K-9 (April 12 - May 19 (various))

April 12: "Regeneration" / "Liberation"
April 21: "The Korven" / "The Bounty Hunter"
April 23: "Sirens of Ceres" / "Fear Itself"
April 25: "The Fall of the House of Gryffen" / "Jaws of Orthrus" / "Dream-Eaters"
April 27: "Curse of Anubis" / "Oroborus"
April 29: "Alien Avatar" / "Aeolian"
May 1: "The Last Oak Tree" / "Black Hunger"
May 3: "The Cambridge Spy" / "Lost Library of Ukko"
May 5: "Mutant Copper" / "The Custodians"
May 11: "Taphony and the Time Loop"
May 12 continued: "Robot Gladiators"
May 14: "Mind Snap"
May 15 continued: "Angel of the North"
May 17: "The Last Precinct"
May 18 continued: "Hound of the Korven"
May 19 continued: "The Eclipse of the Korven"



April 12: "Regeneration" / "Liberation"

One of the interesting ways in which the BBC works is that authors writing for the corporation often retain the rights to the characters they created.  (Terry Nation owning the rights to the Daleks is the best-known example in Doctor Who circles, but see The Dominators for an instance where confusion over who actually owned the Quarks led to all sorts of fallout.)  This extends to the character of K-9, originally created by Bob Baker & Dave Martin for The Invisible Enemy.  The fact that it was the authors who owned the rights to the character meant that they could shop the character around to put into their own, non-BBC production.  (Again, Terry Nation had tried to do something similar with the Daleks back in the '60s, but nothing had come of that.)  Bob Baker had apparently been trying to launch a K-9 show for years (along with a gentleman named Paul Tams, best known as...er...the artist of the cover of the Target novelization of the sixth Doctor radio drama Slipback), but the difference is that he finally succeeded in Australia (with British coproduction), and the result is the efficiently titled K-9, the pilot of which, "Regeneration", aired the day after The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith.

The result isn't great.  Rewatching this, it wasn't as mind-rendingly horrific as it seemed the first time, but there's still something off about it.  The storyline of "Regeneration" has some pretty interesting ideas floating around, with an attempt at a working time portal, a police state in future London (well, maybe; we don't actually have a lot of direct evidence for this yet), and a detention center for aliens.  The problem is that most all of the actors here feel stilted, as if they're all still uncomfortable being in this show.  The only one who comes out largely unscathed (well, besides John Leeson as the voice of K-9) is Robert Moloney, as the agoraphobic Professor Alastair Gryffen, who seems quite comfortable as a slightly neurotic scientist.  Unfortunately, the "rebellious" Starkey and Jorjie feel less like dangerous (or even mischievous) teenagers, and more like drama school students.  It's stereotypical "children's TV" acting, and it's especially obvious in comparison with The Sarah Jane Adventures, which largely manages to avoid this.

It's not all bad; John Leeson is as good as ever, and there are a couple subtle nods to K-9's parent show -- with the original design right at the beginning (because Bob Baker might own the character but the BBC owns the design) and an incredibly subtle reference to the Doctor on K-9's regeneration pod thing: δ³Σx², the Gallifreyan name of the Doctor according to the 1972 book The Making of Doctor Who, is printed on the side (and this is absolutely something Bob Baker would remember -- note his tendency to keep giving Time Lords Greek letters as names).  The new design isn't too bad, even if it's obviously targeted towards kids, and it does allow K-9 to be a bit more mobile.  There's also some really lovely direction from David Caesar and Mark DeFriest, with lots of interesting angles and such.  I also really like the way they've made the Jixen look not quite right, with a sort of shifting shimmer effect that makes it hard for the eye to focus on them.

Still, there's not really anything particularly exciting about "Regeneration"; it does its job of giving us a brand-new K-9, and it sort of sets up the world of the show, but too much time is spent on situations we're not given enough information about for us to care, and the stilted nature of the main actors is a severe drawback.  But this is a pilot; hopefully things will get better.

Jorjie, Professor Gryffen, K-9, Darius, and Starkey. ("Liberation")
©Screen Australia, Pacific Film and Television Commission Pty
Limited, Park Entertainment Limited, Cutting Edge Post Pty
Limited, and Metal Mutt Productions Pty Limited
Next up208 is the second episode, "Liberation", which picks up where "Regeneration" left off.  It's still largely the same as the first episode; the main things of note are that Daniel Webber, as Darius Pike, already seems far more comfortable and natural here than he did last time, and that we get a large parade of aliens in the detention centre that look like they just slapped some odd masks on people -- it screams low budget.  It certainly doesn't help that there are some silly "jokes" scattered through this, such as calling one of the aliens "Mr. Wiffy", apparently in reference to his smell -- it's very much children's TV humor.  There's also the "shocking" twist that Jorjie's mother is high up in the secretive "Department" that Jorjie and Starkey are rebelling against; it doesn't seem to make much of a difference in the narrative scheme of things, and by the end we seem to be more or less back where we started, with the one difference being that the alien detention centre has been closed down.

These two episodes have their moments, but so far K-9 is largely a disappointment, veering from barely watchable to simply tedious with alarming regularity.  Hopefully we can put this down to the growing pains associated with a new series, but K-9 has a long way to go before it can compete with even the least of its step-siblings.



April 21: "The Korven" / "The Bounty Hunter"

After a brief airing of the first episode six months earlier, K-9 finally makes its series debut in the UK with the third episode, "The Korven".  And strictly speaking, this aired two hours earlier than "The Eleventh Hour" did (were they capitalizing on Doctor Who's publicity?  Perish the thought!), but as they're airing two episodes a week at this point, it's easier to lump them together than try to do it strictly chronologically.  I'm sure you care deeply about this.

The Korven arrives to take Professor Gryffen. ("The Korven")
©Screen Australia, Pacific Film and Television Commission Pty
Limited, Park Entertainment Limited, Cutting Edge Post Pty
Limited, and Metal Mutt Productions Pty Limited
There's little here to distinguish these two episodes from the last two that aired, though.  Both "The Korven" and "The Bounty Hunter" seem to follow the same basic pattern: an alien comes through Professor Gryffen's space-time manipulator in order to try and capture one of our heroes: Professor Gryffen in the first case, K-9 in the second.  And while the stakes are allegedly high, as it's our heroes who are in trouble, it's somewhat difficult to get particularly worked up about it, as these episodes don't raise the stakes high enough for us to really think these characters are in real danger.

