My copy of the DVD release of the sixth series of Waking the Dead arrived on Tuesday, coincidentally on the same day that the twelfth and final episode of seventh series aired on BBC1. Series 6 stands out to me as by far the weakest of the bunch, for a number of reasons, but it’s been over a year since I last saw it and I’m genuinely curious to see if it plays better on a second viewing. The thing about Waking the Dead is that the plots are often so convoluted that they require two or three viewings to work out what’s actually going on and simply enjoy the drama on its own merits.
In any event, Series 7, on the whole, constituted a definite step up from Series 6. It shared the same core cast of characters, the same producer, Colin Wratten, and the same head writer, Declan Croghan, but this time round, all but one of the six two-part storylines was at least worth a watch, even if the overall standard varied wildly from episode to episode. The stand-out, this time round, was Skin, a storyline involving a group of neo-Nazis connected with the murder of a gay Jewish man. The twist, which I’ll spoil here given that the episode in question has now aired, was that their victim had in fact infiltrated their group by posing as a skinhead himself, and has succeeded in infecting all of them with the AIDS virus by mixing his own blood into the pigment he then used to give them tattoos. It was a unique concept, and exceedingly well-told too, and I’m quite pleased with myself for managing to work out what was going on a good five minutes before it was revealed in the programme itself, which I think speaks well for its refusal to cheat the audience by throwing in a massive twist out of left field.
Unfortunately, Skin, and the first part of the final storyline, Pietà, were the only ones that I felt were up to the standards of the earlier series. It doesn’t speak well of the second two-parter that I actually had to look up LocateTV to remind myself what it had been about. On the other hand, the fifth storyline, Wounds, sticks in my mind for all the wrong reasons. Gimmicky in the extreme and confusing for its own sake, it was more along the lines of the previous series with its pseudo-mysticism, muddy structure and overuse of flashbacks. I also continue to be less than impressed by forensic pathologist Eve (Tara Fitzgerald), who joined the team last year and has so far been a less than riveting replacement for Holly Aird and Esther Hall. Part of the problem stems from the fact that she never seems to alter her facial expression or manner of delivery, to the extent that, when she actually gives a slight half-smile in the final episode, it’s something of a shock to discover that her mouth can actually make that shape.
In my review of Series 5, I criticised the increasingly exaggerated and unrealistic behaviour of the central character, Detective Superintendent Boyd (Trevor Eve), who would repeatedly bully his colleagues and extract confessions from suspects under duress. This behaviour escalated throughout the previous series to the extent that it became a running joke, so it was something of a relief that Series 7 went in the opposite direction, giving us an older, quieter, wearier Boyd than the one we’re used to seeing. The writers certainly reined in the character’s temper tantrums in this series, and likewise, Trevor Eve toned down his scenery-chewing in favour of brooding and scowling. He also, to the best of my knowledge, didn’t assault anyone this year, preferring instead to leave the strong-arming to his sergeant, Stella (Félicité Du Jeu).
This uncharacteristic calmness seems particularly strange when you consider that this was the very series in which Boyd might have been considered justified in flying off the handle, in that a storyline that has been lurking on the sidelines since the very beginning of the show, the disappearance of his son, was finally resolved. At the beginning of this series, his son, Luke (who I’m fairly sure was actually named Joe in Series 1), re-appeared, a homeless drug addict who Boyd spent the rest of the series intermittently running away from and trying to help. In some respects, I thought this storyline was quite effective, providing a reason for Boyd’s bizarre behaviour and also helping to tie what would have been six disparate storylines together, but at the same time I feel that it breaks the programme’s crucual tenet of never allowing us to see anything of the main characters’ personal lives.
The Luke storyline also created a far bigger problem for the rest of the series, because the writers seemed to insist on drawing parallels between Boyd’s relationship with his son and most of the cases the team were investigating. This led to a sense of repetition, not least with the continual emphasis on missing children and fathers’ dysfunctional relationships with their sons. It also meant that four of the six storylines involved a suspect, victim or witness who either was or was suggested to be gay: it is implied, at the end of the second storyline, that Luke is gay, or possibly working as a rent-boy to feed his drugs habit (the specifics of what we see are infuriatingly unclear), and, reading between the lines, I wonder to what extent we are meant to suspect that this in some way led to his estrangement from his father. The thing is, though, that Boyd may have been shown to be many things, but homophobic has never been one of them; actually, his views towards most aspects of humanity have always been characterised as fairly liberal. In the end, I don’t know what to think.
On the whole, though, what we got was an improvement on the previous year’s clumsy, wishy-washy series. I wouldn’t characterise any of it as essential viewing, except perhaps the Skin two-parter, but it proved to be an engaging enough distraction on Monday and Tuesday evenings for six weeks, and only two of the twelve hours I devoted to it (the Wounds two-parter) are ones that I consider to have been wasted.
Creator Barbara Machin’s newest project, another crime series under the title of Kiss of Death, airs next Monday, by the way. It’s being billed as a one-off 90-minute drama, although Waking the Dead started out very much in the same way, airing its two-part pilot episode in 2000 before returning for a full series in 2001. The advance buzz suggests that Machin is continuing her interest in non-linear storytelling, using an approach similar to that of the Casualty episodes she wrote for Christmas 2006.