The Waking the Dead Project
Above: The original Waking the Dead team. From left to right: Boyd, Frankie, Grace, Spence and Mel.
I’ve mentioned once or twice already that I was going to do a Waking the Dead project, similar to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer project I did a couple of years back and which nearly broke my will and sanity. 144 episodes of any television programme is a lot, but the number seems particularly high when you consider that the final two seasons, 44 episodes’ worth of material, were at times pretty appalling. Luckily, Waking the Dead has two things in its favour. Number one, there have, to date, been only 74 episodes (including the two-part pilot). Number two, while the later series have, in my opinion, not been of the same standard as the earlier ones, the show has never plumbed the same depths as Buffy at its worst.
The main failing of my Buffy project was the perspective from which I wrote it. Essentially, I wrote as a fan talking to other fans, and therefore didn’t take account of the fact that not everyone reading my ramblings would be as intimately familiar with the series, characters and storylines as I was. I didn’t make it easy for people to understand what I was talking about, and I suspect I probably didn’t convince anyone unfamiliar with the show to check it out either. It would be a shame if I didn’t persuade anyone to give Waking the Dead a whirl - I think it’s a very good series, and if I thought otherwise I wouldn’t be attempting this project - so right off the bat I’m going to do my best to make things a bit more accessible this time round.
To briefly explain what this is all about, Waking the Dead is the creation of a writer named Barbara Machin. Hers is not exactly a household name, but it’s one with which I’m familiar because it appeared at the beginning of many an episode of Casualty between 1990 and 1998. The episodes she wrote for the medical drama stand out as being among the best, often due to her seeming fascination with mental disorders and her attempts to get inside the minds of those so afflicted.
Waking the Dead’s concept is that of “cold cases”, i.e. police investigations that have been shelved or thought to have been closed but which have been opened up due to new evidence coming to light, or because it is thought that the advanced forensic and profiling systems available in the 21st century may shed new light on old material. The idea is not necessarily groundbreaking, and seems even less so when you consider the existence of American-originated shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Cold Case (both of which, I feel compelled to point out, came along after Waking the Dead), but it’s a good one, I think, because it allows the programme’s writers to cherry-pick from virtually any period in recent history. Each investigation tends to challenge the viewer’s ability to keep track of the various ongoing strands and suspects, although it has at times drawn criticism (from people including myself) for being overly convoluted for its own sake.
What, for me, however, makes the early episodes of this show so enjoyable is the interaction between the Cold Case Unit. There are five core members of the team, three of whom have been present for all (so far) seven series. The man at the centre is Detective Superintendent Peter Boyd (Trevor Eve), a driven, moody and at times baffling man who, taking a page right out of the Detective Clichés Handbook, sometimes breaks the rules or acts like a jerk but gets results. Working under him are DS (later DI) Spencer Jordan (Wil Johnson) and DC (later DS) Amelia “Mel” Silver (Claire Goose), who find their boss’ behaviour strange and a bit alarming at times, but grit their teeth and put up with his mood swings because they know from experience that his slightly unorthodox methods work. Joining them is Dr. Grace Foley (Sue Johnston), a psychological profiler who, it has been suggested to me, is the audience’s main point of identification because she is the level-headed one who often diffuses Boyd’s temper tantrums and smoothes out discord within the team. (She also happens to be my favourite character for reasons that I’m sure to discuss in my episode reviews.) The final player is Dr. Frankie Wharton (Holly Aird), a forensic scientist and someone who is somewhat on the periphery of the team, something which is emphasised fairly often in the earlier episodes by portraying her as feeling marginalised and out of the loop. Frankie is every bit as obsessive about her work as Boyd, spending seemingly every waking hour in her lab, but she is able to keep her head in a way that Boyd isn’t.
The format of the series stays more or less the same, generally opening with a crime taking place or a new piece of evidence being discovered. From then on, the team and the audience are introduced to the evidence and an array of suspects, with the investigation being teased out over the course of two one-hour episodes. Each two-parter tells a self-contained story, although in the last couple of years some attempted has been made to thread either a similar theme or an ongoing story arc throughout each series. Sometimes the episodes take the form of a whodunit; on other occasions, the audience is in on the culprit’s identity while the team is in the dark. Occasionally, there is an obvious suspect and the storyline consists of the team building the case against him/her. What does, for the most part, remain consistent is that, broadly speaking, we only see the team in the context of their job. There have been exceptions, particularly in the pilot and in the most recent series, but Waking the Dead is, by and large, devoid of soap opera, which is definitely appreciated given the TV crime drama genre’s tendency to combine the professional with the private.
Without further ado, it’s time for me to crack on with the first review…