‘K9 and Company’ at 40

❉ An appreciation of Doctor Who’s first television spin-off, originally broadcast 28 December 1981.

“These days, K9 and Company is regarded as a joke, from its uninspiring title sequence, the antiquated technology K9 proudly boasts off possessing, Ian Sears’ (as Brendan) ‘honking’ and to various scenes featuring the posh locals into which adults like to read in naughty things. Yet it has appeal, charm, and market gardening”

At this time of year, Twitter is usually alive with emotional memories of The Box of Delights, a children’s programme synonymous with Christmas. Well, I’m probably one of the few who wasn’t much moved by it at the time and still isn’t. If I want to associate TV nostalgia at Christmas (other than Hinge and Bracket’s turn at Cheltenham college in 1985 for some reason), I turn to a programme which featured another box of delight, one containing a computer from the year 5000AD that was left in the loft owned by Sarah Jane Smith’s fabled Aunt Lavinia. It is K9 and Company and his adventure in Moreton Harwood, A Girl’s Best Friend, tracking down devil worshippers who have kidnapped, and are planning to sacrifice, Lavinia’s ward, Brendan (or He Who Wasn’t Adric).

These days, K9 and Company is regarded as a joke, from its uninspiring title sequence, the antiquated technology K9 proudly boasts off possessing, Ian Sears’ (as Brendan) ‘honking’ and to various scenes featuring the posh locals into which adults like to read in naughty things. Yet it has appeal, charm, and market gardening. It has got Colin Jeavons (‘A dog belching fire!), Bill Fraser harrumphing (‘Leave your back door locked’), and a few country folk from BBC Mummerset. Watching now, or even a few years after, it does feel old fashioned, but television was unashamedly middle class in 1981.

The programme has also cemented the link between Sarah and K9, briefly resurrected in The Five Doctors, which transferred over into the twenty-first century with The Sarah Jane Adventures. Unlike the twenty first century The Sarah Jane Adventures, K9 and Company didn’t have any super-computers built inside the attic (other than K9 hibernating in his crate), or a teenage posse, nor were there any embarrassing aliens lurking around the village. Perhaps had a series evolved they may have popped up, but for the only time we visited Sarah, Brendan and K9, they had practically an entire village of Satanists to defeat. I enjoyed the proceedings enormously, loving the combination of K9 and Sarah (of whom I had strong memories being menaced by all and sundry, and was revisiting her days in Doctor Who novelisations). Not once did I wish we were watching the expensive adventures of Leela, Andred and K9 on the planet Redhill asylum, sorry – Gallifrey, or Romana and Lazlo the Tharil in CSO Space. All that mattered was K9 was there. He was, and still is, a very special mutt to a certain generation. And Elizabeth Sladen coming back as Sarah Jane Smith was the icing on a very enjoyable cake.

This was Doctor Who’s first ever television spin off, and the only one until they became de rigueur in the twenty first century run of the series, which makes its existence all the more special. Doctor Who was going through a revolutionary phase, having just had a season some regard as one of the programme’s high points – serious science fiction and a sense of an on-going narrative not afraid to dip its toes into continuity and get it right. Furthermore, it had said goodbye not only to Tom Baker and his voluminous red coat and scarf, but at the beginning of 1981, written out K9, a companion contentious with older fans who instinctively dislike any approach that reminds them that Doctor Who is essentially a children’s programme with an adult perspective.

K9’s departure throughout his final series was frankly brutal. Although once again voiced by John Leeson after an absent year, K9 was blown up in Brighton, had his head knocked off on Alzarius and used as a trophy, and kicked in the backside by Bill Fraser on Tigella. K9 got his revenge in K9 and Company and Bill Fraser is mercilessly shot down once he is exposed as a villain. I can’t be the only lad from the start of the eighties who was not happy with this lack of respect shown towards an essential part of the programme. Sod your real science. Give me K9! Although he departed in ‘Warrior’s Gate’ in one piece, that was not for the lack of trying by the writers throughout the story. Kenneth Cope throwing the dog out of his spaceship into the void said it all. The contempt the new regime showed for K9 reflected vocal fan feelings towards the programme’s previous regime’s ‘silly’ approach to Doctor Who.

K9’s departure was well-publicised, generating a minor storm in a tiny teacup, and someone had the bright idea of giving K9 his own Christmas special, a pilot for a potential series. The writer given the task of writing the special is another maligned figure – Terence Dudley. He began his career in repertory theatre, running one of two reps to be found in Swansea in the 1950s, writing and directing his own plays. Mollie Sugden was one of his players. As rep died a slow death, he and his first wife moved to London and were soon absorbed into rival television networks. He joined the BBC where he became a writer and director, sometimes doing both at the same time, or producing another writer’s work. He had very strong own views on how drama worked, and could, in the words of a writer I once corresponded with, ‘could knock out a decent thriller.’ He certainly produced them – The Mask of Janus and The Spies in the 1960s before turning to the more sedate world of northern council politics in The First Lady starring Thora Hird, and then producing Doctor Who for adults, the ground-breaking series Doomwatch where he famously fell out with its creators and main writers Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. Dudley’s final producing job was Survivors, another show where he fell out with its creator, this time Terry Nation. It is rather sad that he is now mainly remembered for three Doctor Who scripts – some its leading man Peter Davison didn’t like or directing Meglos. The man produced a fine body of work and knew what he was doing. He directed superb episodes of Secret Army and All Creatures Great and Small.

Dudley preferred to be his own script editor whenever it was possible and was a hard task master to those he worked with and felt were not up to the standard he required. He was never afraid to reject work he considered substandard or lacking in dramatic oomph, generating some outraged correspondence with writers and their agents. On the other hand, he didn’t care for changes made to his script by novice editor Eric Saward without consultation, and Saward certainly wasn’t going to take any nonsense from an old pro like Dudley. As an experienced director himself, Dudley is on record for not liking the direction of K9 and Company, especially over the way members of the coven were revealed or were not revealed, especially in the final punch up. ‘A total disaster!’ he declared in the book Talkback volume 3. This viewer respectfully disagrees.

Black magic rarely pops up in Doctor Who unless garnished with a nice science fiction twist, but not in K9 and Company, although when one of the characters suffers a seizure or a heart attack in a country lane, we are meant to think he was ‘got at’ by the deity being worshipped by the locals – Hecate. Nah, that coven member just got freaked out by a goat. When K9 and Company was granted its own annual to accompany Doctor Who, every story featured something supernatural featuring cult members, some wearing turbans. It’s Scooby-Doo, really. Terence Dudley’s novelisation came out in 1987, and like his other two Doctor Who books, an entertaining expansion during an exceptionally strong run of novelisations.

So Happy Birthday, K9 and Company. Indeed, Happy Christmas – at least when they repeated it in 1982 on BBC2, they showed it on Christmas Eve.

❉ ‘K9 and Company’ was originally broadcast on BBC One, 28 December 1981. VHS release: 7 August 1995, BBC Video. DVD release: As part of the K9 Tales boxset on 16 June 2008, with The Invisible Enemy. Blu-ray release: Included with the Season 18 Blu-ray set as a bonus feature with a new HD transfer of original film elements and upscaled studio footage.

❉ A longstanding contributor to We Are Cult, writer Michael Seely’s biography of Douglas Camfield, ‘Directed by Douglas Camfield’, is available from Fantom Publishing and he has also contributed a chapter to a new edition of Barry Letts’ autobiography ‘Who and I’ also available from Fantom Publishing

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