Doctor Who: K9 Tales Box Set - K9 And Company Review
There may be dark satanic mills in the north of England but there are also dark Satanic practices in the village of Moreton Harwood. Under cover of darkness and in the ruins of an long-abandoned church, the cult of Hecate gather around a fire to plan their next sacrifice, that of a young man who is returning to the village. This cult attracts the attention of Lavinia (Mary Wimbush), a writer who begins publishing exposes on them and who, perhaps because of their threats, is moving to America. She does, however, hope to remain in Moreton Harwood long enough to see her niece, Sarah-Jane Smith but fate may intervene.
As Christmas approaches, Sarah-Jane (Elizabeth Sladen) does indeed return to Moreton Harwood but her Aunt Lavinia has already departed. Unfortunately, she doesn't appear to have left any contact details and is unable to be contacted by phone. At first, Sarah-Jane suspects her aunt is still in transit but as the days pass and the whispers about the cult in the village grow ever louder, she begins to suspect that there may have been foul play. Fortunately, she has a friend to assist her, a little robot dog that has been left to her as a gift by an old friend. In a box in her aunt Lavinia's house sits K9 (John Leeson) and after introducing himself to Sarah-Jane and to Brendan (Ian Sears), the three of them set about solving the mystery of the disappearance of Lavinia. Unfortunatley, the satanic cult demand blood and Sarah-Jane and Brendan's snooping
As a child with a somewhat morbid curiousity towards the occult - who, thankfully, avoided the goth scene as successfully as I avoided being shot, bombed or interned in the halcyon days of 'the troubles' - I tended to lean towards those episodes of Doctor Who that were overt in their leaning towards horror. The Horror Of Fang Rock, The Daemons and The Stones Of Blood were very much more welcome than the likes of Logopolis. Similarly, this time around The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, Blink and Human Nature/The Family Of Blood trump almost anything else produced since the reboot. The pity about Who - although this is a purely personal point of view and flies entirely in the face of this being a science-fiction drama - is that there aren't more stories like these, there never being quite enough horror in Doctor Who.
It's not without it's problems but when K9 And Company: A Girl's Best Friend opens with a Satanic ceremony, this viewer still feels like celebrating. At least I did in 1981, aged ten, and did so again now, thinking it all the better when the village of Moreton Harwood closes ranks and Sarah-Jane Smith finds herself in the midst of what appears to be a murder mystery. There's plenty of atmosphere, whether it's in the creaking wooden floors of Sarah-Jane's home or in the barking of foxes and hooting of owls that sound in the distance as the Satanists join arms in their black mass. Add to that a break-in, a bumbling local constabulary who appear to be in league with the devil-worshippers and a dear friend of Aunt Lavinia who seems to be the wolf-in-sheep's clothing who led her to the Satanists and the scene is set for a very English take on Race With The Devil.
Unfortunately, as a mystery, K9 And Company is lacking anything that one might describe as tension. At only forty-five minutes, it may be that it's short running-time denies it the opportunity to strike any real note of menace but it's also stuck with having to reacquaint its audience with both Sarah-Jane Smith and K9 as well as introduce the new character of Brendan, a braying sidekick who eventually finds himself wearing something slightly smaller than a lace doily and staring up at a Satanist's knife. The mystery may be less about who may be a Satanist than who isn't as simply everyone appears to be in on the conspiracy. Things don't get any better when one of the major pieces of plot exposition revolves around soil acidity while even an Alsatian dog - the devil dog of the late-seventies and early-eighties as much as pitbull terriers are now - looks terribly bored by the pace of events.
