bad world.
Now that it’s out there, with all the tantalising and rich possibilities that big, bad world presents, it would be a crying waste for Wolfblood not to be able to explore it in another series and beyond. With series four not yet confirmed by the BBC, here’s why it’s far too soon to say goodbye to CBBC’s Stoneybridge gang…
“I’m not sure where I belong”
You can’t move in Wolfblood for women and girls doing stuff. Stupid stuff. Clever stuff. Good stuff. Bad stuff. Morally complex stuff. Debbie Moon’s characters, male and female, drip with agency and personality, so much so that anyone after a right-headed approach to diversity on TV need look no further than Wolfblood (or CBBC in general, in fact, which is leaps ahead of other channels in its representation of differently able, and black, Asian and minority ethnic children and grown-ups).
It’s certainly not the case that Wolfblood’s female characters fall into the trap of being so few and far between they have to shoulder the responsibility of representation by being at once smart, sensible, capable and – that regularly mis-applied term – strong. Many of them are, of course, and just as many of them aren’t. The point is that these girls and women are people first and anything else later. They’re leaders and ditzes, scientists and villains, ‘binlids’ and heroes. They fail, win, change and learn. And sci-fi and fantasy needs plenty more like them.
(Additionally, whether intended or not, between Dr Whitewood, Dacia, Miss Fitzgerald, Shannon and Kara, Wolfblood has to be more effective than any campaign you can name in attracting girls to STEM subjects and careers. Go and show those Maths, Chemistry and Physics A Levels who’s boss, Kara. )
“Why should we trust this man?”
Aside from the literal lessons Wolfblood teaches – Vikings, Saxons, Celtic history, archaeology, comets and plagues have all popped up in series three – it’s also stuffed with moral debate and real-life insights (as all the best sci-fi and fantasy shows are). Its supernatural situations lend themselves seamlessly to exploring the real world of childhood and adolescence. Put it this way, can you think of many more pressing playground issues than packs and territory?
If series one and two were about teaching inclusivity, then series three’s major theme was the issue of trust. Whom should young people trust? Parents? Teachers? Authority figures? Peers? Friends? Over the series, Rhydian, Tom, Shannon and Jana learned to be more circumspect about the people they trust, and about the dangers of being seduced by popularity or flattery. These lessons weren’t parroted in clunky ‘after-school special’ style scenes – they weren’t even necessarily voiced – but instead learned through action and experience.
For instance, in a long-deserved showcase for Kedar Williams-Stirling’s considerable talents, non-Wolfblood Tom came to an important conclusion in series three after experiencing the fleeting high of social media fame (magic serum and gymnastics were involved). “Those people know nothing. That wasn’t me, was it?” he tells best pal Shannon, who’d earlier asked him why he was trying to impress people he didn’t even like. Value your true friendships is one of the many lessons Wolfblood shows its audience, without preaching to them even once.
The same goes for the show’s forays into teen romance. When the Xander/Cordelia pairing of Tom and Kay happened this series, it was a union of members of two different tribes that threatened to splinter established friendship groups. Ultimately though, the Ks decided that “Friends stay friends no matter who they’re dating”, imparting another warm-hearted, non-dogmatic lesson about loyalty and inclusivity.
Honour your past, look after your friends, choose your own path, draw strength from yourself, when people are untruthful, consider what motivated the lie… Wolfblood shows a young audience all this and more through its adventures, and with a delightful lightness of touch.
“Yeah yeah, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’”
Not only are Wolfblood’s horror leanings very well-observed in its direction, with remarkably effective jump-scares and creepy moments for a CBBC show, it’s also steeped in the world of comic books.
If teachers might hope that the series will spark an interest in ancient Celtic history amongst its young viewers, then it’s only fitting that we geeks hope that it also sparks an interest in the on-page worlds of DC and Marvel.
Wolfbloods, as Mr Jeffries learns this series, don’t transform, but ‘wolf-out’, Hulk-style. When Rhydian is talking to Tom about his encounter with performance-enhancing Wolfblood serum, Tom dismisses the speech with a Spider-Man-referencing “yeah, yeah ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Later, Wolfblood hunter-descendant Liam (Niek Versteeg) is asked whether he’s still “Buffy the Werewolf Slayer”. (Surely it’s every geek parent’s dream for one day, their child to turn to them and ask, ‘Mummy, who’s Buffy?’)
