[7 January 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
My good friend—the one who got me hooked on Doctor Who in the first place—simply does not understand my complete and utter fascination with K-9. Yes, K-9 is a robotic dog that assists the Doctor on multiple Doctor Who adventures, but he’s also a very plainspoken, intelligent, and gosh-darn adorable sidekick.
K-9 (voiced by the inimitable John Leeson), despite his physical limitations, still personifies a lot of what makes Doctor Who unique and great: matching a smart sci-fi concept with both humor and camp without once ever distracting from the extra-terrestrial mysteries that so often drive the show. In short, K-9 was a simple mechanized prop used on a popular sci-fi TV program that overcame its somewhat hokey surroundings to become one of Doctor Who‘s longest-lasting and most endearing characters (oh, and kids loved him).
This two-DVD set (marketed in the UK as the K-9 Tales Collection) is a somewhat odd mix of two very different Who-related serials. The first of which—The Invisible Enemy—is a top-notch Who episode from the Tom Baker years. Though this is the serial that first introduced K-9 to the world, K-9’s existence proves to be such a minor detail to the overall message of viral infections and the question of a creature’s entitlement to existence.
When a spaceship traveling to a placed called “Titan Base” gets infected with an alien spore, all of the human crew lose control of their minds to this thing known simply as a “virus”—its main intent to set up the Titan Base as a massive incubator in which to slowly build and multiply its numbers. This virus, however, is actually transferred via eyesight, making it a notoriously tricky bug to catch and one that’s virtually impossible to quarantine.
The Doctor’s TARDIS, meanwhile, also gets infected by this virus, and the Nucleus—the virus’ master component—gets lodged inside the Doctor’s brain. The Doctor’s current companion, the woman warrior Leela (Louise Jameson), is somehow immune to the virus, but the Nucleus wants nothing more than this “reject” to be disposed of, even if it means controlling the Doctor in order to do so.
As the virus’ control spreads to even more humans, the Doctor is left with the bizarre option of actually climbing inside his own brain with Leela, making for one curiously meta trip for the Doctor to partake in. When confronting the Nucleus in his brain, however, a debate emerges over whether the Nucleus has the right to breed and multiply just as humans do, the Doctor justifying himself by insisting that this virus is free to multiply anywhere it wants—but not at the expense of the lives of others.
In truth, part of this serial’s success comes from the fact that as non-violent as the Doctor is, the strong-willed and ready-to-fight Leela serves as an effective moral foil, rounding out the Doctor’s peacemaker tendencies with a more animalistic, survivalist viewpoint. Though the blaster effects on this episode are some of the worst that the series has ever seen, this still remains a briskly-paced, thoughtful and fun romp for the Doctor, asking many questions but also reaching some satisfying answers in the process.
The same, however, cannot be said for K-9 & Company.
Devised by producer John Nathan-Turner as a spinoff to the main Who franchise, K-9 & Company was intended to capitalize on the popularity of K-9 admist Doctor Who‘s younger viewers. Once Sarah Jane Smith herself (Elisabeth Sladen) was on board, the show was launched into development, and it proved to be an interesting union, as the K-9 and Sarah Jane characters had never met prior to this show, despite the fact that they are often thought of together (someone perpetuated by Series Two of Russell T. Davies’ “new Who” adventures).
In “A Girl’s Best Friend”—the first and only episode produced for K-9 & Company—Sarah, still pursuing her love of journalism, stops by her Aunt’s house in Britain only to discover that her Aunt has in fact left for America long before she said she would, prompting a great deal of suspicion in Sarah Jane. Only her Aunt’s ward, Brendan (Ian Sears), is in the vicinity, and he helps Sarah Jane open a box which has been mysteriously left for Sarah over the years—a gift from the Doctor, no doubt. Much to no one’s surprise, the box contains K-9 (here far wittier than in his debut appearance on The Invisible Enemy), the robot dog who quickly endears himself to Sarah Jane and soon assists in a mystery involving the dark arts, human sacrifices, and strange rural traditions.
Despite being penned by noted Who scribe Terence Dudley, K-9 & Company is just painfully bad viewing. The opening sequence/theme song is as cheesy as you can possibly get (and we’re talking in Who terms here), the show’s actual scenes are very drawn-out and dry, and the plot involving the occult is never completely explained, leaving far too many loose ends by the time it wraps up. Though, yes, K-9 proves to be adorable throughout, the true takeaway from this easily-mockable spinoff is Sladen’s performance, as her dedication to her character shines through in every scene, often holding the believability of the show together just as it threatens to fall apart.
As is customary with all of the Who DVD releases, the special features are all generous and abundant, most notably on The Invisible Enemy in which numerous featurettes are devoted to the special-effects behind the show, the creation of K-9, and many of the wonderfully bizarre crossover promotional attempts that the BBC attempted to promote K-9’s appearance (during a stop by the children’s program Blue Peter, the host’s real dog actually begins attacking/biting the K-9 robot, making for a surprisingly humorous moment in an otherwise canned scene between the show’s host and K-9).
Yet the biggest takeaway has to be the three-minute featurette “K-9: A Dog’s Tale”, in which K-9 is asked a series of questions about his involvement in K-9 & Company, to which the robot dog describes how he was pulled out of a production of Measure for Measure in order to play his most famous character (the bit where he explains his mountain-climbing hobby is also priceless).
In the end, K-9 still remains a vital and whimsical part of the Doctor Who universe, but—as adorable as he may be—this robotic dog simply doesn’t have enough weight to carry an entire show by his lonesome. As a supporting player, however, he’s truly top dog.