Spin off TV programmes are a curious beast, they rely on the success of their parent programme to be born but must serve a different purpose to survive on their own. Secondary characters need to be capable of stepping up to lead and like any other programme the central premise must be strong enough.
So it’s curious that while A Girl’s Best Friend largely fails on all accounts, one can’t simply dismiss this as a concept that didn’t work. All the elements here are present in The Sarah-Jane Adventures (2006-11) so is it simply a passage of time? Not entirely I don’t think. Certainly in K-9’s first appearance in the revived Doctor Who, School Reunion (2006) he was treated as a retro curio which clearly wouldn’t have worked in 1981, but there’s more to it than that.
Because while The Sarah-Jane Adventures shares much of its set up with A Girl’s Best Friend, the main difference is that Russell T Davies had a clear idea of the former’s purpose: a children’s show with Sarah-Jane as the central character, (K-9’s in less than half the episodes). By contrast, A Girl’s K9 Best Friend doesn’t have a clue what it wants to be. It knows what it wants to DO: give K-9 its own series but that’s not a premise strong enough to carry 50 minutes of drama. In many ways this perfectly highlights the difference between Producer John Nathan-Turner and Davies, this isn’t a story dreamed up by a writer and the story comes across as clunky and ridiculous (not unlike K-9).
Sarah-Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) arrives in the village of Moreton Harwood to stay at her Aunt Lavina’s house and work on a book.
Lavina (Mary Wimbush) is apparently away in the US but no one can seem to get in touch with her. Also arriving is the Aunt’s ward (who the bloody hell has a ward in 1981?!) Brendan (Ian Sears). Sarah finds a lot of odd locals and a big box from her old friend the Doctor containing a brand new K-9 (John Leeson).
Whenever people discuss folk horror in Doctor Who, the same few stories are trotted out, The Daemons (1971), ancient sleeping alien influences how mankind views the devil; The Stones of Blood (1978), escaped alien criminal poses as pagan Goddess and standing stones are blood sucking aliens; and The Awakening (1984), crashed alien spaceship makes folk horror happen in an English village, and yet as far as the Pagan Village Conspiracy trope goes, A Girl’s Best Friend is probably the best example in the Doctor Who universe. We start with a full on ritual – all goat’s heads and chalices (as well as identifying half the villagers we’ve yet to meet). Unlike similar scenes in The Daemons, where the villagers are being manipulated by an alien outsider this is 100% human, which makes it that more chilling. Or at least it would do if we hadn’t just come off of the worst title sequence and the worst theme tune in history*.
The trouble is you can’t just stick K-9 into a folk horror story and expect it to work. Yes K-9’s in The Stones of Blood but neither the folk horror elements or K-9 itself are as central as they are here. K-9 can’t really be the central character in anything, in Doctor Who he was an exposition device and a gun. Children may love him but they loved him as part of something bigger, and in any case they may not love watching programmes involving what is essentially devil worship and human sacrifice (as least not without being told it’s aliens really).
K-9 isn’t the only problem here. A year before this was first broadcast Doctor Who had introduced Adric, who was young, very clever and really bloody irritating. So A Girl’s Best Friend does the same but worse. Brendan is a generic computer and science whiz-kid but looks and sounds like an Evelyn Waugh character. His chat with K-9 about the latter’s set up and storage has not aged well either.
The story itself makes no sense, why do the kidnappers not disguise themselves? Who did they plan to sacrifice if Brendon wasn’t there? Do they commit murder every year? What were the villagers plan for Lavina? They’re using a photo of her in the opening ceremony but at the end it’s revealed that she went to the US as planned.
And the dialogue is abysmal. I’m trying to decide my favourite line:
“The Americans aren’t really into Christmas.”
“He looked a bit like a gypsy.”
“Science can’t explain the elements.”
“She’s like a butterfly, never in one place long enough to lick a stamp.”
“A familiar of the goddess Hecate! A dog belching fire!”
Brendan is rescued from being sacrificed by K-9 shooting everyone and the villain is unmasked to reveal who everyone suspected it was from the beginning. This is a lazy Sunday night drama with K-9 shoved into it without reason or thought.
The only one to come out of this mess with any credit is Elisabeth Sladen, proving that both she and Sarah-Jane can be the lead element in a drama series, sadly it would take another 25 years for that to happen properly.
Now I know we’ve not covered the Australian K-9 TV series here but as I’ve never met anyone that’s actually seen it I think we can safely ignore it.
*Seriously they are beyond terrible. John Nathan-Turner may have wanted Hart To Hart in Gloustershire but….well, they didn’t quite pull it off. See here if you dare.