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Nov 02, 2005

Shaggy Dog Story

One of the joys of being involved in these Stripped Down sessions is the sheer passion for all things Who that screams off the page. Whether it be delighting in a ‘Talons’ or decrying a ‘Dalek Invasion’, one thing remains the same: we’re all here because we love Doctor Who with a passion bordering on the need for a restraining order. And no matter how bad a story may be when seen without the aid of rose-tinted nostalgia spectacles, there’s still the odd nugget to exhume; the tiniest moment to be revered, one that marks out the fans from the causal come-latelies.

It’s a point that bears reminding as we come to arguably one of the most notorious bete-noires of the Who family. Cast your mind back to the Christmas of 1981: with the almost unthinkable departure of Baker T still just nine months before - and with the ‘wet vet’ yet to make his eagerly anticipated bow - the BBC seemed to have suddenly gone Doctor Who mad. Not only had we had five weeks of repeats, showcasing each of the previous four Doctors, but finally after years of false-starts for the UNIT boys, the Daleks and even Jago and Litefoot, Doctor Who finally had a bona-fide spin-off show to accompany its big brother. That it featured not only the most popular companion ever, but the talking robot dog that had even usurped Tom Baker in the popularity stakes at times, then its success seemed foolproof. But given the current - seemingly critical mass - appeal of Doctor Who in 2005 (with a Christmas special and a spin-off provoking a sense of deja-vu), it’s hard to remember that we have been down this road before; to a time when the show provoked a seemingly insatiable appetite in its audience.

So, begs the question, what went wrong?

Well, we couldn’t possibly start any review of ‘K9 & Company’ without mentioning that breathlessly bad title sequence and theme tune. I mean, this isn’t just bad; it’s awful raised to the level of high art. The highlight? Well, obviously Lis Sladen’s almost balletic jog up the country road is a contender, as is her wonderfully staged (so wonderful, in fact, that they show it twice) reveal from behind a newspaper (just in case you weren’t sure what it is a journalist writes for, by the way). But for me the icing on this particular cake is the corporate video music that accompanies all these visual car-crashes - I mean, if Garth Merenghi’s creators hadn’t taken even the slightest glance at this then I’m a sea-devil. And why, it must be asked, does Sarah type her ‘exclusives’ while sat outside on what is clearly a cold and wet winter’s day?

It’s inevitable that whatever follows this textbook example of how not to introduce a television drama will be a let-down. But to be fair, there’s a certain amount of intrigue to ‘K9 and co’s opening moments. We’re in pretty safe Who environs, after all, with dodgy ceremonies invoking Hecate (though it sounds more like they’re saying one of K9’s own catchphrases ‘Negative’, to be honest) and villagers acting either too smarmily or too sinisterly to be anything but the villains. And we even get to meet Sarah’s once-mentioned Aunt Lavinia, who’s apparently planning a US tour to publicise her latest book while her niece does some house/ward sitting. The location work’s quite nice too - even managing to avoid being as jarring as much of its big brother’s output - and Lavinia’s ‘disappearance’ does at least give Sarah a hook to use her much vaunted journalistic know-how.

But what becomes apparent is that Lis Sladen just doesn’t seem to remember what made Sarah-Jane such a popular character. She’s neither likable nor adorable here (while only five years earlier she’d been effortlessly both) and the shift from audience identification figure to ’Doctor-like’ inquisitor doesn’t seem to rest happily on her shoulders. Nor does the fact that - for most of the episode - she’s playing second fiddle to a robot dog.

Aaah, K-9! Bless him, for a generation of school-children he was Britain’s own answer to R2-D2: clever, cute and with an armoury of cool gizmos. Us ‘mature’ fans may sneer now at how he came to dominate the show to an extent where the lead character suffered and the resultant storylines became more juvenile as a result, but back then he was (if you’ll pardon the pun) the Dog’s balls! And to be fair, the Mark III edition seen here does have a neat line in sardonic wit; even making a decent double act with straight guy stooge - and Aunt Lavinia’s ward - Brendan Richards (who’s not even close to being as bad as you remember him, despite that honking laugh being the worst, most forced guffaw until Sylvester McCoy’s own risible attempts in ‘The Happiness Patrol’).

So as Sarah acquaints herself with her new metal chum and the locals of Morton Harwood (including a thinly-veiled lesbian/swinging couple in the form of Lavinia-pals the Bakers), the ‘thick plottens’ into a rather slow-paced pilot for what was clearly designed to be a series with the remit ‘Sarah Jane Investigates’. With red herrings galore (both the ‘disappearance’ of Lavinia and the Bakers’ sinister and vaguely sexual shenanigans turn out to be nothing of the sort) we sort of just plod along for half an hour, wading through some risible dialogue and ‘spot the celeb’ style casting (with Bill Fraser having been tempted back by the prospect of getting to kick K-9 again, apparently…shame he’s been demoted from ‘General’ Grugger to only a Commander here). Even the health inspector from classic Fawlty Towers episode ‘Basil the Rat’ turns up as one of the many ne’er-do-well invokers of Hecate. But performance-wise, it’s left to the notoriously reliable Colin Jeavons to instil any menace into a largely paint-by-numbers cast.

And with the episode’s nods towards the debate over science vs. the supernatural, Sarah and Brendan could have even become the Mulder and Scully of their day had this gone to series (with, no doubt, a computer-hacking episode for Brendan to cut his rather irritating teeth on). Apart from that - and a rather obvious nod to the parent series’ own ‘The Stones of Blood’, not to mention cult film The Wicker Man - that’s about your lot. Everything ends very conveniently - with Sarah and K-9 managing to scour ten or more potentially-satanic churches and chapels just in time for midnight - and it’s all back to the previously suspect Bakers for Christmas lunch (though Fag-Hag-Jane’s suggestion to Sarah to ‘have her tucked up before midnight’ is perhaps a double-entendre too far).

Is it a shame it never went to series? Course not, as already this pilot suggests that any subsequent episodes would have been endless variations on ‘Sarah unearths strange goings-on in rural England’ (with even a suggestion that a coven-centred sequel would be in the offing). But at least a full series would surely have dispensed with those awful, Sarah-looking-pained-in-any-woolly-garment-you-can-imagine opening titles.

What has remained a curio in the Who pantheon has taken on something more of a significance these pat few months; with both a ‘Sarah & K-9’ episode of series two and a whole new Captain-Jack based spin-off to soon hit our screens. Who’d have though it that - despite the 8 million plus who first watched this trash first-time round - either of these two prospects would ever be on the horizon again.

Let’s just hope that both ‘School Reunion’ and Torchwood are a country mile better than this, shall we…

(‘The Bumper Book of Made-Up Doctor Who facts’ has this to say about ‘K-9 and Company’: filming on a first series was only days away when mail-order company Grattan pulled out of a funding deal, scuppering the show’s entire wardrobe budget in one fell swoop)

Comments

Does the fact that only three of us have reviewed K9&Co have any kind of special meaning or is everyone waiting to post @ the weekend?

I am having a terribly busy week but my K9 review will be up by Sunday.

i refer you to a previous statement in another comment regarding the quality of this story

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