All right, that's not fair; both episodes do actually do a decent job of making Gryffen and K-9 seem like they should definitely be worried about their chances.  The problem is more that it's still hard at this point to really care about the other characters: the teenagers have already been reduced to basic characteristics (Darius likes Jorjie and dislikes Starkey, Starkey's the rebel with a heart of gold, etc.), acting more as ciphers than real people.  Far and away the best character is Professor Gryffen; this might be because Robert Moloney is a more experienced actor than the others, but it's also because they've actually given him characteristics to distinguish himself as an actual person (his agoraphobia, but also his calm behavior in the presence of Ahab the bounty hunter, offering him tea and casually chatting with him).  There's also an effort to introduce a recurring villain in the form of the Department Head of Security, Inspector Drake, but he's portrayed as such a slimy git that while it's easy to loathe him, it doesn't do much for their efforts to flesh this show out.  (Although placing a fake bomb as a publicity stunt?  That is pretty slimy...)

Ultimately the problem with both of these episodes is that they're too straightforward; we don't get much in the way of nooks and crannies in the plot to explore, and subtlety isn't K-9's strong point.  Even something like making K-9 initially appear to have been a killer pre-amnesia in "The Bounty Hunter" falls flat, because we know that something will happen to vindicate K-9, and we're right.  These two episodes aren't actually bad, but they are rather unsophisticated.  This is a format that seems like they could actually do something with, but thus far they've been content to play it safe -- but playing it safe isn't really going to cut it for the whole series.



April 23: "Sirens of Ceres" / "Fear Itself"

Sadly, I think we just have to resign ourselves to the fact that K-9 is overtly intended to be a children's show and is pitching itself accordingly.  If you're willing to do that, though, then there's some fun to be had here.

The first episode today, "Sirens of Ceres" (which, like "The Korven" and "The Eleventh Hour", technically aired before "The Beast Below"), is probably the better of the two just because it feels like it fits in with everything we've seen so far.  Starkey and the rest are living in an oppressive system, and here we just get more evidence of this oppression, as Inspector Drake is his usual slimy self with his latest plan, to turn people into obedient servants with the help of an alien mineral.  Connor Van Vuuren is often somewhat painfully overacting as Drake, as if he knows he's in a kid's show and is adjusting his performance accordingly; as a result, there are lots of clenched fists and intense emoting as his plan goes right or wrong (depending on the scene) that's sort of mesmerizing to watch.

Melaina is flanked by two girls in her study group. ("Sirens of Ceres")
©Screen Australia, Pacific Film and Television Commission Pty
Limited, Park Entertainment Limited, Cutting Edge Post Pty
Limited, and Metal Mutt Productions Pty Limited
One of the nice things about K-9 so far has been the fact that, despite the oppressive regime controlling things, we see signs that life goes on -- this isn't one of those dystopias where everyone's living in caves as slaves, but instead people still live their lives, just in a police state.  "Sirens of Ceres" continues this trend; while attacking the robot police officers (called CCPCs) is obviously an offense, the punishment doesn't appear to be execution or anything like that, but simply reeducation.  This is Jorjie's fate, and it's what leads to the main plot, as Drake tries his mind control bracelets on the pupils at the reeducation academy.  They do a good job with their Midwich Cuckoos-esque students, as the affected become perfect little angels.  It's not super-creepy, but it is sufficiently effective -- and it gives K-9 a chance to be the hero, as he swoops in and destroys all the bracelets, thus foiling Drake's plot.  It's a nice little story, and the only weird thing is how they make Starkey fall head-over-heels in love with a girl who he must know is being mind-controlled but nevertheless assumes that she's sincere in her affections.  It doesn't really fit with anything we've seen thus far regarding Starkey, so it sticks out like a sore thumb.

But other than that, and allowing for the children's television factors, this is a decent episode.  If they did more like this it wouldn't be a bad thing.

On the other hand, the second episode I watched today, "Fear Itself", borders on incoherency.  There are moments where it seems to be about some sort of shadowy alien that exists to help breed fear in the populace, and others where it's just about conquering one's irrational fears, but it never feels like these two plot lines connect up in a meaningful way.  It certainly doesn't help that we get people behaving out of character -- in particular, Drake seems oddly unfazed by the presence of Starkey, Jorjie, and Darius at the weird cupboard and far more concerned about the possibility of an alien inside the cupboard.  But then it turns into a discussion about emotions and what they mean, as K-9 seeks to learn about fear and then somehow succumbs to it, and the resolution appears to be that there was nothing to be afraid of after all -- except for the impossible wardrobe with a huge pit inside in it (that's strangely reminiscent of parts of Mark Z. Danielewski's book House of Leaves, where an impossible dark space is found inside a house that seems to drive the people exploring it mad, despite the fact that there's nothing actually in that space.  This is almost certainly coincidental, though).  Oddly, this doesn't seem to remotely interest June Turner when she examines the wardrobe at Drake's request.

The resolution leaves things unclear: was there anything alien regarding the wardrobe?  Was it causing the riots and things?  Or was it really all in the mind?  The episode leaves this unclear, and while it might be pleasing in a different context to have this ambiguity, here it just feels unfinished.  A few more explanations (or even gestures towards explanation) would have helped, but as it is we have two storylines that are closely related but seem to be working at cross-purposes to each other and no clear way to resolve the conflict.  The final result is thus something of a mess.



April 25: "The Fall of the House of Gryffen" / "Jaws of Orthrus" / "Dream-Eaters"

Three episodes of K-9 today, as I'm trying to maintain both series order and broadcast order.  For whatever reason "The Fall of the House of Gryffen" didn't air until 12 June 2009 (the same day as "The Lodger"), so I'm squeezing it in before the two episodes that did air the weekend of 17 April.

These three episodes continue the trend of being middling, mildly entertaining kid's fare.  "The Fall of the House of Gryffen" does a nice job of building up an effective, creepy atmosphere, as Gryffen's house is visited by the ghosts of his wife and children.  Only they're not ghosts, they're actually some sort of non-corporeal beings trying to take on physical form by leeching off of Jorjie and Darius, and who've taken on the form of Gryffen's family.  There's some surprisingly nifty work in this story -- the way the children fade out of existence, leaving an outline behind that also fades, is really nice, and the makeup on the "ghostly" family is genuinely impressive.  Countering that, however, is a plot which does spend a bit too much time having Jorjie and Darius being "helplessly" sucked into the portal created by the space-time manipulator while Gryffen comes to terms with the fact that this isn't actually his family, and that our three heroes in fact are his family now.  But this is a minor quibble, and despite the "laughing" end, this is a decent episode.

