We at CultBox have been looking forward for some time to the launch of Russell T Davies and Phil Ford’s new CBBC fantasy drama series, Wizards vs Aliens. And having attended a special preview screening of the opening two-parter, ‘Dawn of the Nekross’, at the National Film Theatre in London last week, we’re pleased to report that our hopes have been rewarded.
‘Magic’s a load of old Hogwarts!’ says science geek, Benny, during the first instalment. But he’s wrong. This series is anything but Hogwarts, even if the appearance of one character does bring to mind one of Harry Potter’s most beloved supporting characters.
The central conceit of the show is there, gloriously and shamelessly, in the title. This is a world where magic and sci-fi collide. ‘Wands vs ray guns,’ as one character puts it. ‘I’m not sure how that’s going to work out.’
But what the technicolour title does not reveal is quite how thoughtful the series is. You’d expect full-throttle silliness – and there’s a little of that, if you’re after it. A gunking scene in the first few minutes brings to mind the sort of action that featured in The Sarah Jane Adventures, the series this replaces. But there’s philosophising too – the recognition that science and magic are two opposing languages to explain the same kinds of phenomena. A parallel dimension in one is a threshold of enchantment in the other. Either way, the effect’s the same.
Central to the argument, and to the series, are the two young leads: schoolboys Tom Clarke (Scott Haran) and Benny Sherwood (Percelle Ascott). Haran, the older of the two, is the one who has teen crush written all over him. The effect of the pairing onscreen is like watching Lizo Mzimba square up against Harry from McFly. But the effect’s deliberate: Benny’s geekiness is the necessary counterpart to Tom’s air of schoolboy cool, and it’s Benny who undercuts the magical excesses with his insistence that every uncanny event must have a scientific explanation, even if it’s one that only currently exists in the pages of science fiction.
Tom, it’s not giving too much away, has a life beyond school, and an intriguing family back story which will no doubt flower in later adventures. Wisely eschewing the Sarah Jane model of the mother-son dynamic, Tom is paired with two adults: one, his father, who belongs to the world of suburbia, and the other, his grandmother: Ursula the Enchanted, of the Line of Crowe.
As played by Annette Badland, Ursula steals every scene she’s in, and it’s she who will become your new favourite character in a matter of minutes. Ursula’s milieu is ‘Narnia. Tim Burton style’, but, as Badland explained in the press conference that followed the screening, she gets as much right as she gets wrong.
The fact that Badland is cast at all is indicative of the production team’s ability to attract and retain great actors. As someone who was there at the beginning of the BBC Wales drama boom, back in the very first recording block for the revived Doctor Who, Badland must be impeccably placed to notice the differences in production now that Who has spawned its own cottage industry. And on the basis of this series, one thing you cannot deny BBC Wales is the wit, ambition and integrity in the storytelling.
This drama seems to have a lineage that stretches back to the great children’s serials of the 1970s: one opening scene recalls 1977 scare-fest Children of the Stones. And yet, at the same time, there’s something very savvy about the way the series appeals to the children of 2012: a knowingness that is in no way cynical – that is, in fact, utterly joyous and big-hearted.
Watching it among an audience of children, the effect was contagious. One child called out in shock as the alien Nekross were first revealed – writer Phil Ford’s favourite moment in the screening – while another had only one question to ask: ‘When can we see it again?’
Inevitably, at this stage, the comparisons will be with The Sarah Jane Adventures. But while the production team are sensitive enough to pass the baton on – Lis Sladen’s husband, Brian Miller, gets a poignant cameo – ultimately this is a thrilling new world to discover, presented with all the bravura assurance that you’d expect from the minds of Phil Ford and Russell T Davies.
As Tom himself says, in the adventure’s closing mission statement, ‘It’s wizards versus aliens. And I’m ready for them.’
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