This review contains spoilers.
3.5 & 3.6 Daughters Of Stone
It’s never easy to follow the departure of a major character, and with Benny having left in the previous episode Daughters Of Stone knows it has some big shoes to fill from the outset. So it’s perhaps not that surprising when Tom’s sometime-girlfriend Katie asks him to come and help out with an apparent haunting at the theatre looked after by her grandad. It’s even less surprising when, exactly ten minutes in, she witnesses Tom performing magic for the first time and the veil drops from her eyes.
As a character to replace Benny, Katie makes complete sense. Manpreet Bambra hasn’t always had a lot to work with on the show, but over three years she’s established Tom’s love interest as a strong, likeable character. She’s brave, she’s witty and she takes everything in her stride – after the initial shock at learning that Tom’s a wizard, Katie’s taken by the beauty and wonder of the magical world rather than fearing the unusual. The leading lady role in this episode feels like a gift to Bambra, and she does a marvelous job of proving that she can easily handle second billing on the series.
But Wizards Vs Aliens has never been the kind of show to take the obvious route in its storytelling. So it’s a brilliant act of subversion by writer Phil Ford when, just as the day is saved and the new status quo established, Katie requests that everything go back to how it was before she found out. As much of a shame as it is that Tom and Katie will never be a team in the same way as Tom and Benny, given that they work so well together in this story, it’s exciting that the show isn’t taking the ‘safe’ path in filling any void left behind by Percelle Ascott.
The truth is, there never feels like much of a need to bring someone else in, because Wizards Vs Aliens has such a talented cast of regulars that Benny’s departure is an opportunity to give them all something more to do. And if last week belonged to the boys, this week it’s all about the women.
I raved about Annette Badland’s performance only a few weeks ago, but once again she brings a gravitas to the role which helps to anchor the show as something more than ‘just’ a children’s series. On the face of it the witches in this story are rather pantomime-y, having stepped straight off the set of The Wizard Of Oz. But the minute Ursula realises what she’s dealing with their threat level is immediately upped; we’re scared what might happen because Ursula’s scared what might happen.
Of course, what does happen in this episode is that Ursula is reunited with her long-lost husband, played with a twinkle by Trevor Cooper, who shines as the reckless rogue. It’s another sign of the show’s maturity that his return isn’t greeted with smiles by either Tom or Ursula – he’s been gone for decades, and Scott Haran is entirely credible with his contempt for the grandfather he’s only ever known as someone who abandoned the family. This comes to a head in emotional scenes as Simeon learns that his daughter – Tom’s mother – is dead. Though this isn’t a new fact to the audience, it’s heartbreaking to relive it through her absent father’s eyes.
The heartache doesn’t stop there, as all of the strands of the episode come together with Tom saving the day just that little bit too late. It’s the second time in a year that we’ve had the death of Ursula teased and then withdrawn at the last minute, and it’s a credit to the actors involved that it feels every bit as affecting this time, with Tom’s tearful wish that Benny was with him tugging at the heartstrings of an audience still recovering from last week’s woes – and reminding them that nobody on this show is safe anymore; if Benny can leave, so can anyone else. We’d rather they didn’t do it any time soon, though.
As well as being an emotional story, Daughters Of Stone is easily the scariest story this year, and at times feels like a Halloween story a couple of weeks late. The theatre setting brings with it some spooky imagery – such as the seats flapping by themselves or the ventriloquist’s dummy – and director Lee Haven-Jones absolutely makes the most of the location, with low lighting and unusual camera angles all building a classic horror atmosphere.
This year there’s been more of a focus on the magical world than ever, and it’d probably be fair to rename the show Wizards Vs Witches for this week’s encounter; the aliens take a back seat this week, with an increasingly emasculated Varg only making brief appearances at the top and tail of the story. The manipulative Lady Lyzera plays a slightly larger role, with Alex Childs taking her turn to shed the makeup and go undercover on Earth, but it’s a pretty slight role in proceedings and seems mainly designed to set up next week’s story. It also feels a little soon after last week’s Jathro encounter to be playing the alien-in-disguise card again, but given that there’s no big reveal for the other characters this time round it’s probably forgivable.
These shortcomings aside, Daughters Of Stone is a confident, surprising entry in the Wizards Vs Aliens canon, and is the third such hit in what’s shaping up to be a strong series. If there were any fears that the show might not survive Benny’s departure this is the tale to assuage them, and with the line of Twilight failing and Tom’s grandfather added to the mix the path ahead is more interesting than ever…
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