Dylan goes through the Doctor Who vaults to find a spin-off many will have forgotten…
Revisiting this on YouTube made me consider how difficult watching Doctor Who used to be. Not that it is intrinsically easy now, but back in the 90s, I paid full-price for this one episode, as it was the only chance to see what happened to a certain character after she left Doctor Who. Now it is available for free, and there are no less than two spin-off series involving the heroine in question. So how does K-9 and Company fare today? Is it a shame it never went to series in its original form? Or is this one best left on VHS?
The plot follows recurring Doctor companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), who goes to a village in Gloucestershire to visit her aunt. She arrives to discover her relative missing, and a mysterious package in her name. Inside she finds K-9 Mk. III (voiced as ever by John Leeson), who has been left as a gift from The Doctor. With the help of Brendan (Ian Sears), her aunt’s ward, she discovers a modern day witch cult residing in her country home…
To begin, I have to start with the titles. This may sound like a petty squabble, but the opening credits are fantastically, brilliantly, astonishingly naff. They could be for a current affairs programme starring a robot dog, and not only contain a montage of dull tableaus, like Sarah having a glass of wine or jogging, but it repeats them after only fifteen seconds. The shot of K-9 on a wall is hilarious, and you can almost hear the footsteps of the production assistant who placed him there:
The script, dubbed “A Girl’s Best Friend,” is sincere and jokes that didn’t make sense to me as a child turn out not to be funny after all. Those used to the fast pace of later Doctor Who episodes may find it difficult to engage with this. After ten minutes, the titular robot is still not on site, and there is more talk of boarding school than Daleks. Even when he turns up, the tempo does not increase – the first task he is used for is to checkout a soil sample. The action does not heat up from here. There is more talk of weather conditions, and the final fight lasts half a minute, with a massively unsatisfying final twist. It is more like an episode of Ever Decreasing Circles than straight up science fiction. Whilst there is the odd reference to The Doctor, most conversations and set-pieces are done over drinks or walking through a garden. There is not enough oomph or emotional resonance to the drama, and Brendan’s near-murder is laughed off over Christmas dinner. What is missing is a charismatic figure who would give the episode some drama. Perhaps a Time Lord of some kind…
Another problem is that no-one is that surprised by a robot dog turning up. Brendan acts like talking to a computer in 1981 is the most natural thing in the world. Within ten minutes of arriving, he has blended into the scenery and you cannot help thinking it might have been wiser to focus the episode around him entirely, rather than splitting between a robot dog and a witchcraft plot. Although I have a fondness for him, K-9 is a difficult assistant to get into. As Billie Piper’s Rose put it in “School Reunion,” he is “a bit disco.” All chases are low-speed, and the most movement he usually makes is a nod of the head or a wiggle of the ears. What might have worked on the page ends up very static on the screen.
You do have to wonder where the series would have gone from here. A change in location would be essential. Although clearly going for Wicker Man-style isolation, having everything set in a tiny village would limit the plots fairly quickly, and it has more of a one-off feel. Also, the paranormal beliefs of the town seem unfounded and ridiculous. This is 1981, after all, but it could easily be set in the 1700’s due to the blind belief in witchcraft. The final costumes at the end are creepy, but it is never really explained why people are so obsessed with magic anyway.
But this is one of those curios that cannot be judged too harshly. Never forget that this was a pilot episode released as a Christmas special for children in the early eighties. The budget must have been extremely limiting, and the makers could hardly have expected that it would be placed under such close scrutiny thirty years later. Or that Hot Fuzz would take a similar plot and turn it into a classic. Honestly, you could show them as a double-bill! What gives it credit is having the late and sorely-missed Sladen in the main role. She gives some sort of drive to the episode, although her character is played surprisingly spiky. It honestly feels like her life lacks meaning without The Doctor. On the other hand, Sears is fantastically dweeby as Brendan, being genuinely excited by K-9’s soil analysis, although his acting never reaches beyond a monotone drone.
Yet the concept is a solid one. It would be interesting to explore what the life of a Doctor Who companion would be like after they have been left behind. This would be a world where aliens could be considered a natural part of the timeline, and Sarah Jane has been back on Earth for a few years. How, after seeing the universe, would she deal with a normal and dull existence? But after discovering K-9, she has a chance to begin those adventures again… only on Earth. Instead, what we have here is a standard and surprisingly conservative television drama, without any exploration of the characters. If there was no Doctor Who connection, it wouldn’t spark any interest in the modern age. You get the feeling that it is trying to escape its origins and become its own project, when in reality it should be embracing them.
This is one for completists only, but if you are a Who fan from any era, then this is worth seeing just to fill in the gaps. Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures and K-9 all started here. At the very least, you will no longer have to spend any money. The BBC have made it available for free online. Although not embeddable, it can be found at this link. And spare a thought for those of us who paid full-price for it so long ago….