However, there's still a great deal of fun to be had with K9 And Company: A Girl's Best Friend, some intentional and some not. With its jogging, pastels and a convertible Mini Metro, it couldn't, with the exception of having K9 draped in a FRANKIE SAYS... T-shirt, be any more of the eighties. Brendan finds himself in the midst of what must be the least convincing punch-up on television while Sarah-Jane's kung fu is less Bruce Lee than Bruce Forsythe. Meanwhile, all the talk of bus drivers, motherboards and Universal Asynchronous Receiver Transmitter is less like a machine of the future than someone reading an advertisement for the ZX-81 aloud. On the other hand, any child with an interest in the ghostly goings-on in English villages will be pleased as punch with the Satanism. To this viewer, that's precisely why, in amongst so many hundreds more episodes of Doctor Who there are, this one has lingered longer. And in spite of all of the nonsense in it, I do enjoy it very much more than a lot of Doctor Who.
Having passed through the hands of the Doctor Who Restoration Team, K9 And Company: A Girl's Best Friend has probably never looked better. Granted, it's not been seen very often since it's original showing in 1981, although UK Gold have broadcast it at least once, but it's perfectly clear from the beginning that they've done a superb job on remastering this for DVD. Originally produced on videotape with 16mm film used on the location shoots, the switch between the two is still jarring, with the former coming up much sharper on DVD than the latter. This may, in part at least, have come from the set-bound shots being afforded a greater colour and clarity than how the rather dismal-looking weather affected the location shoots.
Still, the Restoration Team have done a sterling job in presenting this on DVD. Colours are very much richer than I would have imagined them to be, particularly when compared to non-Restoration Team sourced-from-television projects of a similar age with the shadows and night-time scenes looking very good indeed. Detail is lost in these sequences but as things look to have been lit with the dipped headlights from Sarah-Jane's Mini Metro, that's not unexpected. Otherwise, there's little to complain about. On the commentary, Eric Saward bemoans the lack of technology available to them in 1981 as to the piercing brightness of the fire in Sarah-Jane's home but these are minor points and only add to the sense of time and place in the show. Similarly, the audio track, which has been restored from the original audio tapes, is fine with little background noise allowing the dialogue and action to be clearly presented. Finally, there are English subtitles throughout.
The K9 Files (11m42s): He was once just a minor player in Doctor Who but this short feature describes how his success led to this spin-off, to novels and an annual. There is very little in this specific to A Girl's Best Friend but as one who only happened upon a Doctor Who annual at Christmas - typically a year out of date...I had a difficult childhood - there is a nice glimpse of what I and probably many others were denied
K9 - A Dog's Life (3m27s): Perhaps the close-ups of K9 should have been avoided as they do accentuate the wobble of his head. This is a rather droll interview with K9 as he recounts his beginnings at the BBC, his time on the set and his eventually being written out of the show.
Pebble Mill At One (2m41s): Happily, we avoid seeing Alan Titchmarsh on the sofa but there are still the comfy pullovers familiar to those who remember Pebble Mill At One with this excerpt from the Christmas Eve episode in 1981 in which K9 promotes A Girl's Best Friend.
Trails And Continuities (2m11s): This is a series of trails for K9 And Company, the highlight of which is seeing it sandwiched in between Grange Hill and Christmas Terry And June before Holiday Monday would draw to a close with Battle Of Midway, Val Sings Bing and Only Fools and Horses... I wonder if Val Sings Bing will ever get a DVD release.
Commentary/Text Track: Elizabeth Sladen and John Leeson are alongside script editor Eric Saward and co-star Linda Polan and are often very honest about what they dislike about the episode. Sladen, in particular, talks about how pedestrian it looks and sounds, notably the discussion about soil alkalinity beside the broken greenhouses, while she and Saward also describe the behind-the-scenes problems that John Nathan-Turner had in trying to make this a series. Some of that same ground is covered in the Text Track that is also available as an optional extra but which is also more informative on the production and on the variations between the draft scripts and that which made it onto the screen.
Finally, there is a Photo Gallery (3m02s), a Trailer for The Brain Of Morbius (1m00s) and, accessed by inserting the disc into a PC, PDF versions of the Radio Times listing, the K9 Annual from 1983 and the children's books K9 and the Beasts of Vega, K9 and the Missing Planet, K9 and the Time Trap and K9 and the Zeta Rescue.