Friday 22 June 2012

K9 And Company: A Girl’s Best Friend

Dog to Who?

K9 And Company: A Girl’s Best Friend
UK Airdate: 28th December 1981
BBC Region 2

When I was 13 years old, the pilot episode of the proposed Doctor Who spin-off series K9 And Company, which would follow the further adventures of Jon Pertwee/Tom Baker companion Sarah Jane Smith (as played by the inimitable Elisabeth Sladen) and a brand new K9 Mark 3, played by the same prop as the previous incarnations of the character... was what my “Christmas 1981” was all about! I was in eager anticipation of the “television event” of the year, still in blissful ignorance that Tom Baker would soon be leaving the regular Doctor Who show just a few months after.

Conceived by uber-producer John Nathan Turner, the series was definitely pitched to run as a TV show if the ratings were good. I even heard that there was going to be a twist at the end of the first series when the audience finds out that the K9 Mark 3 sent to Sarah Jane in the pilot film (the Mark 1 K9 was left on Gallifrey with The Doctor’s companion Leela and the Mark 2 K9 was left in E-Space with the second incarnation of the timelord companion Romana) turned out not to have been sent by The Doctor, as it had first seemed, but by his arch enemy The Master. Interesting stuff.

Alas, the TV show never came to pass... but not for any critical reasons I might highlight in this review and certainly not for want of trying. My understanding is that the pilot certainly didn’t fail and that the ratings were quite high and on track for giving the show a regular time slot. But these were troubled times for the BBC... or at least for Doctor Who at the BBC. A new controller came in and I think this is probably when the bizarre agenda to clandestinely kill off Doctor Who, one of their most succesful TV shows, first started to raise its head and the lack of budget would finally take the show from our screens less than ten years later. We all know what happened after this and the woefully inadequate TV movie which aired between the demise of the show and the “sparklied up” (aka given an adequate budget) regenration of the show in 2005.

The K9 And Company show, however, never stood a chance in this kind of hostile, early 80s climate... although it certainly wouldn’t be the last we saw of Sarah Jane Smith, of course... nor her titular robot companion.

I have to say that, having watched this pilot show again the other week, that K9 And Company: A Girls Best Friend is... well... it’s just not very good. It doesn’t hold together at all well nowadays and I personally feel that both the script and the shooting schedule were to blame. Elisabeth Sladen said as much, if my memory circuits are not malfunctioning again, in her recent autobiography, published posthumously. To be honest though, you can kind of see all the problems right up there on the screen so easily. I’d have to say that, at the time of its original transmission, I certainly didn’t have any problems with it so perhaps the tolerance of the average 80s viewing public was a lot more robust and less sophisticated than the average viewer these days. I don’t think they could have gotten away with airing what’s in this episode on TV these days all that easily.

The dialogue in this one is really not so bad and Sladen, while possibly having a hard time with some of it (I don’t think there was time for rewrites) does a lot better than she subsequently gave herself credit for in managing to inject at least a little of the Sarah Jane Smith character into the written script. It’s not noticeably a vastly different Sarah Jane to the one we’d been so used to watching in the 70s... although I should probably point out that I haven’t been in a position to rewatch any of her 70s episodes in recent years. Maybe before the year is out.

The story, however, is an altogether different kettle of time travelling space fish. It... well... the set up is okay but nothing is ever that clearly established in the name of trying to preserve some sense of mystery over the 50 minute running time and it has to be said that... it kinda jumps around a bit. The transitions between time settings is bloody awful with the characters one minute running around in the scare laden darkness (well, not so scare laden actually) and the next scene you’re back in broad daylight before traipsing back into “night shoot” territory again. I’m not sure if it’s just bad transitioning between scenes that is to blame or slap dash editing or, more likely, a lack of getting all the necessary footage to make some of the scenes work next to each other and keep it down to the prescribed running time.

The acting from some of the cast is way over the top and pretty non-naturalistic, especially when it’s pitched in juxtaposition against some of the more noteworthy actors in the cast like veteran Bill Fraser and, of course, Elisabeth Sladen herself. Although, having said that, there is some really wooden work from Sladen in the title sequence, talking of which...

Wow. I remember that title sequence being really cutting edge and fantastic in the early 80s... unfortunately, it has to be said that the title sequence now looks very dated and reveals itself as a phenomenon contemporaneous to the good old days of the BBC Micro (I was a Spectrum kid myself but still). The “too long” held frozen expressions and other ridiculous shots of Sladen in this sequence look... well... lets just say they look the opposite of inspiring and it really buggers belief that re-shoots weren’t taken because I’m amazed anything this slap-dash was allowed to be broadcast outside of a non-terrestrial channel showing Topless Darts and The Spanish Archer. I believe Elisabeth Sladen's autobiography had a very good reason as to why she was looking so unenthused during these sequences but I can’t quite remember what they were (although I suspect she possibly thought she was doing test shots for focus etc at the time and didn’t realise the camera was running).

But... at least I still like the inane song with John Leeson’s familiar tones singing “K9” over the titles. A bit silly but it has a certain charm to it.

Although I personally didn’t have as good a time as I was expecting from rewatching this old episode, I am still dissapointed that the show was never allowed to get up to running speed with its own regular time slot. Of course, this would not be Sarah Jane Smith’s last appearances in Doctor Who related programming over the years (The Five Doctors is set sometime not long after K9 And Company by the looks of it) and when she returned, with K9s Mark 3 and 4 to make the first of a number of appearances in the regenerated Doctor Who show of recent years, her popularity ensured that she finally got to have her own regular TV series. A show which turned out to be a real corker at times, in fact.

I still miss coming home to see new episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures on TV in the void left by Elisabeth Sladen’s untimely death, but she will live on in peoples memories for generations to come and, clunky or not, it’s really nice to have this little piece of British television history preserved on DVD. I’ve just bought a copy for my firend’s daughter’s birthday as she loves The Sarah Jane Adventures. She’ll be a fair bit younger than I was when it was first aired and it’ll be interesting to see if she takes to this earlier version of the character as she does in her recent portrayals. I hope she likes it as much as I did when it first aired... and not through the cynical eyes of a more sophisticated viewership.

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