The Department deals with opposition to their plan to put
microchips in everyone. ("Jaws of Orthrus") ©Screen Australia,
Pacific Film and Television Commission Pty Limited, Park
Entertainment Limited, Cutting Edge Post Pty Limited, and Metal
Mutt Productions Pty Limited
The second episode of the day, "Jaws of Orthrus", is more interesting because it focuses more on K-9 and how Drake is a slimeball.  For some reason the Department seems surprised at the opposition to their plan to put chips in everyone (well, June seems surprised), although it's somewhat surprising that we don't see the CCPCs trying to shut the protest down.  Some of the signs are hilarious though -- my favorite is "We are human not humachine!"

But the actual focus of the episode is on K-9, who's seen trying to assassinate Drake.  They actually do a nice job with the question of whether K-9 did in fact go on the attack, and while there's not really any doubt in the audience's mind, they do keep the door open on the possibility, which is a nice touch.  The only issue is that the target of the attack was Drake, and while we probably all want to see him go, it's a pretty big hint that shenanigans are afoot.

Of course, the title is the clue: Drake's made a K-9 clone (under the codename "Operation Orthrus" -- Orthrus being the brother of Cerberus, hence the clue) so that he can get a warrant for the real K-9 and take him apart.  It's actually a clever idea, and leads to the hilarious moment of the fake K-9 shooting up Darius's beloved car Mariah and writing K9 WOZ 'ERE on the windscreen.  Sadly, we don't get the full K-9 vs K-9 shootout we should've, but there's a brief clash and I suppose that'll have to do.  So overall it's a reasonably entertaining episode, complete with Drake trying to sweet-talk Darius over to his side, and while it won't win any awards or anything, it's fun while it lasts.  Even Connor Van Vuuren's reined in his performance -- things must really be looking up.

Darius, Starkey, and Gryffen, wearing tinfoil hats to shield
themselves from psychic energy. ("Dream-Eaters") ©Screen
Australia, Pacific Film and Television Commission Pty Limited,
Park Entertainment Limited, Cutting Edge Post Pty Limited,
and Metal Mutt Productions Pty Limited
It's the last episode of the day, "Dream-Eaters", that might be the best, however.  This is almost like an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, concerned as it is not with Drake's latest villainous scheme but instead with an alien artifact that's putting all of London (and possibly the world) to sleep.  Other than the really obvious studio backlot (with a shot of the London skyline stuck in the background), this looks pretty impressive as well, with the Bodach being a nice design.  Oh, and that's another parallel with The Sarah Jane Adventures/Doctor Who: the main villain, the Bodach, appears to be an old legend, the Celtic equivalent of the Bogeyman (and is sort of the male equivalent of the Cailleach -- see The Stones of Blood).  But in fine Who tradition, the Bodach is an alien entity that feeds off of people's dreams -- but it needs a focal point, and when the Department recently unearthed a structure with two special red gems, this was enough to awaken the Bodach.  So we get scenes with people sleepwalking, under the Bodach's control, while the Prof tries to enter the dreamworld to confront the Bodach.  It's great fun, and it's a nice move to make June the physical host for the Bodach -- it keeps the Bodach suitably mysterious, and it isn't Drake under the mask (like I half-suspected), which is welcome.

The introduction of ancient legends and mysticism into this show is a smart move.  It's sort of hard to see them going down this road again, just because of the nature of what we've seen thus far on K-9, but if they did it's clear, based on "Dream-Eaters", that they could get quite a bit of mileage out of this approach.  This is probably the best episode this show has yet produced.



April 27: "Curse of Anubis" / "Oroborus"

Yep, "Curse of Anubis" is technically another episode that aired before last time's Who episode.  Same deal as before.

K-9 flanked by two Anubians in the redecorated police station.
("Curse of Anubis") ©Screen Australia, Pacific Film and Television
Commission Pty Limited, Park Entertainment Limited, Cutting Edge
Post Pty Limited, and Metal Mutt Productions Pty Limited
This is a rather offbeat episode of K-9, without being obviously that way.  The basic premise of K-9 being worshipped as a great liberator by an alien species is an interesting one -- it's nice that they keep getting mileage out of mining K-9's forgotten past, as it's an idea with a lot of life to it.  As such, it's interesting to hear from the Anubians of how K-9 came to save them from slavery and is now revered as a hero in their culture (to put it mildly).  The pictures in their book are well done as well -- they're beautiful to look at as well as looking appropriate for their race.216

It does go a bit bonkers, however; the idea of the Anubians controlling Gryffen's mind isn't too bad -- and the clothes and makeup he's in as a result are outrageously wonderful -- and the way both Starkey and Jorjie fall under the Anubians' control does raise the stakes quite a bit, but it's frankly bizarre that K-9's behavior is explained away not as also being under some form of control, but rather as being so deep in thought that he's simply oblivious to the Anubians' conquering ways.  This seems at odds with what we've started to come to expect from K-9, even if it looks like it's there to allow Darius to be the hero of the hour, because he frankly has never seemed that oblivious, no matter how deeply he searches his memory banks.  Oh, and while it's improbable that Darius would be able to work out how to fly the Anubian spaceship, it's still nice to have him ultimately save the day, as he's been somewhat overlooked in that department up to this point.  Plus it lets us enjoy the hilarious sight of CCPCs leading the Anubians away in handcuffs.

It's a fun episode, even if there's not too much depth going on -- but as an episode of K-9 (a show not exactly distinguishing itself with its appeals to deeper connections) it fits in perfectly well.

The other episode today, "Oroborus", is an interesting one because it plays with the idea of time.  It's filtered through K-9's "kid's show" filter, so anyone expecting a serious or thoughful exploration of the topic should look elsewhere, but within the confines laid down this is a nifty concept.  We get a creature, the Oroborus, that not only consumes time itself, but conceals its presence by selectively editing time itself, so that people don't remember seeing it.  Starkey is immune from this because apparently his parents ran experiments regarding alien immunization on him, and this apparently includes the Oroborus's abilities.

