This review contains spoilers.
1.9 & 1.10 Fall of the Nekross
The 1990s were an exciting time for computer viruses, which had pivotal roles in some of the decade’s biggest motion pictures. Jurassic Park, for instance, would have been a much less exciting film if it wasn’t for Dennis Nedry’s ‘Uh, uh uh – you didn’t say the magic word!’ virus, and of course who can forget how Will Smith defeated the aliens in Independence Day by uploading a virus into one of their ships?
Well, not Benny from Wizards vs Aliens (and by extension, writer Gareth Roberts), obviously. And for a while during the first half of Fall of the Nekross, it seems like that’s what we’re going to get; a story in which Benny uses a computer virus to damage the Nekross, but the virus gets out of hand and our heroes have to stop it from crippling Earth’s systems.
Fortunately the Wizards vs Aliens team have a better imagination than I do, and about twenty minutes into part one, a knockabout adventure suddenly turns into a genuinely dramatic and thoughtful piece of television, with a real ethical dilemma at its core. Not only does Benny’s virus succeed in disabling the magic extractor, but it mutates and starts destroying the ship and killing the Nekross.
The question is no longer ‘How can we get rid of the Nekross?’ – it’s ‘Should we save the Nekross from death, and how will Benny live with himself if we don’t?’, and it’s dark stuff. The opening scenes of part two are a real acting and writing tour de force, as the human regulars debate the issue. Annette Badland in particular is compelling, getting the chance to demonstrate the usually comical Ursula’s serious side as she points out the full horror of the Nekross, and condemns them to their fate.
But the emotional highlight of the story is in the scene between Tom and Lexi. After last week’s story, during which the two seemed to develop a temporary friendship, their bond is called upon again here, as Lexi chastises Tom and begs him for help. It’s a real tugging-at-the-heartstrings moment, and yet thanks to Gwendoline Christie’s nuanced portrayal we’re never quite sure how much of her behaviour is a genuine affection for Tom, and how much of it is merely manipulation.
Indeed, both of the last two stories now have seen the Nekross and the humans working together, as shown here with Benny and Vorg trying to fix the ship in a reprisal of their unlikely double act from last week’s story. They make for a good on-screen pairing, as do Lexi and Tom, but these events do make you wonder in which direction the show is headed, particularly in the long term. With cracks already appearing in the animosity between the two races, is Wizards vs Aliens eventually going to follow in the footsteps of most Vs comic books and have them teaming up to face a bigger foe? Okay, possibly not. But I do wonder how long they can keep the animosity going without some sort of major change – perhaps Lexi could defect to the wizards’ side for series two?
As if suddenly reminded that it’s still a children’s programme, Benny and Tom soon resolve to do whatever they can to save the aliens, with the help of some slightly absurd plot handiness. But even then, Gareth Roberts’ script maintains its dark edge – the ancient stones tricking Tom into giving up his life for Benny gives us just a hint at a darker and much more ancient form of magic, hopefully something that can be expanded upon in future stories. It helps, of course, that the stones are voiced by Gabriel Woolf, who memorably portrayed Sutekh in 1975’s Doctor Who story The Pyramids of Mars, lending a similar menace and gravitas to the stones.
The fact that Tom is willing to sacrifice himself to save Benny’s soul is demonstrative of just how far these two have come since the series opener. It still feels like we’re being told how great a pair of friends these two are rather than being given the chance to see it slowly develop for ourselves, though. The pair reminiscing over how Tom used to bully Benny and how hilarious it was doesn’t help; if Tom and Benny had merely been strangers to one another when the series began then their bond would seem a little more believable, but we’re reminded just how much of a dislike existed between them a mere four weeks ago.
Similarly, the episode gives us more of an insight into the Nekross race themselves as we finally see another non-helmeted Nekross, this time in a delightful shade of red. The royal family’s attitude towards the lowly engineer throughout gives us a small window into the culture and class system of the Nekross; we also get to see their interesting definitions of ‘honour’ and ‘mercy’ in their treatment of Benny in the story’s climax. Wizards vs Aliens could do a lot worse than give us more glimpses into the world of the Nekross (perhaps literally) next year.
And of course, at the end we get a very Russell T Davies-style tease in the form of the stone’s declaration that ‘She is returning’. Which is absolutely nothing like the Ood’s ‘It is returning, and he is returning, and they are returning’ from Doctor Who: The End of Time. I suppose at least they’re closer to getting the full set of personal pronouns now.
Not only is this a well-written story, but it’s a well-produced one, too. Clearly the pyrotechnics team had a lot of fun here, with computers and equipment exploding left, right and centre; it’s not like any virus I’ve ever come across, but it’s very visually impressive. The direction of the scenes aboard the Nekross ship was superb, with Joss Agnew unafraid to experiment with less conventional camera angles to convey just how much trouble the ship was in.
Despite a few flaws and a slightly lacklustre ending compared to what had preceded it, Fall of the Nekross is a cracking slice not just of kids’ television, but of television in general. As the Sarah Jane Adventures matured, it started to get more adventurous and explore darker and more dramatic themes and ideas. If Fall of the Nekross is any indicator, Wizards vs Aliens has well and truly picked up where that show left off.
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