Waking the Dead: Series 5, Episodes 1 and 2: Towers of Silence
Written by Joe Cozens; Directed by Philippa Langdale
One of the nicest things about any show with a small, established cast is the depth of characterisation that it affords. Waking the Dead, as I’ve said before, has never really been about the personal lives of its regulars, but, by spending so long with each of them, you really get a sense of what makes them tick and develop a close attachment to them. The downside, naturally, is that, when one of these characters leaves, the show’s entire world is turned upside down. At the end of its fourth series, Waking the Dead lost not one but two of its five regulars, all of whom had been there since the pilot episode. The result is that, like it or not, the show can never be the same again.
In actual fact, Mel and Frankie weren’t the only ones to leave. The other departure, behind the camera rather than in front of it, was that of executive producer Alexei de Keyser, who died of a heart attack mere days before the broadcast of Series 4’s final episode. He was a producer on Casualty during its 13th series, and was promoted to series producer (in charge of the overall flow of the storylines and characters) for Series 14. When Barbara Machin left to do Waking the Dead, she took de Keyser with her, and I suspect that he, more than perhaps anyone else, was instrumental in establishing and maintaining the show’s tone. On the upside, producer Richard Burrell opted to stick around for a third (and final) year, and, although the rest of the writing staff was new, Ed Whitmore remained in place as head writer, again for one more series.
Of the two new characters brought in to replace those that left at the end of the previous series, only one is introduced in this episode. Unfortunately, brilliant name aside, Dr. Felix Gibson (Esther Hall) has “placeholder” written all over her. Although a valiant effort is made to establish her as having her own personality in this episode, throughout the rest of the series she gives the impression of speaking lines that were intended for her predecessor, Frankie Wharton. I’m not sure precisely when it was realised that Holly Aird definitely wouldn’t be coming back, but Felix’s characterisation leads me to believe that at least some of the scripts were written for Frankie and then hastily retooled for Felix. At least in this first episode, the writer differentiates her from Frankie, primarily by playing up to Boyd’s distinct discomfort around her, unnerved by her demand that he roll up his sleeves and help out in the lab (in contrast to Frankie’s “one woman army” ethic) and attempting to compensate for her rather cold personality by making incessant small talk. (In later episodes, Felix would drop the “cold fish” persona completely and become much more talkative, not to mention discover the same sense of black humour that made Frankie such an enduring character.) I never liked Felix quite as much as Frankie, but she definitely grew on me, partly thanks to Esther Hall, whom I’ve always liked as an actress (even in those cloying BT commercials that she is probably best known for, in which she plays Kris Marshall’s wife), and I was ultimately very disappointed that she only lasted for a single series, and was replaced by the interminably dull Eve Lockhart (Tara Fitzgerald), whom I’ll discuss further when I get on to Series 6.
One final note on the casting before I get on to the episode itself: filling in for Mel for this two-parter only is DS Andrea “Andy” Stephenson (Georgia Mackenzie - no relation to me, I hasten to add), which I always found rather curious. Why go to the bother of introducing a new character and integrating her with the team, only to replace her with something completely different for the next case? I suspect that, ultimately, it had a lot to do with a desire on the part of the writers’ to bring in someone with a strong resemblance to Mel, in order to accentuate Boyd’s angst, but at the same time not wanting to simply replace Mel with Mel 2.0, so only keeping her around ‘til she’d served her purpose. It’s a shame, because, from what little we saw of her, I liked Andy a lot more than Mel’s permanent replacement, whom I’ll discuss in my review of the next episode.
Anyway, finally getting on to the episode’s plot, the case the team are investigating this time round involves the discovery of a mummified body aboard a decommissioned cargo plane bound for an “aeroplane graveyard” in Arizona. Found sans hands, the body bears striking similarities to that of Nadir Mehta (Neran Persaud), an airport bag handler found by Andy at the top of a water tower in Kent six years ago when she was a PC. His brother, Sarosh (Emil Marwa), is currently in prison for his murder, but, suspecting that Sarosh is in fact taking the blame for someone else, Boyd mounts an undercover operation inside the walls of the prison. Their investigations reveal a trade in counterfeit pharmaceuticals, a shady firm of private investigators, and an Indian police inspector who may not be who he says he is… and that’s only half of it.
It took me a few viewings to warm to this two-parter, and I’m still not sure I’m totally sold on it, particularly given the unsatisfying ending, and I hate the parachuting of David Walliams (one of the most irritating British “comedians” this side of Russell Brand, Jimmy Carr and Ricky Gervais) into the (mercifully brief) role of a high-ranking police official. However, looking back on it, there’s a lot to like. Admittedly, a lot of it is stylistic stuff rather than actual narrative material, but I can be engaged by good direction even if the script isn’t stellar. I particularly like the opening, which intercuts the discovery of the cargo plane body with shots of the deserted Cold Case Headquarters, the silence broken by brief snippets of dialogue between the original cast of five. I like our introduction to Boyd and Grace, visiting a shop so Boyd can buy a model aeroplane (the significance of this currently unclear). I like the ballsy decision to open the new series with only Boyd and Grace present at CCHQ, Spence having been frogmarched into prison for (at the time) unrevealed reasons. I like the moment where Boyd and Grace re-enact an event from the case using his new model plane and various other toys as props, with the scene going from light-hearted comedy to something more serious as Andy’s unexpected arrival causes Boyd’s semi-repressed memories of Mel’s death to simmer up again. I like the scene in which Mehta’s widow, Roshni (wonderfully played by Nina Wadia), realises that the counterfeit medication her husband procured for her actually led to the death of their young child - an extremely emotional scene, heightened by a beautiful piece of piano music that has been used a few times in the show, though never as effectively as here. I like the use of Zoroastrianism, which makes a nice change given how reliant television tends to be on the three “main” monotheistic religions when it wants to inject a dose of the supernatural. Oh, and I love Boyd’s nickname for the mummified body: Crispy Duck. He may be going to pieces over Mel’s death, but the man has not lost his dark sense of humour.
This was a long review, but that is, to an extent, unavoidable given the turning point that this episode marks in the show’s fortunes. Subsequent episode reviews shall, I expect, be considerably briefer.