The series three finale, with its red and green serums and eugenics-practicing scientist threatening to ‘cure’ Wolfbloods of the beast within, is Wolfblood’s most comic-book moment yet. The X-Men, with their special abilities and antagonism with the non-mutant world, have always been a reference point for the show, and none more so than in Moonrise. (With Meinir’s story, it even had its own tragic Last Stand Mystique). With a fourth series, imagine how wonderfully Wolfblood could build on what’s gone before.
“Am I evil?” “No, you’re just in pain”
We’ve rhapsodised here about Wolfblood’s use of the fantastic to explore the real-world experience of growing up, and series three gave us another powerful metaphor with the notion of the Morwal.
Jana, the Wild Wolfblood character whose fish-out-of-water journey to civilisation provided much of series two’s conflict and comedy, returned for series three to great success. Like Maddy, Jana is the Alpha of her pack, a role she loses midway through the series when – she thinks – a coup ousts her from power. Alone, with no pack, or role in the Wolfblood world, Jana grieves.
In that grief the Morwal, a malevolent wolf personality responsible for werewolves’ bad PR over the centuries, enters her spirit transforming Jana from cheery and independent to aggressive and unpredictable. “Remember,” says Rhydian to her friends approaching the snarling, violent beast she’s turned into, “that’s not Jana’s wolf”.
It’s a beautifully expressive take on grief, the idea that being in pain can take you so utterly away from yourself. When depression and pain take people over, remember that it’s an invasion, Wolfblood tells us. It’s simply not their wolf.
Oh my days
If series two in particular proved Louisa Connelly-Burnham’s acting chops as Shannon, the girl whose breadth of talents is only matched by that of her collection of tights, then series three was all about showing off what Kedar Williams-Stirling could do as Tom. No longer the Zeppo of the gang, Tom not only had his own experience of super-abilities in series three, he also had two romance plots, and came close to death.
Episode ten, The Cult Of Tom was the character’s pinnacle, an adventure that culminated in a genuinely moving scene between Tom and Shannon. Both have proved themselves as strong comic actors, but this showed Williams-Stirling’s range, from dancing to mushy stuff and everything in between. What did we learn about Tom and the actor who plays him this year? They’re definitely not average.
Speaking of comic acting, the Ks (especially Gabrielle Green as Katrina) nabbed just about every punch-line series three had, from “stockroom syndrome” to how “dead cool” sea cucumbers are, to Kara’s lofty claim to Jimi that the girls have “evolved beyond [his] shallow materialism”.
The Ks have always been, and remain, Wolfblood’s much-loved comic relief, but like the rest of its supporting cast from Ceri to Mr Jeffries to Liam and more, they’ve grown in series three and shouldered more central storylines.
That’s something else Wolfblood can teach other shows: give your supporting characters real personalities and real problems, and they can step up to the plate if needed. Even rich kid bully Jimi, who didn’t have a great deal to do this year, tugged at a few hearts when he gloomily told his friends that his dad will kill him if he doesn’t do well in the exams, then reported back, mystified, weeks later that his dad had told him he was proud of him for the first time. If your audience can feel moved by little more than two lines from a little-seen character, you’ve done something right.
The end of Wolfbloods?
The series three finale, by reuniting Rhydian and Maddy, pairing up Tom and Shannon, and sending the rest of the gang off to their various further education pursuits, provided resolution to several plotlines. Even if it’s over for some existing characters (if Bobby Lockwood, for instance, who recently bolstered his reputation by winning BBC gymnastics show Tumble, returned for anything more than a cameo in a fourth series then I’ll eat my wolf-eared hat), the Wolfblood world is far from exhausted.
Now that world has expanded outside the village, there’s no telling where the show could go. The solitary corridor of Bradlington High could welcome new pupils. Mr Jeffries could turn Watcher. The Wild Wolfblood pack could return. Or another could show up. I, for one, would happily follow Jana to Segolia in series four (but then I’d happily follow Jana anywhere, that’s the beauty of characters like these).
Series three was Wolfblood at its most sophisticated. The Cerberus mystery was the first time the show has included a series-long mystery arc, proving it can go toe-to-toe with any number of older-skewed fantasy and sci-fi shows. At this point, the possibilities really are endless for the Wolfblood world, which is why it deserves at least another run to stretch its legs and show what else it can do.
(And if you agree, you might like to let the BBC know by putting your Wolfblood appreciation in this form.)
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