This review contains spoilers.
3.1 The Secret Of Room 12
CBBC’s hit show Wizards Vs Aliens is back for a third year. In case you’ve never seen it before, there are wizards, and there are aliens, and they’re antagonistic towards one another. Got it? But there’s so much more to it than that. The show was created by the minds behind The Sarah Jane Adventures, Russell T Davies and Phil Ford, and they brought with them all of the excitement, adventure and emotion of that show but with a whole new universe to play in. Davies has left for decidedly more adult pastures, leaving Ford to fly solo. Does it measure up? In a word: absolutely.
The Secret Of Room 12 picks up some months after the end of the second series, and with the Nekross gone, life has returned to normal for Tom and Benny – Benny’s been away geeking out at MIT, while Tom’s life has been mainly football, dates and the occasional banshee. Naturally a new term means new perils to contend with, though, and a reunited Tom and Benny soon find themselves facing not only two sets of aliens but also their entire school…
The Russell T Davies-penned finale to Wizards Vs Aliens’ second series, All Out War, left viewers wondering where the show could – and where it would – go next, with Tom going all Bad Wolf and banishing the Nekross, and Lexi becoming human and going away to explore Westeros. One of the biggest joys in The Secret Of Room 12 comes in how writer Phil Ford uses this uncertainty to his advantage; by teasing the return of the Nekross and throwing in a new alien group instead, and then by revealing that the Nekross are back after all, Ford manages two rug pulls in quick succession, and throws the show’s status quo into a state of uncertainty.
And the surprises don’t stop there – Varg is back, and though he’s missing a giant rubbery Brian Blessed, he’s gained himself a wife in the form of the elegant but dangerous Lady Lyzeera. Kristian Phillips does a reasonable job taking over as Varg, but it’s Alex Childs as Lyzeera who makes the biggest impact here; even before we get the tantalising revelation that she can use magic, she cuts a manipulative, Lady Macbeth-like figure who it seems is likely to cause as much trouble for Varg as for Tom and Benny. It’s a shame to see the back of Gwendoline Christie, Jefferson Hall and Brian Blessed, but the changes bring a different dynamic to the villains’ setup and should allow for plenty of new story avenues.
While we’re on the subject of aliens, credit should go to the visual effects team for creating the Prospector, from a new race and every bit as characterful as the Nekross. Alex Blake plays him with obvious relish, and the fact that he works for ‘the Consolidation’ is an effective bit of scriptwork opens up the Wizards Vs Aliens universe that much more, hinting at organisations and empires without having to blow the budget.
In the first half of the story, the Prospector brings with him a threat straight out of classic sci-fi, as Tom and Benny’s classmates turn against them and the pair are eventually surrounded by the whole school, standing and hissing open-mouthed with their hands in the air. Some of the best Wizards As Aliens moments have come from the show taking inspiration from the greats (such as Series 1’s Grazlax Attacks!), and these scenes owe a lot to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. It’s evocative and terrifying, and it’s a bit of a shame that it wasn’t taken further advantage of as the story progressed.
As is always the case with Wizards Vs Aliens, though, the heart of the story lies with its lead characters. It is telling of Phil Ford’s quality as a writer (and showrunner) that amongst all the madness there’s a chance for Tom and Benny to sit down and reaffirm the deep bonds of friendship that exist between them. They’re playing two rather different characters to the Benny and Tom we saw in the first series; Benny is a lot more sure of himself, while Tom is far less arrogant a character than he used to be – Scott Haran is good at showing us Tom’s vulnerabilities as he reveals that the impact of last series’ finale is much bigger than it first appeared, and is clearly going to continue to be felt as the run continues.
I can’t let the review end without mentioning Annette Badland, who proves beyond a shadow of a doubt how much of an asset she is to the show with her performance in this episode. As well as doing a lot of the episode’s comedic heavy lifting, she gets to show her range as a mentor to Tom and a concerned grandmother, and in none of these roles does she give a less than sterling performance. The series trailer that was shown at the BFI screening of this episode suggested Ursula is going to get a lot to do this year, and this can only be a very good thing.
Wizards Vs Aliens began life as something for the team in Cardiff to do when they weren’t working on The Sarah Jane Adventures, but as it enters its third series it’s long shaken off its tragic roots and become a confident, compelling children’s drama in its own right. And if this opening salvo is anything to go by, the loss of Russell T Davies as co-executive producer hasn’t hurt the show one bit, with Phil Ford piloting it into a brilliant new era.
Read what co-creator and producer Phil Ford had to say about series 3 of Wizards Vs Aliens, here.
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