I like how there's a sense of paranoia being fostered in this episode by no one remembering the time loops except Starkey, which leads to the other accusing him of lying and sabotage.  There's been a sense of comfort about Starkey's arrangement recently, and it provides a good bit of drama to see that upended, even if we know it'll be put back right by the end of things.  We also get a chance to see Starkey save the day by luring the Oroborus (which is a frankly impressive CGI creature, particularly given how cheap much of the rest of the show often looks -- compare with the Anubian spaceship from the previous episode) into the space-time manipulator's field, which is a good bit of work.

Like "Curse of Anubis", this isn't a particularly ambitious episode, but it does have clever moments that help sustain interest over its 25 minutes.  It's also nice to see a script that isn't completely reliant on somewhat convenient and/or ludicrous events to wrap things up -- there's a sense of convenience, sure, but it's signposted rather than coming out of left field.  "Oroborus" is thus a reasonably strong entry for K-9.



April 29: "Alien Avatar" / "Aeolian"

Blah blah blah "Alien Avatar" aired before "Flesh and Stone" blah blah blah.

Two kind of middling episodes today -- not awful, but not spectacular.  The first one, "Alien Avatar", is relatively straightforward: Drake is holding two aliens called Medes hostage (of course he is) so that he can learn the secret of their invisibility, because apparently he really likes spying on people.  Meanwhile, Drake's people are polluting the river in their efforts to replicate the alien invisibility technology, which K-9 predicts will kill 85% of the life in the Thames Valley.  (So nice work, Drake.)

Honestly, it would be nice if there were more to the episode than that, but other than the extra trick of the Medes being able to project holographic avatars of themselves (thus letting K-9 know about the problem), there's really not much to see here.  Drake is as slimy as ever, and Connor Van Vuuren delivers the same exaggerated performance as ever.  The best bit might be how June and Starkey charge after Jorjie and Darius after June realizes they're walking into Drake's restricted area, and Gryffen tries to follow but can't overcome his agoraphobia.  It's a nice little nod to something that hasn't come up much lately.

It's certainly not a terrible episode; it's entertaining while it lasts and the disappearing effect for the Medes is genuinely impressive.  It just doesn't have any ambitions at all beyond filling its 25 minutes -- no comments on pollution or imprisonment or this society or anything.  The mission of "Alien Avatar" appears to be to get in and get out with a minimum of fuss, and at this, at least, it succeeds.

The Aeolians are reunited. ("Aeolian") ©Screen Australia, Pacific
Film and Television Commission Pty Limited, Park Entertainment
Limited, Cutting Edge Post Pty Limited, and Metal Mutt Productions
Pty Limited
The second episode today, "Aeolian", is significantly more interesting.  There's something wonderfully mad about the idea that music can affect weather, and to their credit they do explore the idea a little bit.  Plus it gives them a chance to sneak in a cheeky bit of dialogue: "Severe weather conditions all over the country!" Gryffen says.  "Hurricanes in Hertford, Hereford, and Hampshire..."  "But they never happen here," Starkey protests.  "Well, hardly ever," Gryffen replies.

The best thing about this episode, though, might be the handheld shots that director Karl Zwicky chooses to use.  Up to this point K-9 has been a fairly static show, with lots of conventional camera set-ups (partly, I'm willing to bet, because of the relative difficulty of getting a hovering K-9 into shots, either as CG or practically), but Zwicky has chosen to shoot this episode in the form of a documentary.  It's a simple but effective way to give this episode a shot of energy to the arm, and it really works.  Thus when, say, Jorjie is struggling under the debris that's trapped her on her bed, it looks a lot more dynamic than it otherwise would.

But I also like the resolution of the story.  The alien behind the storms, an Aeolian, is a creature that apparently communicates via song, and I like the way they've extended the idea to the costume, so that they look not unlike an 18th-century composer.  All she really wants is some love from her lost partner, and she's willing to destroy the planet if it means her message will reach him.  Touchingly, it does, and they're able to leave in peace -- despite Drake's best efforts.

And while that's going on, we see Darius's unsuccessful efforts to free Jorjie from the wreckage pinning her down.  This leads to a surprisingly touching conversation between the two of them -- surprising because there hasn't really been any evidence up to this point that either Philippa Coulthard or Daniel Webber were really capable of this sort of nuanced acting.  It's a nice moment, even if it requires Jorjie to be rather astonishingly oblivious.  Poor Darius.

Overall, this is a nice little episode that's elevated by some wonderful direction.  It's not the sort of thing that will set the world on fire, but it's a good example of the sort of thing K-9 can be when it flexes its muscles.



May 1: "The Last Oak Tree" / "Black Hunger"

Boy, Drake's kind of a git, isn't he?

The metamorphosed Centuripedes fly away. ("The Last Oak Tree")
©Screen Australia, Pacific Film and Television Commission Pty
Limited, Park Entertainment Limited, Cutting Edge Post Pty
Limited, and Metal Mutt Productions Pty Limited
In some ways you sort of feel sorry for Connor Van Vuuren: the script writers have clearly decided that Drake's going to be their cypher to indicate nefarious goings-on, which means that he personally shows up for every evil scheme being unleashed.  Take "The Last Oak Tree", for instance; this is a tale of misdirection, as we learn that the alien which stole the last oak tree left in England from the London museum actually just needs the wood to make a sort of baby carriage for her young.  The alien, a Centuripede, doesn't want to harm humanity -- she just wants to help her young.  But because we need some sort of external threat, here comes Drake, clomping through the sewers again with some sort of explosive device designed to wipe the Centuripede out, regardless of how much sense it makes for him to actually go down there.

It's a nice little moment in a series that, like The Sarah Jane Adventures, has chosen to view aliens with a sense of wonder rather than dread.  There's not necessarily a deeper meaning than that; the fact that a large number of species of trees have gone extinct in England is treated more as background details for the future we're in, rather than as a warning or a major problem -- it's not exactly Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.  But because "The Last Oak Tree" is about finding beauty in different guises and about helping people and creatures in distress, Drake's presence really sticks out.  He's only there to supply an external threat and that's it.

