One of my favorite moments in About Time, a book series I don’t get to talk about much anymore having long since gotten ahead of them, is in its critique of The Sensorites, a story that is wrongly, if understandably, unloved. Miles and Wood open by saying, “Opinion is divided over this: the common reaction is ‘why?’, but the correct answer is ‘awww… bless’.” Which pretty much sums up not only The Sensorites but Wizards vs Aliens, a strong contender for the single most heartwarming origin story of any television series ever.
Following the death of Lis Sladen, Russell T Davies didn’t want the Sarah Jane Adventures production team to be out of work. He also didn’t want the BBC to abandon production of children’s drama. And so he came up with a suitably high concept series that he could oversee from a distance (much as he had Sarah Jane Adventures), this time while caring for his partner, whose diagnosis with a brain tumor led to Davies’s abandonment of his “break out in America” plan.
It is, to be fair, a good premise. The start of the first episode, which begins with a standard sort of “pagans chanting in a stone circle” thing, goes far enough to confirm that magic is real, then drops a spaceship onto the stone circle and has the wizards abducted by aliens who triumphantly proclaim that they have come for Earth’s magic, is a triumph of mashing up genres. Really, the entire idea is long on cleverness – what’s basically a Harry Potter knockoff gets invaded by what are basically the default setting of Doctor Who aliens. The tropes of each, unsurprisingly, prove good fits for one another. Davies is well aware that the types of stories you can tell with fantasy and science fiction are basically the same, and is slyly taking advantage of the supposed distinctions between the two iconographies to make a decent playground.
And it does. It’s a clever hook, and while Davies’s suggestion that it could run for ten years is almost certainly over-optimistic, it’s not a huge surprise that this is currently on its third season. It fills the same role that The Sarah Jane Adventures did of providing good, classic, and well-made children’s television. It’s got much of the same commitment to diversity, making the extremely good decision to have Benny, the nerd character, be played by a black man. Although to be honest, its commitment to diversity is visibly weaker than that of The Sarah Jane Adventures. There’s no equivalent character to Maria or Rani, and instead we’re generally using the two boys setup of Merlin, only with clear analogues of Clyde and Luke in the leads.
But on the whole, this is a loving and full-throated homage to the classic tradition of British children’s television. And, in turn, a celebration of the classic tradition of British children’s literature, which, fair enough. If you’re making a list of things the UK can legitimately have a sense of national pride in, its legacy of children’s fiction is absolutely something that should be on that list. The trouble is, that’s all it is. Yes, the UK has a glorious history of children’s television that includes Doctor Who, The Tomorrow People, Thunderbirds are Go, Children of the Stones, Box of Delights, Tripods, and a host of other really great stuff.
But all Wizards vs Aliens wants to do is ape it. It does it well, with nods to various shows and some great casting, most obviously the decision to have Brian Blessed provide the voice of the alien king, which he does with the exact aplomb that you’d expect, and which is a frankly wonderful connection to the show’s heritage. There’s really nothing you can point at with Wizards vs Aliens and say “well that’s kinda crap.” It’s just that there’s also nothing you can really get that excited over.
Because the thing about Children of the Stones or Box of Delights or Doctor Who is that they were brave. They weren’t trying to be the heirs to anything – they were just trying to be good, innovative television. And at their best, they tried to push and unsettle the viewers. Which is something Wizards vs Aliens never really feels like it does. It feels like it was made by committee, albeit a very good committee. Its goals are to hold the line for the entire history of British children’s drama. And so it never really tries to be surprising or transgressive. That’s not its remit. It’s just trying to be the pieces of its premise, correctly organized. Every part of it is just bibs and bobs of other shows, cut down to their component parts and welded together. As a collage, it’s impressive.
But as children’s television?
It’s not that this sort of nostalgia can’t work. The Sarah Jane Adventures did a brilliant job with this sort of nostalgia. But it had Lis Sladen. It had a material connection to its nostalgia. And more importantly, it had a material connection to the present. It was about bridging the gap between generations. And Wizards vs Aliens lacks that. It just has fairly generic children’s television tropes being performed without insight and irony. The fact that one of its second season stories, The Thirteenth Floor, was a repurposed Sarah Jane Adventures script where you can tell exactly what everybody’s original character was going to be speaks volumes: this isn’t a show that’s even trying to be anything new or clever.
And that’s where it runs aground. Because it was doing this in the wake of Asylum of the Daleks and The Angels Take Manhattan – two episodes of television aimed at children that were brave, that trusted the audience’s intelligence, and that felt vibrantly fresh. And in comparison, remade Sarah Jane Adventures scripts are just feeble. Wizards vs Aliens feels like vegetables in comparison – the stuff grownups want you to like. It’s perfectly entertaining, but it’s hard to imagine many people for whom this is their favorite show.
Is this sad? Certainly it’s worth mourning the British children’s drama, which, once Wizards vs Aliens ends, will be basically defunct as a genre. But it’s hard not to suspect that anybody who wants to bring it back is more invested in bringing back their childhoods than in improving the childhoods of actual children. Time and technology move on. It’s not like children aren’t still being entertained. It’s not even like they aren’t being entertained by smart, creative stuff. It’s just that a lot of it isn’t television drama shoved into scheduled blocks of children’s programming. The fact that British children’s television is a grand tradition doesn’t inherently justify simply mimicking that past.
As has always been the case, the best children’s media is challenging. It’s stuff that unnerves adults, or even alienates them entirely. It’s stuff that’s made to its own bold and idiosyncratic vision. And while Doctor Who, in late 2012, was clearly having some teething issues with its new bold and idiosyncratic vision, it had one, and it was compelling. It was something that felt like it could go interesting places. It was something that felt like it could still haunt you months or years later. It was, in other words, something that felt like the things that had previously warped generations of children.
Wizards vs Aliens didn’t do any of that. It never felt like it could go anywhere interesting. Everything that was good about it was that it existed in the first place, and once it did, there wasn’t anywhere else for it to go. And instead of feeling like things that had enchanted generations of children, it just looked like them. It was, in the end, visibly a bunch of grown-ups’ idea of what children’s entertainment should be.
Which, as the present day looms over the blog with an increasingly hungry smile, is perhaps an important thing to reiterate, as it’s something that’s not really gotten a ton of chance to come up while we’ve been covering the past. In every era, the stuff that’s mattered has been the stuff that was comparatively weird. Looking back at Doctor Who in the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, or even, at this point, the 00s, what stands out is increasingly the things that aren’t quite like anything else, and that don’t do what you expect. This is the joy of popular culture, and especially popular culture taken over time. The appeal to the here and now. The sense of pop. Of big statements and mad gambles and things that only make sense because of the week you happen to be doing them. In that regard, the Season Seven move towards “movie poster” episodes is apropos – an embrace of the need for something we haven’t seen before. Having spent nearly three years of my life working on Doctor Who criticism more days than not, it’s difficult to overstate how much I appreciate this – how much all I want out of a new episode of Doctor Who is “something I haven’t seen before.” And really, this was always the marker of good Doctor Who, and, more than that, of good television in general.