This review contains spoilers.
At first glance, Wizards vs Aliens sounds like the sort of programme that would be designed by a committee of marketing executives. “What if Harry Potter and Star Wars had a fight?”, one would ask another, chuckling away thinking about all the money they’re going to make to enrich their ultimately hollow lives.
Fortunately for the nation’s children, Wizards vs Aliens is instead the latest brainchild from a little-known writer called Russell T Davies. Seemingly borne from frustration at not being able to use magic in the Doctor Who universe, and of course from the tragic circumstances surrounding the end of his previous show, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Russell – along with fellow SJA writer and co-producer Phil Ford – has served up something which feels at once reassuringly familiar and refreshingly different.
Like its predecessor, Wizards vs Aliens is very firmly rooted in suburbia, as is evident from the very first scene, in which a wizarding father, his robes hiding a very sensible shirt and cardigan combo and a faint Brummie twang in his voice, takes his son out for his first magical experience. It’s the sort of juxtaposition we’ve seen before (not least in the Harry Potter films, from where some inspiration must have been taken – not least for the flying car in the story’s climax), but it’s pleasingly familiar. And then, of course, a big alien spaceship comes along and ruins it all.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out the plot of Wizards vs Aliens – the clue’s very much in the title. There’s wizards, and there’s some aliens who feed on magic. Naturally, this causes conflict. However, this is a Russell T. Davies series, so all of this is the setting for the main story, the tale of two boys – one, a cock-sure young wizard, the other an awkward science nerd – who form an unlikely bond in the face of adversity.
Their relationship is reminiscent of Luke and Clyde from The Sarah Jane Adventures in that respect, which is no bad thing. However, there’s so much going on in this first story that the bonding feels a little forced; when geeky Benny declares near the end of the story that he and Tom are friends, you do stop to think “Are you, though? He was bullying you with his other mates half an hour ago!” It’s a fun odd couple dynamic, though, and provides a focus for the underlying theme of science vs magic – the wizarding Tom is sceptical about the existence of aliens, while science boffin Benny finds wizards equally hard to swallow.
Plot-wise, this first two-parter is a hard one to judge – and indeed, a hard one to come down too heavily on – as its sole purpose is to introduce all of the characters and situations we’re going to be following over the next six weeks. So it’s a somewhat economic plot, and a bit of a standard capture-escape-recapture-escape structure reminiscent of some old Doctor Who tales, but it’s one which juggles its two disparate sets of characters effectively, ensuring all of them get a moment or two in the spotlight.
My one big concern about the story, and one which may well affect the series as a whole, is the “three spells a day” rule. It’s entirely arbitrary, and makes little logical sense, given the way it’s circumvented in the climax (yes, I’m aware that I just tried to apply logic to a show in which wizards fight aliens). My worry is that this may be used as Kryptonite was in some of the darkest moments in Superman’s history, to generate extra peril each week and get around the problem of an overpowered hero. I’d rather they focus on making the aliens more effective in their villainy, rather than contrive an excuse for the heroes not to defeat the villains with a wave of a wand (no wands here, incidentally – presumably that would be a bit too much like Harry Potter).
Aside from that, and the rushed bonding of our heroes, the episode works well; the villainous Nekross characters in particular really shine through. I suspect a lot of the attention among adult viewers will be on the Nekross king, which sees Brian Blessed give a suitably Brian Blessed performance behind a giant puppet face which has an immediate impact but seems less impressive the more we see of it. However, for me the stand-out performances of the episode were Jefferson Hall and Gwendoline Christie as the sniping, disdainful Nekross commanders, who seemed to be relishing some choice villain dialogue beneath the prosthetics. And they’re quite the prosthetics; easily as good as anything The Sarah Jane Adventures came up with, and with the added touch of the moving side-eye and mouth (they do, of course, pull a now standard budget-saving trick with the rest of the Nekross by giving them helmets).
Rounding off the supporting characters are Tom’s family (we’ll meet Benny’s next time), played by Michael Higgs and Annette Badland. Higgs has a pretty thankless role for much of this story, as the strict authoritarian father who gets left on the sidelines for the most part, but children’s television stalwart Badland is – if you’ll pardon the pun – magical as Tom’s slightly dotty wizard grandmother. And then there’s Randall Moon, who currently comes across as a reject from 1980s Dungeons and Dragons-fest Knightmare, with over-the-top dialogue such as “By the humps of Grizzlebar!” However, if he settles down there’s the potential for some fun comic relief.
Production-wise, this is a very strong opener indeed. A combination of good direction, effective location work and some downright impressive CGI help give this a properly filmic look, and Sam Watts – who did such sterling work with The Sarah Jane Adventures – returns on music duties here with some suitably dramatic incidental pieces. The theme tune probably won’t go down in the annuls of great kids’ TV themes, but it’s short and feels wholly appropriate for the show.
Dawn of the Nekross isn’t a stunning start for Wizards vs Aliens, but it’s a solid one, and despite my misgivings about some of the setup I think there’s some fine performances, some strong dialogue, and a lot of potential for this show to become every bit as successful as its predecessor.