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Looking Back At K-9 AND COMPANY

Tony has a new best friend.
There are ways to do spin-offs, and there are ways not to do spin-offs. In the 21st century, or to be more precise, during the Russell T Davies years, Doctor Who was able to successfully launch two spin-off series – one with more adult content than mainstream Who, the Cardiff-based Torchwood, and one with if anything more children-appropriate content than even Doctor Who, the Sarah Jane Adventures (coming to Britbox on August 19th).

Both of these spin-offs had public enthusiasm and the momentum of a main show in a triumphant mood of renaissance to spur them on and more or less guarantee them a weekly audience.

When, later, Steven Moffatt spun off a series set at key Doctor Who location Coal Hill school, while there was little wrong with it, and while it was entertaining viewing, it was more or less a spin off that no-one was clamouring for, and as such Class died an early and relatively ignominious death.

This was familiar territory to Doctor Who fans. Many of them knew about K9 and Company.
The thing about K9 and Company is that it absolutely would have worked had it been produced at a different point in Doctor Who’s history, and with a slightly different energy. But unfortunately, it only came about in the first place as the way to solve a couple of different pre-existing problems.

In 1980, Tom Baker – the actor who had played the Doctor for the longest time, left the show, and Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner, having cast the much younger (and arguably much riskier) Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor, wanted a way to smooth the transition between the Doctors.

He wanted fan favourite companion Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elisabeth Sladen, to return for Logopolis, Baker’s outgoing story, and stay for the space of Peter Davison’s first two stories.

In fairness to Sladen, this was a dreadful proposal, and she turned it down. A new companion, Tegan, played by Janet Fielding, was introduced in Logopolis instead – and would stay much longer than the first few stories of Davison’s time, becoming an absolute fan favourite in her own right.

At the same time, John Nathan-Turner found himself with another problem. The Fourth Doctor’s robot dog, K9, had always been a massive hit with fans, especially younger ones. The remote-controlled prop was a frank and undiluted nightmare to use though, frequently refusing to move, and, as Tom Baker would say, forcing actors to find ever more inventive ways of hunkering down to be in a shot with it.

Fan love on the one hand and loathing from the cast and crew on the other meant Nathan-Turner had got rid of K9 when Time Lady Romana decided to stop travelling with the Doctor, shortly before Baker regenerated into Davison.

But making K9 the star of his OWN show might be a way to capitalize on the fan love and feed interest back into Doctor Who, without having to spend time and money out of the Doctor Who budget carting the prop here and there, and finding things for it to do.

A K9 show would need a lead human too, though – and Nathan-Turner offered that role to Sladen. As something more like the star of the show, she accepted, and the pilot for K9 and Company was born.

Two of the fans’ favourite Doctor Who companions - united on screen as they never had been before! How could that possibly go wrong?

In a few ways, as it turns out.
In the first place, the pilot takes place nowhere near Sarah Jane’s normal life as a London journalist. It’s set in Moreton Harwood, the village where her often name-checked Aunt Lavinia lives, but where, for the majority of the story, she isn’t. So straight away, it’s a pilot that would presumably have to be very different from any series that grew out of it, giving us a disconnect immediately.

There’s also a disconnect between the theme and titles – which are electronic, and which show Sarah Jane and K9 doing exciting (and occasionally absurd) things – and the sleepy village setting of the episode. Neither of these things in themselves is bad. Putting them together in a single pilot just doesn’t work.

Similarly, while there’s every good reason for Aunt Lavinia’s new ward, Brendan (Ian Sears) to be included in the story – if Sarah Jane is taking on the lead ‘Doctor’ role, and K9 is the super-intelligent computer with a blaster in his nose, you need someone relatably dorky to get captured and say “I don’t understand any of this.” Which to give him his due, Sears manages with a supremely convincing cluelessness. But again, you’re forced to conclude that if K9 and Company (or A Girl’s Best Friend, as the episode was known) was a pilot for a series, the series it was a pilot for… probably wouldn’t include Brendan stumbling around and getting captured by witches.

Oh yes – that’s the other thing. The witches.
Pitting Sarah Jane and K9 against some black magicians is the interesting first line of a story pitch. Unfortunately, what you need in addition to that is an interesting second line.

While Doctor Who had dealt with witches before, the scenario, much like K9, had passed Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane by. There were witches (or at least cultists) in The Daemons, which featured the Master and an alien that looked like the Devil, during the Jo Grant era of the show. There were witches (or at least cultists) in The Stones Of Blood, which featured an alien criminal posing as an Earth goddess, and a couple of vampire stone slabs for good measure, during the First Romana era of the show.

The closest Sarah Jane had come to cultists was in medieval Italy, in The Masque of Mandragora, where a blob of eldritch space energy called the Mandragora Helix set about turning a bunch of cultists into powerful killing machines, ready to engulf the Earth in religious mania just at the potential dawn of an age of science.

But there’s the rub. The Daemons – witchcraft and aliens. The Stones of Blood – witchcraft and aliens. The Masque of Mandragora – witchcraft and aliens.

K9 and Company – witchcraft. Just simple, earthbound hocus-pocus. The point about which is that you don’t NEED an advanced super-intelligent mobile computer with a blaster in its nose to defeat ordinary, boring, earthbound witches – they’re basically the Rotary Club in robes!

Granted, as the script by long-time TV writer Terence Dudley has it, the witches ARE in fact stopped from committing a ghastly ritualistic murder by a timely blast from K9’s nose-blaster. But they in no sense HAVE to be.

That’s the biggest point at which K9 and Company falls down as a concept – no aliens. It was a point which Russell T Davies was sure to rectify and then some when he brought The Sarah Jane Adventures to the screen in 2007. With aliens to elevate the drama and the danger, A Girl’s Best Friend could have been an incredible Doctor Who tie-in and pilot for a viable series, for all the various elements of its location and cast would mostly be absent from any subsequent season. Even if Terence Dudley had brought the Mandragora Helix back for a second bite at Sarah Jane and her world, it could have worked wonderfully with her having evolved in her ‘Doctorness’ and with her K9 unit by her side. Sadly, with no aliens, the whole thing felt a bit parochial and nowhere near special enough to be tackled by an amazing woman and her robot dog.
K9 and Company does still WORK as a one-off – there are quality actors in it, giving of their best Hammer Horror villager routines, including the likes of Colin Jeavons, who is always a script-helper when you’re looking for almost smellable slime, and Bill Fraser, who could be relied upon for a good line in bluff bluster that might just possibly hold menace underneath.

And it’s worth noting of course that the legend of K9 and Sarah Jane as a team went forward into Doctor Who canon - they were together at the start of the 25th anniversary story, The Five Doctors. They were still together decades later when the Tenth Doctor caught up with them in School Reunion. And K9 was at least an element in The Sarah Jane Adventures, for all that production team sometimes got around the continuing awkwardness of the prop by plugging him into computers to do complicated sums now and then.

K9 and Company really could have worked, with a little alien peril and maybe a setting closer to Sarah Jane’s everyday home. And it still repays watching today – even if you can’t help thinking of the show it could have been.

Watch K-9 & Company today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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