Waking the Dead: Series 6, Episodes 1 and 2: Wren Boys
Written by Declan Croghan; Directed by Tim Fywell
For some reason, no episodes of Waking the Dead aired in 2006. When Series 6 finally came round, in January 2007, around 16 months had passed since the end of Series 5. The show came back with a new producer, Colin Wratten (who came from EastEnders and, before that, Holby City), a new lead writer, Declan Croghan, and a new pathologist, played by Tara Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, while Waking the Dead doesn’t have much in common with the previous show I did a full run through, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they do share one trait: both go off the rails in their sixth season.
Admittedly, Peter Boyd’s fall from grace is considerably less drastic than Buffy Summers’. Even at its worst, Waking the Dead still manages to retain a veneer of respectability, and I could never claim that these episodes are badly made (whereas some of the latter-day Buffy episodes were shockingly poorly written and directed). Instead, they just tend to feel rather empty, going from Point A to Point B, going through the motions but leaving no real lasting impression. One of the biggest losses come Season 6 is the team feeling that permeated the earlier episodes. Series 5 had its work cut out, having to make do without two of the five original characters, but it somehow managed to pull through, retaining the dynamic between the three remaining regulars and working hard to integrate the two newcomers. Such traits are not in evidence by Series 6. By and large, the characters behave like automatons, the interplay between them feels forced, and they function less as a team and more as a collection of people clocking in and out of the office.
It doesn’t help that the writers seem intent on ignoring any previously established continuity. Their biggest faux pas would come with Series 7 (which I’ll discuss when I get that far), but for now, the wheels are already being set in motion. Stella’s betrayal at the end of the previous series is never even mentioned, while Spence’s brush with death, which provided the cliffhanger between the two series, is brushed aside in a single reference to him having had a tattoo painted around his bullet wound. Seeing him laughing and joking about this with Stella, who played a part in his brush with death, is such a blatant breach of continuity that I find it nearly impossible to forgive. The fact that Felix is never once mentioned is also hard to swallow, although admittedly not entirely surprising, particularly if, as I suspect, she was only ever intended as a last-minute temporary replacement for Frankie.
Unfortunately, the new pathologist, Eve Lockhart, just makes us yearn all the more for her predecessors. The writers are at great pains to ram down our throats the fact that the character is alternative and wacky, smoking foul-smelling cigarettes, burning incense in the lab, listening to reggae music at crime scenes, and so on. Unfortunately, the actress, Tara Fitzgerald, may be many things, but “wacky” is not one of them. Her attempts to be so come across as completely forced, and all too often end up veering towards “annoying” rather than the “charming” that I suspect the writers were going for. At least, however, she is a little more animated in these opening episodes than she would later become: come Series 7, she would barely alter her facial expression and tone of delivery at all. Her major gimmick, aside from her insincere wackiness and amazingly deep voice, is that she keeps a “body farm” consisting of a bank of old body parts, which sounds interesting in theory but in practice is only ever referred to a couple of times.
Anyway, the series begins with what is probably the least impressive episode of Waking the Dead to date. There was worse to come, but I remember the massive disappointment I felt when this two-parter initially aired a couple of years back. The basic plot is that the team are investigating the case of a teenage boy found drowned in a pit of concrete back in 1990. A teenage boy is dumped outside a Casualty department, badly beaten, and Boyd suspects there may be a connection. (I actually can’t remember what it is that causes him to suspect this, which says a lot about how much of an impact the storyline made on me.) This leads him and the team to investigate the community of travellers from which the boy came, along the way taking in the sights of a local abbey and a young nun apparently suffering from stigmata.
This episode does actually have a rather interesting theme: the combination of pagan and Christian beliefs and rituals. As far as I can gather, it’s a pretty accurate representation of the religious beliefs held in many traveller communities, harking back to the latter days of the Roman Empire’s occupation of Britain, when the occupying forces concluded that the easiest way to convert the local tribes to Christianity was to mix the doctrine in with their existing pagan traditions, resulting in (to quote Bremner, Bird & Fortune’s piss-take of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams) “an à la carte religion”. At the same time, though, I think that the episode’s greatest failing is that there are simply too many ideas scrambling for attention, resulting in it feeling incredibly disjointed and not very satisfying as a whole. In addition to the exploration of the travellers and their beliefs, we’ve got stigmata, hallucinogenics, Rottweilers straight out of The Omen, a goat demon who seems to have stepped straight out of Hammer’s adaptation of The Devil Rides Out, arranged fights which clearly own something of a debt to David Fincher’s Fight Club, a family tree as complicated as a spaghetti junction, a young mother offering her unwanted newborn child up to a benevolent angel (no, really), and the curious arrival of an envelope addressed to Mel containing a bracelet inscribed with Hebrew letters. The latter sets up a plot strand which is actually carried through the entire season before finally coming to a head in the final episode, Yahrzeit. I’d like to say that this storyline, which hearkens back to the good old days, provides a sense of continuity to the series and resolves Boyd’s feelings as regards Mel’s death, but I’m sorry to say that, for me at least, this is something that should have been done in Series 5 if at all. Barely mentioning Mel in that series and then taking up the storyline again over a year later, while introducing some whopping continuity errors in the process (more on that later), merely cements my ambivalence towards this season.
Holby connections: Gregory Foreman (Davy in this episode) has appeared in Casualty at various points in Series 22 as Charlie Fairhead’s son, Louis.