"Black Hunger", at least, uses Drake in a more reasonable context, as he's engaged in another covert operation that secretly uses alien technology to forward his agenda.  Well, sort of; he's made this special life-eating microbe supercharged so that he can use it to help steal more alien tech.  Or something.  It's not exactly clear.  What is clear is that Drake is supremely confident that nothing will go wrong with Operation Black Hunger.  Of course, something does go wrong; Gryffen calculates that the Hunger could wipe out all life on Earth in a week if it gets loose, and so naturally it gets loose, causing an apocalyptic crisis that's only averted because K-9 vacuums up all the microbes inside himself, ready to be discharged the next time he visits Atrios, as there's no carbon-based life there.218

But the damage is done; once again Drake has operated without official permission and this time he nearly destroyed the world.  He's gone too far, and thus this, it seems, is Drake's final appearance on K-9, as he's replaced by Inspector Thorne (who you might remember was the prison governor in "Liberation").  I would like to say it's sad to see him go, but that wouldn't be true.  This appears to have been one of Connor Van Vuuren's first roles, and while he appears to have done what they asked of him, which sometimes seemed to essentially be a future Snidely Whiplash, he wasn't able to do much more than that.  Van Vuuren's certainly done better for himself since this (albeit more as a stuntman and in a behind-the-scenes capacity), so it does look like it was a lack of experience rather than talent informing his performance in K-9.  But as far as villainy goes, I guess we'll have to see how Thorne does in Drake's place.



May 3: "The Cambridge Spy" / "Lost Library of Ukko"

Is K-9 set in future Cambridge?  I'm not sure how else to make sense of the title of today's first episode...

Neither episode is particularly good, but "The Cambridge Spy" is probably the better of the two because it actually plays a bit with the time travel stuff that's been lurking in the background of the series since the beginning.  Due to a freak accident, Jorjie is sent back in time to 23 November 1963 (even the unofficial spin-offs can't resist the in-jokes, it seems), where Darius's great-grandfather is about to be accused of being a Soviet spy.

There are some things going on with time travel, but it rarely moves beyond simple Back to the Future-style logic, such as when Darius starts to fade away after history is changed such that his great-grandfather Bill is set to never have kids.  Some of the moments are clever, like Jorjie in the newspaper, but most of it is a straightforward runaround.  This might be OK, but the biggest problem with this episode, sad to say, is Daniel Webber, who seems woefully out of his depth when called upon to play Darius's great-grandfather.  I'm not quite sure why; he seems more or less acceptable as Darius, but here there's just something missing from his performance -- to the point where I briefly wondered if this was meant to be Darius undercover.  But no, it's apparently genuine.

There's another minor problem, in that the MI6 agent interrogating Bill is apparently the same actor as Inspector Thorne: "Does he remind you of anyone?" Jorjie asks Starkey.  This might be fine if Inspector Thorne had shown up in any meaningful amount of the show up to this point, but he was in one episode 14 episodes back and then briefly at the end of the last episode, so that's hardly enough time for us to make the connection -- particularly since here actor Jared Robinsen is wearing a false mustache, which only makes it harder.

So there's a nice effort to play with the time travel idea, but it's not actually original enough to maintain interest, and it's also hampered by some of the performances.  "The Cambridge Spy" is thus something of a mixed bag -- although it's a nice touch making the MI6 agent the actual spy (even if it's rather obvious).

Jorjie, Darius, K-9, Gryffen, and June watch Yssaringintinka
try to retrieve Starkey and Thorne. ("Lost Library of Ukko")
©Screen Australia, Pacific Film and Television Commission Pty
Limited, Park Entertainment Limited, Cutting Edge Post Pty
Limited, and Metal Mutt Productions Pty Limited
"Lost Library of Ukko", on the other hand, is just...strange.  It involves Thorne laying a trap worthy of Drake to get someone to look into this weird Ukkan library card that takes pieces of planets219 (so, a lot like the CET machine from Nightmare of Eden -- and oh look, Bob Baker wrote that one) and then sucks in people unwary enough to look at the image on the card.  This is so Thorne can learn...something (it's not clear what -- funny how that seems to be a recurring theme on this show) that will enable him to turn the place into a prison for all the dissidents.

That part's not actually a bad idea, but what happens is that they bring this alien librarian in just about the least convincing alien makeup ever -- I realize K-9's a fairly low-budget show, but come on -- and she's a strange kooky character who ends up largely subverting the episode just by virtue of her performance.  There's nothing wrong with being deliberately offbeat, but because the rest of the episode seems so lightweight, the balance tilts too far in her direction.  (The purple Shutter Shades don't help with this.)  It also doesn't help that the production team seems to have injected Thorne into the script to do all the things Drake would do, almost like a find-and-replace action on their scripts.  He thus doesn't yet seem to have a distinct personality, and while Jared Robinsen gives a more naturalistic performance as Thorne than Connor Van Vuuren did as Drake, this actually makes Thorne less interesting of a character; at least Drake was sort of mesmerizing in his supremely melodramatic performance.  They really should have spent at least a little time exploring Thorne's character before they made him generically villainous.

So "Lost Library of Ukko" features an interesting idea lost in a lightweight script with a performance that shifts the whole episode perilously close to self-parody, as it often starts to look like they're doing these things because they're the sorts of things K-9 does rather than because of some internal logic at work.  It's not terribly hard to struggle through, but the final result is rather daft.



May 5: "Mutant Copper" / "The Custodians"

You get the feeling, watching K-9, that the only real problems faced by 2050s London are those created by the Department's Security Division.

Take "Mutant Copper", for instance.  While the rogue CCPC of the title isn't actually a danger to London, it is the result of an experiment that Inspector Thorne authorized, and none of this would have happened if he hadn't stuck human brain cells into the robot brain to see what would happen.  Of course, what did happen is that the CCPC became more interested in the world around it than in maintaining the Department's brand of justice, and it's only thanks to our heroes that Thorne doesn't simply kill this new lifeform.

Or take "The Custodians".221  Here we have almost 20 million children being hospitalized due to some new virtual reality game that's shutting down kids' minds, and it's all sponsored by the Department in order to create a placid, unquestioning populace.  The fact that it might backfire because their eager alien volunteer might have other plans doesn't seem to have occurred to Thorne.

I'll say this about Thorne, though, he's certainly good at being sinister.  Even when he's stomping around Gryffen's home, looking for evidence that the mutant CCPC is there and failing to find any, he's still quite threatening -- he doesn't have any proof of wrongdoing, but he still seems quite formidable.  It's a wonder he's willing to back down in "The Custodians" in the face of June's appeals.

