This review contains spoilers.
1.3 & 1.4: Grazlax Attacks
It’s easy to get a bit blase about nostalgic 80s revivals. After all, Dallas is going great guns again on our TV screens, the Ninja Turtles seem to be coming back in a big way, and in the last few years alone we’ve seen cinematic remakes for 21 Jump Street, The Karate Kid and The A-Team, to name but three. And don’t get me started on the Transformers films. No, really; don’t.
If you’d told me, however, that in 2012 a CBBC show would produce its own homage to the Critters series of films, I wouldn’t be in any rush to buy the winning Lottery numbers from you. But that seems to be exactly what Phil Ford has done here; Grazlax Attacks is a pleasingly familiar comedy horror story in the vein of Critters, Gremlins or any one of their dozens of imitators (Hobgoblins, anyone?).
I’m getting ahead of myself, of course; the story actually gets off to a bit of a rocky start, as we catch up with Tom and Benny at school a few days after the events of Dawn of the Nekross, and are told that they’ve been hanging out quite a bit. Given the pair’s mutual animosity in the first part of that story, it’s still hard to buy the notion that they’d choose to spend too much time together. Tom’s friends seem to feel the same way, though, and by the looks of it this is something we’ll be seeing more of next week.
A brief visit to Tom’s house sees the wizards putting a magical cloaking device around the planet. This is presumably both to keep the wizard body count down and to avoid the aliens being able to beam the main characters up to their spaceship and have a confrontation there every week. We also get a bit of Randall, who seems marginally less insufferable than last week, even when accompanied by some ‘comedy’ violin music to emphasise his crazy nature.
The genuine comedy quota of the episode is upped with a visit to Benny’s house. However, it’s also here where I have to bring up some major issues with Benny’s character, namely the way the writers are conforming to the worst ‘Benny-no-mates’ geek stereotypes in an age where they’re increasingly less relevant – for one thing, the two biggest films of the summer were based on comic books! (That’s if those stereotypes ever were particularly relevant; I was a socially awkward, swotty, overweight child with body odour issues when I was at school, and even I managed to find some friends from somewhere).
It’s interesting, though, to get an insight here into why Benny is the way he is. His parents are played by the ever-superb Don Gilet and Nina Sosanya, and they’re the worst sort of over-liberal parent, on first name terms with their son’s friends and making their own piccalilli. They’re two characters who could be nightmarish and overplayed in the wrong hands, but with these two experienced actors they become funny, misguided and ultimately sympathetic creations who only want the best for their son.
It’s at this point that the Nekross decide to send down a creature from their ‘quarantine zone’. It’s my hope that this won’t become the Wizards vs Aliens equivalent of Rita Repulsa’s monster-making machine from Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, churning out Monster-of-the-Week after Monster-of-the-Week, but I suspect we haven’t seen the last of it.
That said, if everything that comes out of the zone is as wonderful as the Grazlax, I won’t be complaining too heavily; they’re not going to be winning any BAFTAs for design, as they’re clearly quite cheap puppets, but they’re every bit in the Critters mould, with their fur, gnashing teeth and glowing red eyes.
Unlike the eponymous Critters they don’t actually eat any of our heroes, but it’s not through lack of trying; indeed, one of the unexpected comic highlights for me was the moment with the cat wandering cautiously into the bush and meeting a gleefully sticky end, with a well-timed flurry of fur. It’s all surprisingly dark and gruesome, and proves why we need shows like this in addition to the Tracey Beakers and iCarlys of the world – kids love to be scared, and this episode skirts gleefully close to the line of what is acceptable and what isn’t.
Once again the three-spell limitation comes into effect very early on, and so our two heroes are left with only their wits to help them. The idea of the heroes accidentally stumbling on something mundane that the villains happen to be helpless against is a bit of an RTD special, most notably used against the Slitheen with their weakness against vinegar, so it’s nice to see it subverted here; just when you think they’ve managed to accidentally kill it with a hairdryer, you realise that they’ve actually made the situation three times worse… Of course, the story’s climax does rather undermine any deliberate attempt at subversion, but it’s still a great moment while it lasts.
The second episode is where things devolve into full-on monster fun, as the aliens keep breeding and we’re met with hordes of the things, in the bath, down the pipes, and generally causing chaos. For Tom and Benny’s part, it’s a race simply to stay alive, with plenty of heavy items of furniture placed up against doors (And the requisite horror when the creatures then start to break through).
There’s also time for a bit of a heart-to-heart, though, and we finally begin to get an actual sense of a bond between the two that goes beyond mere circumstance. We also get some more science vs magic conversation (Truly, we are living in the Age of Dawkins), and there’s a bit of a Mulder and Scully vibe, with Benny trying to rationalise the things he’s seen scientifically and believer Tom rebutting him. Presumably they’ll be holding back any will-they-won’t-they between the duo for a few seasons at least.
For the time being, that role seems to be reserved for Tom’s friend Katie, but at this point it’s hard to care, as her character is so sparingly written, and in this episode exists solely to provide both a further obstacle and a solution to the boys’ problems. One of the great things about The Sarah Jane Adventures was its mix of strong male and female characters, and it would be a shame if that’s not soon the case for Wizards vs Aliens.
Fortunately for Phil Ford, the solution Katie does provide, though falling into the aforementioned RTD trope, leads to a glorious scene as Tom and Benny destroy the aliens with the power of classical music to the strains of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, getting well and truly gunged in the process. The juxtaposition is up there with Simon Pegg and friends fighting zombies to the strains of Queen in Shaun of the Dead (albeit not quite as well choreographed!), and provides a memorable comic climax to the story.
My only gripe, story-wise, is that the Nekross do have the means to blast Tom and Benny from the face of the planet, but choose not to do so. At the end of the episode, they state that he’s clearly a formidable foe, but only moments earlier they were on the verge of destroying him. The obvious answer is, of course, “If they destroyed the heroes then there wouldn’t be a series”, but it would’ve been nice to have some internal logic to back that up.
As someone with a twisted sense of humour who enjoys cheesy 80s films, it’s hard for me not to have a large amount of love for Grazlax Attacks. Obviously Wizards vs Aliens can’t do such blatant pastiches each week, and we’d probably tire of them quickly if it did, but if the other stories can maintain this standard then the next four weeks of adventures should be very enjoyable indeed.
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