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Waking the Dead

The eighth series of Waking the Dead finished a couple of weeks ago. And it’s difficult to know what to make of it. One character died, one resigned but then seemed to stay, one transferred out of the team, and one handed over to a replacement while she went into hospital… but her replacement cocked things up and so might not be taking over after all.

Waking the Dead, for those of you who have never heard of it, or don’t watch it, is a BBC drama about a police team which investigates old unsolved case, the Metropolitan Police’s Cold Case Unit. The programme has been broadcast annually since 2001, and each series usually takes the form of four to six two-hour episodes, each one split over two nights (typically Sunday and Monday). At present, the Cold Case Unit comprises Detective Superintendent Peter Boyd (Trevor Eve), psychological profiler Dr Grace Foley (Sue Johnston), Detective Inspector Spencer Jordan (Will Johnson), Detective Sergeant Stella Goodman (Félicité du Jeu), and forensic pathologist Dr Eve Lockhart (Tara FitzGerald).

I don’t normally write about television programmes on this blog – well, not unless they’re science fiction… But Waking the Dead is one of my favourite series. And that’s despite not being much of a fan of police procedurals. Waking the Dead, however, is not only classy drama, with high production values, it’s also very watchable. And – it is probably this which appeals to me the most – each series it does something interesting… as a police procedural and as a television drama. Past series, for example, have been themed, with each story an interpretation of the theme. It has run story-arcs in the background over multiple series. And in series eight, it put the entire cast at risk, and then failed to resolve their fates.

In fact, if there is a theme to series eight, it’s that: lack of resolution. Not one of the four stories was properly resolved. I couldn’t actually decide if this was deliberate, a choice explored by the writers, or simply evidence of poor writing. Given the programme’s history, I’m inclined to the former.

But it’s such an odd choice of theme. And its implementation seemed to undercut the plausibility of the programme.

In the first two-parter, ‘Magdalene 26’, a body found hanging in the victim’s house, which has been dead for several days, proves crucial to the investigation. Except… it is never actually identified. Initially, it’s believed to be the victim’s husband, but he later turns up alive. So who was it?

So: not resolved. One or two loose ends I can accept. Not everything needs to be tied up neatly.

But the ending of the story? The murder eventually proves to be the work of a pair of Turkish gangsters, after the victim’s millions. Boyd, claiming to be a shady financier, arranges to meet the Turks in a secluded spot. He has a pair of hidden snipers with him. Boyd pulls out his warrant card to show the Turks. One goes for his gun. Two shots ring out. The credits roll.

Hang on a minute.

They haven’t solved the case. Justice hasn’t been served. The Cold Case Unit shot the villains. That doesn’t happen in the UK.Certainly not without a great deal more provocation.

Was this, perhaps, an attempt to make the series more US-friendly? Or was it a commentary on US-style police procedurals?

The second two-parter, ‘End of the Night’, made it no clearer. Twelve years earlier, a teenage girl was raped and her younger brother murdered by a pair of men the authorities have failed to identify. The girl, now a young woman, attempts suicide, and this inspires Boyd to re-open the investigation. Eventually, the Cold Case Unit identify both rapists. The young woman learns their names. She kidnaps the man who murdered her brother and takes him to the scene of the crime, a high stone bridge over a narrow brook. She murders the killer, and then tries to kill herself by jumping off the bridge. Boyd stops her before she can. The credits roll.

Okay. A more plausible ending, certainly. But the only resolution is that of the victim’s character arc. And, like ‘Magdalene 26′, it’s a more abrupt ending than you’d expect from a television drama.

Like the previous two, the third story, Substitute’, started well enough. Eve enters into a relationship with a man, but doubts his identity. So she secretly takes a DNA swab, and checks up on him. It seems his DNA was found at the scene of a ten-year-old murder – in fact, his semen was on the victim’s body. The means by which Eve took the DNA means the evidence is tainted. But Boyd insists on re-opening the investigation into the murder. As the story progresses, the more it seems the main suspect, Eve’s lover, is not guilty. Or is he? Not that it really matters. During the investigation, the team have identified the villain of the piece. At the end of the episode, Eve has taken her lover to a remote boat-house in order to determine whether he is truly innocence. The rest of the team turn up. As does the villain and his henchman. Eve gets her answer. Boyd and the team drive away, leaving the suspect to be killed by the villain. A shot rings out. The credits roll.

Er.. what? The Cold Case Unit left their suspect to be murdered by a criminal? What happened to justice? The Cold Case Unit are members of the Metropolitan Police, aren’t they? They’ve not only allowed a murder to take place, and so condoned it, but they’ve also failed to charge the villain – against whom they have plenty of evidence.

I did wonder if this was the last series of Waking the Dead, and they were wrapping everything up. Stella had been shot in the first two-parter – and then abruptly died off-stage in hospital from a thrombosis. Spencer had jumped ship to CID, and Eve had handed in her resignation. Boyd was complicit in a murder, and clearly going off the deep end.

The Cold Case Unit was finished.

But no. The final two-parter, ‘Endgame’, seemed to be a return to form. It brought back an old villain, the psychopathic prison guard Linda Cummings from series seven, and also referenced a couple of episodes from previous series. Spencer, despite his move, was dragged back in to help. Stella’s replacement Kat was clearly now a full member of the team. Grace, however, had been admitted into hospital for treatment for cancer, and a replacement had joined the unit. Played by Gina McKee. Casting her led me to suspect she would be staying, that Grace was going to be written out. But she proved to be partly complicit in Linda Cummings’ scheme. So she’s unlikely to stay. And we still don’t know what’s going to happen to Grace.

The ending of the story was also less abrupt than those of the preceding two-parters. Cummings kidnaps Grace from her hospital bed, and threatens to kill her unless Boyd does as she says. There’s a last-minute reprieve and Grace is rescued unharmed. It is, on reflection, an almost traditional ending to these sort of stories. It is also completely at odds with the endings of other series eight stories. It’s as if the writers bent the concept of a “police procedural story ending” completely out of shape… only to let it snap back in the final two-parter. Which certainly qualifies as “interesting”.

Perhaps they had no choice – they had to leave the series as they found it. This is not unusual, given that most television programmes are made on a series by series, or season by season, basis. Some, such as Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes (also programmes I like a great deal), have strictly-defined runs – although I believe this is a lot more common on British television than it is on US television. But still most expect to return the following year. And so they have to leave cast and story-arc in a state which does not preclude continuation.

But this doesn’t explain the events of the first three two-parters of series eight. Certainly one of the cast has gone – killed in the line of duty. Spencer is unlikely to return given his transfer. Eve resigned, but then stayed on. But perhaps she’s leaving too. Grace’s fate is unknown.

And yet, if no series nine was planned, I would have expected a more final ending to ‘Endgame’ – I suspect the title is not a hint. The more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to believe that in this series the writers were exploring the use of dramatic unconventional endings. While this may have had unintended consequences – plausibility took something of a bashing, and the various endings seemed more characterised by a lack of resolution than anything else – it does strike me as a valid, and interesting, artistic choice.

I can only wonder what next year’s theme will be. Because I certainly hope there will be a series nine.