I'm focusing on Thorne and Department Security because the rest of these two episodes aren't particularly interesting.  To their credit, there's an effort to explore what it means to be human in "Mutant Copper", and more importantly, what it's like to be alone.  Birdie, the mutant CCPC, is neither fully human nor fully cyborg222, and thus seems hopelessly confused -- or, more accurately, like a child who simply doesn't understand how the world works.  And rather than nurture this new creation, their solution is to turn him into a full cyborg again -- K-9 in particular seems distressed at the thought of Birdie not fitting in.  It's only because Thorne enters Gryffen's place, forcing Darius to take Birdie away and set him free, that stops him from being turned back into a full cyborg.  But that's about it for interesting things -- even their efforts to introduce another teenager named Marcus, to present as a potential rival for Starkey and/or Darius, fall flat because it's pretty clear that he's going to sell them out somehow, and so we're just waiting for that moment to happen rather than being surprised by it.

Starkey, Thorne, June, and K-9 watch as the Etydion dies. ("The
Custodians") ©Screen Australia, Pacific Film and Television
Commission Pty Limited, Park Entertainment Limited, Cutting
Edge Post Pty Limited, and Metal Mutt Productions Pty Limited
"The Custodians", meanwhile, has a potentially interesting idea in their alien race the Etydion, who have powerful telepathy that can transmit emotions (so "empathy", in the Star Trek sense) and can apparently slowly convert other beings into fellow Etydions, given the right conditions.  But because they have to wrap things up in 23 minutes and have their twist midway of "it's the Department who's behind the 'Little Green Men' game", this idea is given somewhat short shrift.  It's presented instead as a problem concerning Darius and Jorjie that needs to be solved, instead of something more interesting.  The way they solve the crisis, by June turning her full emotions on the Etydion regarding her daughter, is a good move, however.  And K-9's "Armageddon mode" is pretty wonderful:
JUNE: Thirty seconds before I order this lethal cyborg to level this place down to its foundations.  (quietly to K-9) Help us out here.
K-9:  Doomsday weapon online.  Armageddon mode activated.  (in a lower, doom-laden voice) These are the end of days.
That's the best part of a couple of episodes that are pretty middling by K-9's standards.  Everything else here is largely by-the-numbers, with little in the way of surprises or intriguing moments -- and those times we do get something beyond the norm, they have to quickly move on to get to the next moment without exploring the concepts much further.  These aren't bad episodes, but sadly they aren't particularly challenging or exciting either.



May 11: "Taphony and the Time Loop"

In the UK, K-9 took a summer break, but then it returned in October 2010, coincidentally(?) right around the same time as the start of series 4 of The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Taphony and K-9 have a discussion. ("Taphony and the Time Loop")
©Screen Australia, Pacific Film and Television Commission Pty
Limited, Park Entertainment Limited, Cutting Edge Post Pty
Limited, and Metal Mutt Productions Pty Limited
This latest episode, "Taphony and the Time Loop", is a somewhat confused story.  It's about Professor Gryffen rescuing a girl (played by Maia Mitchell, who apparently is actually somebody -- although not at the time this was made) who he helped experiment upon a while ago, as he feels guilty about her being locked up in a maximum security prison, only for her to appear inside his house, rather than a safer location like he'd originally intended.  Taphony, the girl, is incredibly dangerous, it seems, and she's completely unaware of the damage she's causing -- believing that aging Professor Gryffen is a form of justice, and not comprehending that Jorjie doesn't want to die so that Taphony can live.  The script veers between considering her dangerous and misunderstood, and while it seems to eventually come down on the "misunderstood" side of things, it feels half-hearted somehow, as if the writers have made this decision because it's the sort of thing expected from the show, rather than because it makes sense.  It also doesn't help that it's never quite clear why Taphony is such a threat.  Yes, she can age people and steal their life essence, but how she can do this is vague.  Calling her a "time blank", like that's supposed to mean anything, doesn't help either, but that's all the explanation we get, and it's left to us to fill in the blanks.

Still, the underlying message of "being dangerous doesn't necessarily mean being malicious" is a good one, and it is rather fun to see Gryffen aged (and the make-up is quite good) -- even if the "he has to be de-aged before his birthday or else he's stuck" conceit is risible.  If this episode had committed more strongly to being one type of episode or the other (either make Taphony incredibly dangerous and naïve or just have her be evil), then they might have had a winner, but "Taphony and the Time Loop" tries to have it both ways and thus falls rather flat.



May 12 continued: "Robot Gladiators"

"Robot Gladiators" opens with a surprisingly ambitious sequence for the series: trying to make things look both like a fun entertainment show (the captions) and a sort of film noir/gangster film.  They actually continue down this road for a while, with each of the gang heading undercover in Frankie Maxwell's illegal robot fighting ring to find some evidence that they can use to shut it down.  It's actually quite fun, and while K-9's initial complaints about being stuck with primitive robots are amusing, even he warms up to them.

K-9 and the Pain Maker square off in the ring. ("Robot Gladiators")
©Screen Australia, Pacific Film and Television Commission Pty
Limited, Park Entertainment Limited, Cutting Edge Post Pty
Limited, and Metal Mutt Productions Pty Limited
Sadly, it does get less interesting when we learn who's really behind things (no prize for guessing who), although there is a nice moment where Thorne contemptuously wonders if they thought their ruse was remotely believable -- as I was wondering the same thing (since isn't Jorjie meant to be 14?), this was nice confirmation that at least someone was thinking about things.  But the whole thing is apparently a ruse to gain access to K-9's regenerative capabilities: the Pain-Maker will either beat K-9 up or blow him up, but either way the Department wants access.  Of course it doesn't work and everything ends well, but to its credit, "Robot Gladiators" does leave us with a lingering question: how exactly did Thorne know about K-9's capabilities?  Is Gryffen's house bugged?  Or is there a spy in their midst?  This is a question that will hopefully be explored in the future, but as for now it's left unanswered.

For the first half, "Robot Gladiators" is a surprisingly good episode that's actually trying to do something a bit different.  As a result, it's not surprising that when it slips back into the tired old routine at the end we feel a sense of disappointment.  But, at least for a little bit, K-9 flirted with being something different, and the result was better than normal.



