Beware of neo-Nazi teenagers and speeding paramedics
It really doesn’t seem that long ago that I delivered a fairly damning prognosis of Casualty’s 22nd series, and yet here we are once again, with Series 23 kicking off with a two-parter spread over the previous two nights (Saturday and Sunday). As ever, I made a point of not getting my hopes up too high, but, as with last year’s season premiere, I found myself enjoying the two episodes much more than I’d expected, and am now having to make a concerted effort to temper my anticipation for the rest of the series in case I end up being let down again.
The premise this time was a rather imaginative one, charting the events unfolding around a camera crew shooting a documentary about the hospital and its staff. Ably written by Mark Catley, who handled most of the best episodes in the previous series, and skilfully directed by Keith Boak (despite his over-reliance on the dreaded shakycam), the framing device of the crew interviewing the various regulars was put to great effect, frequently cutting away from the main action to provide an insight into their thoughts on the trials, tribulations and internal politics of the job. The main plot, meanwhile, followed the documentary team as they accompanied one of the ambulance crews out to the troubled Farmead estate, where they ended up trapped in a burning building after Sammy, a delightful teenage girl (choice dialogue: “Your breath stinks… is it coffee or are you sure you’ve not just been drinking shit?”) with neo-Nazi sympathies and a perpetual scowl on her face, set off some fireworks. Their last-minute escape from the inferno, however, was very much a case of “out of the frying pan, into the fire”, as the ambulance in which the camera crew were riding then ploughed into the aforementioned brat, the effect achieved using a dummy so obvious that it gave the killer’s death in Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling a run for its money:
Dodgy effect aside, it worked, and it also provided a segue into the second episode, where the local community, incensed that the emergency services had put one of their own into Intensive Care, began a full scale riot. Personally, I did have some trouble believing that seemingly the entire estate would erupt into anarchy simply because one girl, who we were initially shown to be an outcast who was hated by her peers and neglected by her family, was injured. I didn’t really buy it and thought it was a tad contrived. Still, what I appreciated about it was the way it conveyed the meaninglessness of the violence, how everyone was getting worked up about something that had happened to someone most of them probably didn’t even know. This was done, to some extent, in the Series 13 episode Trapped, which showed what happens when the police fail to enforce order and mob rule takes over. I also felt that the rioting scenes were somewhat reminiscent of Series 7’s Boiling Point in their depiction of complete and utter carnage with the emergency services trying to help people and finding themselves caught in the crossfire.
I still ultimately think that Boiling Point is the better episode (hey, it’s my third favourite of all time), but the cast and crew really managed to pull off a similar atmosphere effectively here, and I’m impressed that they were able to make it seem this intense and gripping. There is a point in the second part when a group of the show’s regulars venture into the midst of the carnage to look for one of their colleagues, Clinical Nurse Manager Tess (Suzanne Packer), who lies skewered like kebab on a stretch of waste ground (the result of a somewhat contrived series of events), and are set upon by an angry mob headed by Sammy’s brother. Normally, Casualty tends to be rather predictable, but on this occasion the encounter between the staff and the thugs was so tense that I actually found myself feeling concerned for their safety. (The last time I genuinely felt that connected to the characters was in the excellent two-parter written by Barbara Machin for Christmas 2006, when Josh (Ian Bleasdale) was stabbed and I actually didn’t know whether he’d live or die.)
Something else I really appreciated about these two episodes was the feeling of teem spirit that seemed to permeate throughout them. Although the raging fire in the block of flats in Part 1 and the rioting scenes in Part 2 provided a lot of adrenaline-packed action, my favourite moments were the interactions between the regulars. A major problem I’ve had with Casualty of late is how fragmented it has become. Whereas, in the old days, the team felt like an extended family who all got along despite their differences, in recent years I’ve felt that everyone was splitting off into their little groups and not really interacting with each other. Add to that the endless bickering, oneupmanship games and “who’s having sex with who” storylines, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching an endless playground squabble. Here, just about everyone seemed to actually pull together and function as a single professional unit. I’ve never really liked Tess as a character so I can’t say I really cared whether she lived or died (I find her a flat, uninteresting cipher whose only purpose is to bark orders), but, when she was wheeled into Accident & Emergency, I really did feel the team’s concern for her. Unfortunately, I still got the feeling that certain characters were being forced out on to the periphery and weren’t really interacting with the others, a problem that also affected the previous series, but it’s early days yet, and given how much action was crammed into the space of two hours, I’m not surprised some characters were, to a degree, left by the wayside.
Overall, Series 23 has got off to a strong start with a really good pair of episodes, and once again I find myself crossing my fingers (without a great deal of hope, it must be said) that they aren’t just a flash in the pan. Last year’s My First Day and Charlie’s Anniversary are still the better pair of episodes overall, but this year’s two-parter was a lot better than I was expecting and I’m once again finding myself looking forward to next week’s episode. It does seem to prove that Series 22’s opening episodes weren’t just a flash in the pan and that the current cast and crew can continue to deliver the goods if all the stars are properly aligned.