K9 & Company: "A Girl's Best Friend"

Region 1

Region 2
(Doctor Who season 19 spinoff pilot, starring Elisabeth Sladen & John Leeson)
  • written by Terence Dudley
  • directed by John Black
  • produced by John Nathan-Turner
  • music by Peter Howell
  • 1 episode @ 50 minutes
Story: Sarah Jane Smith finds herself on the trail of some missing relatives as the 1981 holiday season approaches, and evidence mounts that local country superstitions have played more than a coincidental role. But a loyal new mechanical acquaintance named K9 provides the best help in solving the mystery...

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio Commentary by Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah), John Leeson (Voice of K9), Linda Polan (Juno Baker), and script editor Eric Saward.
  • "The K9 Files" making-of featurette, with Sladen, Leeson, director John Black, visual effects designer Mat Irvine,
    K9 co-creator Dave Martin, and former script editor Terrance Dicks (11 min.)
  • K9 Adventure Books by Dave Martin and K9 Annual .pdf files on DVD ROM
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Photo Gallery theme music montage (3 min.)
  • Spoof K9 interview (2008, 3 min.)
  • "Pebble Mill at One" K9 interview (1981, 2 min.)
  • Trailers and original broadcast announcements (2 min.)
  • bundled with Doctor Who story no. 93 "The Invisible Enemy" and all its extras....

Buyers' Guide Review

by Martin Izsak

(A more in-depth analysis, containing "SPOILERS" and intended for those who have already seen the program, can be accessed here.)

Well, apparently there was enough money in the budget and enough time slots in the schedule for "Black Orchid" (Doctor Who story no. 121) to have been a full-length four part story after all, and this is what happened to the second half of it. Modern Doctor Who producers could learn something from season 19, where they doubled-banked the Christmas special and left the Doctor and his current companions out of it completely.

"K9 and Company: A Girl's Best Friend" probably won't win many awards for being a great story, and certainly wasn't strong enough to launch a spin-off series as producer John Nathan-Turner had hoped. It probably would have been better to bundle this story with "Black Orchid" instead of "The Invisible Enemy" (story no. 93), where one can let Terence Dudley's writing for the quaint English countryside continue unabated, and finally deliver the mystery and resolution that "Black Orchid" lacked.

Mysterious Intro

Yes, the mystery in "K9 and Company" works far, far better than in "Black Orchid". Sure, a plausible explanation for Aunt Lavinia's whereabouts is laid out right from the beginning.... but can you trust that those plans aren't being used as a cover story while something nasty has really happened to her instead? Brilliant. The two opening scenes that are critical for setting this up are not very interesting in themselves though, not featuring any characters one would recognize from having appeared on Doctor Who before.

Sarah Jane Smith soon shows up though, and although she doesn't seem to get a good close-up to identify her before the plot marches on, things soon pick up with her added presence. Her opening scenes contain much mayhem, as a plethora of local characters descend on her to introduce themselves to the story, but questions surrounding her missing Aunt, who was first mentioned back in Sarah's debut Doctor Who adventure "The Time Warrior" (story no. 70), continue to maintain interest in the tale. We can be thankful that at last we have the details of someone's life being investigated, and more thankful still that we didn't have to witness a catalyst murder to kick-start that investigation.

Our title character K9 is introduced fairly late in the opening, but has the most significant introduction, recapping how the absent Doctor had arranged this meeting between two of his trusted friends who have never met each other before.

Brendan Richards, yet another possible regular character for the proposed spin-off series, seems to be rather typical of many brainy teenage boys in not managing a full palette of charisma. Ian Sears seems to be taking dangerous chances playing him that way. He is probably at his geekiest during K9's intro, not making for the best of scenes, and the computer specs given to him in the dialogue only serve to make K9's technology seem outdated by today's standards, let alone the standards of 5000 A.D., where K9's designs originated. Should've aimed for charisma, which is timeless.

Title Trouble

This spinoff's theme tune is pretty painful to listen to. Eric Saward comments that composers Fiachra Trench & Ian Levine wrote for different instruments and would have done it differently had they known it would be done electronically. That's a nice bit of information, but... Sorry, no, that's not what's wrong with it. It suffers from being all 80's showbiz glitz and no substance. The melody has nothing to say musically, while the busy bassline goes nowhere and inspires no emotional following. And adding K9 vocals from a bewildered John Leeson only emphasizes its childishness and silliness. That said, Peter Howell manages to salvage it somewhat with some cool synth sounds making the song's intro somewhat respectable and hopeful of better things to come. Perhaps, as often happens with pilots that eventually get made into series, a better set of titles could have eventually replaced these for repeat transmissions.

The incidental music is another matter. Peter Howell creates many marvellous cues in his trademark 1980's synthesizer style, weaving in some Celtic flutes where appropriate. Somehow though, I don't think the story inspired him to be more than average on this occasion. While not really delivering a knock out punch, the score does definitely live up to his high standard, and it is a great pity that the DVD features neither an isolated music track nor a selection of anything other than the irritating theme song over the photo gallery montage. There seem to be some lively action cues near the end of the story proper, out of which a better theme tune for the series might have been created.

The titles themselves look overly staged, featuring shots of Sarah Jane and K9 that make them seem completely out of character. Who goes outdoors in November to type articles and novels while sipping white wine and smiling at cameras that shouldn't exist? Why would K9 pose on top a ledge that he couldn't possible reach on his own? And the sequence goes on too long, having to re-use some of this uninspiring footage more than once. Ugghh!

Superstitious Slippage

Strangely, this production seemed keen to resurrect the kind of mindless antagonistic cult forces that haven't been welcome on Doctor Who since they were upstaged in "The Stones of Blood" (story no. 100). As usual, it isn't very worthy of its screen time, not to mention K9 and Sarah Jane's attention, or the responsibility of driving the plot for a spin-off pilot. On one hand, it does get an extra bit of believable motivation, in the locals' beliefs that it aids crop growth and helps stave off natural disasters.

But on the other, it does tend to lead the typical Doctor Who audience member to an inevitable disappointment which I will only discuss fully in the In-depth Analysis version of this review.

Despite this shaky series template, this story escalates well just after the midpoint, intensifying Sarah and K9's investigations, and providing the plot with the added tension of a ticking clock. Nicely, this Christmas special is less about Christmas and more about the Winter Solstice, which seems a better focus than the Christmas specials of the David Tennant era.

Things come to a decent climax with confrontations and a bit of action, although at least one element seems to be a bit out of character, and appears under-rehearsed as well. Of course, K9 finds several points within this adventure to use his stun laser, which is up to standard with a decent red beam added to the picture accompanied by the proper sound effect. Nice.

The story's culprits are revealed quickly and forgetably, giving this story the added bonus of allowing an audience the joy of putting the mystery together all over again during subsequent views in later years. Not bad. The cosy wrap-up also helps inform the resolution without hitting the audience over the head with the facts, which is nice.

All in all, "K9 & Company: A Girl's Best Friend" is a decent little tale with much to make it highly enjoyable, but it's also easy to see that it didn't yet have enough going for it to spawn a spinoff. Luckily though, the Sarah Jane Smith / K9 partnership forged here would come back to feature in their future Doctor Who guest appearances, and help keep both characters popular for years to come....

This story is available on DVD, bundled with "The Invisible Enemy":
Region 1
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
Region 2
for the U.K.

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Read the Buyers' Guide Review for the next story: "Earthshock"

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