May 14: "Mind Snap"

It's been a while since Bob Baker wrote for Doctor Who or any of the spin-offs, and during that time he's done a fair bit, including cowriting three Academy Award-winning Wallace & Gromit films.  But now he's finally gotten his K-9 spin-off off the ground (after spending 12 years trying to get the thing going), and after 21 episodes Bob Baker has finally cowritten an episode of this series.

And so what do we get?  A sodding clip show.

So that's a first, I guess; none of the other shows have ever done a clip show before -- lots of retrospectives and things, sure, but nothing inserted into the main run of the series.  But because it's a clip show, it's hard to really discuss this.  The framing story (K-9's mind is scrambled by the STM, so Gryffen and Starkey have to try and help him remember who he is) is fine enough, and the clips are well chosen, but there's still little to engage with here.  This is a way for the show to save money, pure and simple, and while these sorts of episodes may have been (marginally) acceptable in the 1990s and earlier, as a way for viewers to see clips and fondly remember the stories they came from, now with the Internet and streaming video services and cheap DVDs, clip shows are largely redundant.

I guess in terms of achieving the episode's goals this story is a success -- there don't appear to be many awkward clips that K-9 wasn't actually present for or revisitations of any truly painful moments, and it does serve as a somewhat useful reminder if you've forgotten aspects of the show.  And I assume it did save them the money they were hoping for.  But by just about any other standard, "Mind Snap" falls well short of the mark.



May 15 continued: "Angel of the North"

"Angel of the North" is also by Bob Baker, but this one's not a clip show.  No, instead Baker has decided to write a surprisingly interesting episode that plays with much of what the series has established.  This is a good thing.

Thorne and his CCPCs take Gryffen outside in a special
agoraphobia-proof suit. ("Angel of the North") ©Screen
Australia, Pacific Film and Television Commission Pty Limited,
Park Entertainment Limited, Cutting Edge Post Pty Limited,
and Metal Mutt Productions Pty Limited
The premise is simple: something is causing havoc with both the STM and K-9, and Gryffen thinks it's linked to the crashed alien spacecraft that the STM originally came from -- there might be a piece of the machine still there.  But as the ship is located in Canada and K-9 doesn't seem particularly interested in checking it out, Gryffen has to resort to other ways of getting to the ship.  This means confronting his agoraphobia and finding a way over there.  (Oddly, everyone in the episode keeps talking about heading north, as if Canada had somehow moved to north of London.)

The thing that's most striking about the episode is how seriously it takes things.  There's little of the standard children's TV approach that has often characterized K-9 up to this point; instead, characters behave as they would behave as people, instead of as cyphers of some kind.  Thus Gryffen's agoraphobia is a plot point, Starkey's bravery is treated as self-evident, with little need for congratulation, and Thorne (and the Department) finally make sense in this context, as they're interested in the alien technology for their own ends, rather than just being behind every plot because that's their plot function.  And we get some tantalizing hints for the future: the STM is a Korven ship, with a whole mess of Korven still on board, and (oddly) K-9 seems to be connected in some way, and Thorne is taking orders from his shadowy boss Lomax, who seems far too interested in the STM -- particularly in light of the revelation regarding the Korven...  It's also really nice to get into some new sets, as Gryffen, Starkey, and K-9 wander through frozen corridors, pursued by Thorne and by Korven.

It's slightly tempting to say that K-9 has been building up to this point, but that's not really true: K-9 hasn't really been building to anything up to this point, but suddenly they've started to snap some things into focus.  By giving us a better-written episode than we've been getting and playing with some of the established pieces, Bob Baker and the production team (led by director James Bogle) turn out a surprisingly engaging episode that starts to hint at the idea that maybe it was a worthwhile endeavour to make this series.  Is it too much to hope that this feeling will last?



May 17: "The Last Precinct"

I'm not quite sure what to make of "The Last Precinct".  Maybe it's because the last episode was hinting at something bigger down the line, but it feels like some of the stuff we learn here will also become important in the future.  But that's wrapped inside a slightly disconnected plot about Darius's father running a terrorist organization and taking over Gryffen's house and making everyone inside hostages.

Sgt. Pike issues his demands. ("The Last Precinct") ©Screen
Australia, Pacific Film and Television Commission Pty Limited,
Park Entertainment Limited, Cutting Edge Post Pty Limited,
and Metal Mutt Productions Pty Limited
I suppose Sgt. Pike has noble goals -- he was apparently one of the last police officers before the Department switched over to CCPCs, and he wants to put people back into the policing job -- but his methods don't exactly endear him to anyone, breaking into Gryffen's home and threatening everyone.  Just because it turns out that he actually has a good reason to do all this (since apparently Inspector Thorne's been augmenting all the new CCPCs with some form of modified alien technology, the purpose of which is unknown) doesn't mean that we're really on his side or anything, and as the entire crisis is caused by him and his group the Last Precinct, it's hard to feel any sympathy for him -- even though the ending suggests that's what we should be doing.

But despite the shortcomings of the storyline, all the actors are on fine form -- Daniel Webber does a good job as Darius, confronted with the face of the father who left him in favor of his police crusade, while Chris Betts as Sgt. Pike makes it seem like the police being fired genuinely was the worst thing to happen to him.  And while Thorne once again has stuck his fingers into secret pies, at least Jared Robinsen makes him seem quite threatening.

If only the actual plot was more interesting, this would have been a winner.  As it is, the efforts of the actors almost but don't quite elevate this episode.  It should be something more special than it is, what with Darius's father turning up and shenanigans regarding the CCPCs being exposed, but they just can't quite make it.  Still, it's by no means the worst episode K-9 has produced -- it's just not as good as the last one was.



May 18 continued: "Hound of the Korven"

This penultimate episode, "Hound of the Korven", feels at the time like it should be very significant, but while it ends on something of a cliffhanger and changes the nature of our understanding of much of the show, there's still a sense of unresolvedness here (although hopefully the next episode will address that).

It starts well, actually taking some time to address the events of the previous episode, as Darius sees his father trapped in a VR prison after his arrest last time around.  Thorne wants K-9's regeneration unit (which, you may recall, he was also interested in in "Robot Gladiators") and he's willing to return K-9's memory chip in exchange for it.  There's also some stuff involving Lomax, the head of the Department, ordering that the sewers be mined and filled with a stun gas, even though June argues that there are civilians (three guesses who) down there.

