Blightyvision: “K-9”

Created by Bob Baker and Paul Tams
Starring Robert Moloney, Keegan Joyce, Philippa Coulthard, and Daniel Webber
Featuring John Leeson as the voice of K-9

K-9’s had a rough time of it ever since leaving the Doctor’s care.  In 1981, there was an attempted spinoff series, “K-9 and Company,” featuring Elisabeth Sladen reprising her role as Sarah Jane Smith.  In 1997, creator Bob Baker said he was going to give it another go with a four-episode pilot, but funding fell through.  Then in 2006, Jetix Europe thrilled fans with the announcement that a new show called “K-9 Adventures” was on its way, featuring a 100% new design and voice for the character.  And it would be set in space.  And have a sexy robot girl.

And it fell through pretty quickly.

Last year, one final go was made at doing it right.  Rather than the original proposed iDog makeover, the new K-9 was indeed more streamlined, but far more recognizable as the original article.  Most recognizable of all?  John Leeson, the original voice, was brought back to reprise his role.

The action takes place in London in the not-too-distant future, specifically in a mansion belonging to agoraphobic genius Alistair Gryffen (Moloney).  In the midst of experimenting with a Space-Time Manipulator (the purpose of which is addressed in later episodes), Gryffen accidentally pulls through a nasty reptilian alien — followed closely by K-9 Mk. I, the one left with Leela on Gallifrey in the classic “Doctor Who” series.  K-9 is destroyed in the process of killing the alien, but regenerates into the form used for the rest of the series — with the ability to hover and a somewhat less angular build.

As with any Whoniverse series, our central character is supplied with companions (in this case with appropriately “Power Rangers”-esque odd names): Starkey, a rebellious orphan; Hermione Jorjie, the daughter of a member of something known simply as “The Department”; and Darius, Professor Gryffen’s smarmy and initially deeply unsympathetic young assistant.

Together with K-9, who has lost his memories of everything prior to his arrival in the mansion, the four investigate paranormal activity around London.  Standing in their way is the aforementioned Department, with the exception of Jorjie’s mother June (Robyn Moore), who learns over the course of the series that her daughter’s friends aren’t so bad, actually.  The running metaplot is a mix of attempts at bringing K-9’s memories back (which — spoiler — won’t happen since this isn’t a BBC-backed series and they ain’t allowed), getting out from under the shadow of the Department and its less scrupulous agents, and gathering backstory for the human characters.

Despite the recommendations of friends, I was really not expecting this to be good at all.  Mainly because we “Doctor Who” fans are a grumpy and entitled bunch who take change rather badly, and the idea of a retooled K-9 Just Seemed Wrong.  Early episodes were, as one would expect, a bit cookie-cutter, but decent enough to make it safely past my Three-Episode Rule.  Once things started rolling and you could observe the actors and writers getting comfortable, things improved steadily, with the last handful of episodes being rather great.  The writing varies by episode: some is straightforward and a bit all right, some is well above average and oddly dark and dramatic for a “kids’ show,” and then there are the floor-the-viewer bits where the humor gets surprisingly dry or a character “reverses the polarity.”  Yep, it happens — along with plenty of classic series throwbacks in the form of mentions of different alien races.

While the youngsters of the cast are fun and do nothing but improve over the course of the series — especially Darius, whose heart eventually grows three sizes — the grownups really steal the show.  Moloney as Gryffen appears at first as though he’s fated to be the old consultant back at the lab, but instead turns out to be pivotal and actually overtakes Starkey as the protagonist as the show nears its finish.  He’s played with just enough frantic humor to endear himself to you before presenting the more dramatic parts of his storyline.

Early on, the plan had been to replace Leeson as the voice of K-9, and I think in a large part it’s his return that helped the show along.  Years after the fact he still voices the role as well as ever, while adding just enough personality to the performance to make him a natural part of the group.  (Classic “Who” fans will be able to tell fairly early on that this is the Gallifreyan K-9, simply due to his near Time Lord-ish superiority complex.)  He does grow a bit of a personality, simply owing to the fact that all his cohorts are either under 16 or severely socially handicapped, but still maintains his somewhat detached demeanor to a degree.

Listening to him, you can tell that Leeson is really enjoying the hell out of himself, and that’s a big part of the entertainment of the show.  Then again, you really can’t go wrong when the tin dog starts quoting the Bhagavad Gita.

Now, I’m not at all under the impression that everyone is going to like this show.  It’s made for about the same age group as “The Sarah Jane Adventures” and isn’t the brainchild of RTD — which might make Whovians hesitant when combined with the redesign.  And I myself didn’t fancy watching it at first.  But it’s entertaining, it improves exponentially over time, and it has just enough of a smattering of classic Who throwbacks to give more open-minded fans a few cases of the warm fuzzies.  Purists are going to have a much harder time with this and might not find enough to like about it.  It’s definitely a targeted series, but at half an hour an episode, it isn’t too much of a waste of time to find out if you’re the target.

The first series of “K-9” has just finished airing on Disney XD in Australia and will be making the jump to UK Channel 5 in the next month or so.  A second series has not been confirmed or denied yet.  And no, I’m serious about the Bhagavad Gita thing.