Flying Down Under – K9 The Series

Created in response to the popularity of Star Wars‘ R2-D2 and C-3PO, the Doctor’s robotic dog companion has had quite a busy life of his own. He has enjoyed a 1982 BBC spin-off Christmas special, toys, books, and numerous celebrity cameos. For years his creators, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, tried to get a fully-fledged K9 television series on-air and finally succeeded in 2009, no doubt helped by runaway success of the revived Doctor Who series. This boxset collects all 26 episodes of Brightspark’s Australian children’s television series, which was sold to several territories including Channel 5 in the UK. It is essentially a slipcase containing the two previous UK DVD releases.

London in the not too distant future where the government has become increasingly authoritarian. Robot policemen are on the streets. A secret branch of the government called The Division deals with alien incursions. Professor Gryffen works for The Division at his home laboratory, investigating confiscated alien tech, especially a time/space teleporter recovered from a UFO discovered in the Arctic. One night his experiments are violently interrupted, first by homeless teenage hacker Starkey, then a time/space portal opening up and unleashing a pair of reptilian warriors called the Jixen, pursued by K9. Overwhelmed by the Jixen’s attack, the robot bravely self-destructs to save the humans. To their amazement he then regenerates into a new sleeker form which can fly. K9 may have lost some of his memories but he is still super-smart, loaded with gadgets and loyal to his new “master” Starkey and his friends Jorjie, Darius and the Professor. Together they fight new alien invaders and the sinister plans of the security department, aided and abetted by Jorjie’s mother June, head of The Division.

The obvious comparison for this series is The Sarah Jane Adventures, the CBBC Doctor Who spin-off which also featured K9 in its later seasons. On the whole K9 – The Series is a more childish lightweight programme, its characters rarely having the depth of the regulars surrounding Sarah Jane Smith. Its format of individual 25 minute stories, compared to the two part story format of the British series, also means that most of the stories are pretty straightforward, with rarely much space for the characters to grow. But then something remarkable happens in the last ten episodes – it suddenly becomes much better in every department. Looking at the credits there is no obvious new writer or producer. It’s simply as if the team metaphorically drank a can of Red Bull and suddenly got inspired. From “The Cambridge Spy” onwards, the adventures are more exciting, the humour is actually funny and whilst the regulars do not get much richer, they do become more likeable and the acting become less stiff.

“Angel of the North” is the only episode written by veteran Doctor Who and Wallace and Gromit writer Bob Baker and it is definitely the highpoint of the series. The artic base which discovered the Fallen Angel UFO comes under attack from revived alien monsters. Atmospheric, well-paced and featuring some welcome insight into Professor Gryffen, it is the one story that really recalls the feel of Doctor Who. Other highlights are: “The Lost Library of Ukko” which is the only story to feature an alien planet, where Starkey and his regular Division enemy Thorn become trapped, forcing them to work together.  “The Curse of Anubis” where K9 meets a race of Ancient Egyptian-themed aliens who he helped free from slavery in the past. Unfortunately they have turned into tyrants themselves. Soon he and nearly everyone else aside from Darius have been brainwashed into believing K9 is a god. And the aforementioned “The Cambridge Spy” where Starkey and Jorjie are accidentally sent back to the 1950’s and become involved with a suspected traitor.

The series has something of the look of the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, with its young cast, bright colours and fairly stagey looking interiors. Its tight budget means that a surprising large ratio of its stories involve going underground so that the same tunnel set can be redressed again and again. Having most of the Division scenes take place inside what looks the back of a van is also distractingly cheap-looking. Sunny Brisbane looks nothing like London either. The aliens vary in quality from fairly credible rubber monster suits like the Jixen to stuff that wouldn’t be out of place at a Halloween party. On the plus side the title music and CGI opening sequence are quite catchy.

Originally it was announced that K9 would have a new voice but following a fan backlash, K9’s original voice – actor John Leeson –  was hired. Personality-wise this K9 has become more of a smart-alec and has lost a bit of his fusty, slightly pompous academic manner which he had in Doctor Who, but he is still recognisable as the same character. Most of the regular actors have gone on to have decent careers in the last few years but it has to be said their performances here are often quite wooden. Daniel Webber (11.23.63, The Punisher) in particular as Darius labours with a pretty poor attempt at a Cockney accent. But the wooden spoon has to go to Connor Van Vuuren as villainous Division agent Drake. My jaw dropped every time this guy was onscreen, seemingly unable to deliver a single line convincingly. He was about as menacing as the Innkeeper in a school nativity. It’s no coincidence that Drake’s eventual removal coincides with the late upswing in quality. The best performance belongs to experienced TV and movie actor Robert Moloney as Professor Gryffen, even though he is a pretty stereotyped eccentric Brit scientist who drinks tea and dresses a bit foppishly.

These four discs are pretty light extras-wise, with only text profiles of the regular characters spread across them. It is a shame that the behind the scenes programme that is apparently on the Australian release was not included, since there is relatively little information available about this series.

K9 – The Series is to quote another SF series – mostly harmless. Not as good a spin-off as The Sarah Jane Adventures or Torchwood, but better at least than the lamentable K9 and Company. It is cheap, cheerful and there is nothing to offend a family audience, although small children may find the lumbering dinosaur-like Jixen a bit scary. As far as I know it is not currently available to stream anywhere, making these DVD’s your only way of seeing it. Doctor Who fans might like to buy it out of completeness but have better be advised to set their expectations to low.

I wrote this review for the Ciao shopping site but it was rejected because this DVD set is now out of print. So I thought I might as well publish it here. Hope you enjoyed it.

Westlake Films has a new home on the Internet

One constant that has threaded through my creative life for more than ten years now has been Westlake, a group my friends and I formed to make short films, for our entertainment and hopefully for others. Through this group I’ve been able to write scripts and see them turn into actual videos. Not to mention opportunities to act, produce, be a microphone boom operator, a cameraman, a gopher and to get stage punched and kicked far too often!

Now we have a new website, thanks to the diligent efforts of Kevin Hiley and Andrew Crines, and you can find it right here at http://westlakefilms.blogspot.co.uk/   Many of the films have been re-digitised with improved picture and sound quality for this new site. You can stream them on YouTube or download them for free!

Over the years we’ve made original stories and documentaries, comedy skits, fan films (mostly about Doctor Who) and music videos. It’s been a great learning experience, as well as a lot of fun.

Here’s a few of my recommendations if you have not tried Westlake before:

In the Fan Films section

K9 and Bloke – an affection send-up of the awkward Doctor Who spinoff that tried to make the Doctor’s robotic pet a leading star. Charlie Wall plays a shabby PI who solves local crimes with the aid of a long-suffering K9. Written by myself and guest starring Nigel Peever.

In the Films section

Memories of the Mill – John Isles talks to his grandfather Frank Brook about his working life as they tour a preserved steam driven mill in Burnley, in this nostalgic documentary.

Help Wanted – a short ghost story inspired by the tales of the great M R James. A thief’s life becomes a nightmare when he violently robs a church. Written by myself and featuring great music by Peter Wicks.

In the Haberdashery section

The Unoriginal Adventures of Robin Hood – a wickedly funny mash up of a couple of BBC fantasy shows which were on air at the time, written and performed by the cast.

This is just a small selection of what you can find. Hope you enjoy it and we would all would love to hear your thoughts.