The best part, however, might be the reveal that the Jixen (marked as enemy number one since the beginning of this series) are actually benign.  The conversation between the Jixen and Starkey is pretty good in its exploration of this misunderstanding, and the hints that suggest that K-9 was actually being used by the Korven to hunt the Jixen are interesting.  There are also some extra details to suggest that the Jixen aren't bad (such as the fact that their war with the Meron was apparently an effort to reclaim their home), which are welcome.

But once we learn that, we get a stand-off between the Jixen and a Korven-controlled K-9 (of course the memory chip thing was a scam) that only narrowly avoids killing everyone (although we see that K-9 has a sense of humor: after he overrides the Korven programming telling him to explode in the presence of Jixen, he then resumes the countdown just to see how everyone will react.  "Four.  Three.  Two.  One.  Bang," he says).  It's done decently, but it leaves a lot of unresolved questions.  This means there's quite a bit of pressure on the series finale to wrap some of this up.

However, what we get here is reasonably compelling and surprising, and it leaves the viewers wanting more.  It may have taken the entire run, but it really does look like K-9 has gotten to an objectively interesting and worthwhile place.



May 19 continued: "The Eclipse of the Korven"

Jorjie, Darius, Professor Gryffen, Starkey, and K-9 observe the
STM. ("The Eclipse of the Korven") ©Screen Australia, Pacific
Film and Television Commission Pty Limited, Park Entertainment
Limited, Cutting Edge Post Pty Limited, and Metal Mutt
Productions Pty Limited
And so we've now reached the finale of K-9, with an episode that's genuinely good.  This is the moment they really have (sort of) been building up to, as we get a number of disparate threads tied together in this finale.  So we learn more about K-9's regeneration unit, the STM, his connection to the Korven, and the mysterious Lomax who runs the Department.  It's almost like they know this is the last episode -- how else do you explain the awkward story-stopping moment of Jorjie telling Starkey that she has feelings for him, other than to wrap up a plot thread left dangling from "Aeolian"?

But they mix in some genuinely compelling moments.  The best one is Professor Gryffen resolving to save the world even though it means confronting his agoraphobia and heading outside to shut down the STM at the source, as it really is a "punch the air" moment, but there are also things like Thorne being revealed as a Korven agent, helping them to invade (so that's why he's been such a git all the time), or the way K-9 saves the day by making the weird alien beast fight its own natures, which is a clever move.  Or the way Thorne receives his just desserts.

And then the ending goes straight for the feels, with K-9 seemingly dead and there be nothing anyone can do to save him.  All the actors appear to be actually crying during this extended scene, as they all say their farewells to K-9, seemingly forever.  Of course it works out in the end (as the regeneration unit just, er, appears in Starkey's hand), but it's still a really touching scene.

So the series definitely ends strong: "The Eclipse of the Korven" is a compelling episode with an engaging plot and some good performances from everyone involved.  This episode feels like it has a storyline that matters, and so it goes out on a high note.

And so ends this oddest of spin-offs, the one with only the most fragile of ties to technically its parent show, and the only one to date not made by the BBC.  (Or at least the only one that made it to broadcast, as opposed to the BBV stuff.)  The basic premise of the show isn't bad, but all too often, K-9 seemed to have few ambitions beyond standard children's TV fare.  It was rarely outright terrible, but because its sights were lowered, the times it hit the mark weren't as often as they should have been.  This is a shame; some talented people were in front of the camera, and probably could have done more if they'd be given the material.  Robert Moloney was easily the standout as Professor Gryffen, providing a solid anchor for the show and doing some really lovely acting, but we also had fine acting from people like Keegan Joyce as Starkey (once he had a couple episodes under his belt) and Philippa Coulthard and Daniel Webber, who showed that, when given the right stuff, they could easily rise to the occasion.  And as always, John Leeson was on hand to provide his ever-reliable performance as the voice of K-9.

Alas, the ambitions of the show just weren't high enough, and while they finally did start to spread their wings near the end it was too little too late.  The direction the show was going was a positive one, but they only got the one series, and the talk has moved on from "we're going to do a second series" to "we're going to do a reboot", which is a bit of a shame (even if it's understandable).  It was hardly a standout show, but in its own way it could be quite charming.

(All that said, the theme tune of the show might have been the best part -- it's a genuinely catchy piece of music.)









Footnotes

208 Up to this point I've been able to more or less view everything in the order it was broadcast (the sole caveat is "The Infinite Quest", which was broadcast in short pieces week by week until they re-broadcast the complete story right before "Last of the Time Lords"), but the British airdates of K-9 screw things up by being occasionally broadcast in the wrong order.  Thus "Liberation", explicitly the second episode of the series, was actually the 20th episode broadcast for some reason, and thus technically aired on 9 October 2010 -- two days before The Nightmare Man Part One, the series 4 opener of The Sarah Jane Adventures; I've elected to view it in its proper place, however.  I'll note other oddities as we go.
216 Intriguingly, their book contains pictures of a Sea Devil and an Alpha Centaurian (from the two Peladon stories).  The Sea Devil is particularly interesting because it suggests that some of the Earth Reptiles left Earth before the rest went into hibernation.  And look, a Silurian spaceship turns up in "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship", unwittingly giving support to this.
218 The last time we saw Atrios was in The Armaggedon Factor (which K-9 co-creator Bob Baker would know, as he cowrote that story), when it sure looked like there was carbon-based life there.  So either that took place in the long-distant future, or possibly in the long-distant past -- in which case, sounds like tough times ahead for Princess Astra and company.
219 Which incidentally makes K-9 the first Doctor Who spinoff show to (sort of) visit an alien planet.
221 Public service announcement: the Shout! Factory region 1 release of K-9: The Complete Series has a technical fault with the default audio of "The Custodians", dropping out completely at roughly 21:45 and lasting for the remainder of the episode.  The other audio track doesn't have this problem, however; you can switch to that one without any issues.
222 It's never quite clear if the programme makers actually realize that "cyborg" isn't simply another word for "robot".  The way the argument about Birdie is framed, it's as if introducing this human element into his mind has completely changed everything -- nobody says anything like, "Hang on, he's already part-human, what's the problem?"  This is slightly worrying coming from an SF show, even a kids' one.