Waking the Dead: Series 2 Review

Because the premise and formula of Waking the Dead's second series is identical to that of its first, I shall quote the premise I outlined in my review of last year's The Complete Series One & Pilot Episode release:

"Before there was CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, there was Waking the Dead. Beating the premiere of the American forensic investigation phenomenon by just under a month, this BBC series works to a similar, if slightly less flashy, framework. The action centres around a London-based "Cold Case" squad, a small and elite team tasked to crack cases that have either never been solved or whose results have been called into dispute. The unit is led by DCI Peter Boyd (Trevor Eve), a brilliant but hot-tempered and often irrational man who gets results through any means necessary. Joining him are criminal profiler Dr. Grace Foley (Sue Johnston), pathologist Dr. Frankie Wharton (Holly Aird), and detectives DS Spencer "Spence" Jordan (Wil Johnson) and DC Amelia "Mel" Silver (Claire Goose). Over the course of this first series, the team struggle to find their feet as they are faced with impossible demands for quick results in a business that often takes a very long time indeed."

Indeed, Series 2 looks and feels almost exactly the same as its predecessor, with a few slight differences. Visually, the show drifts away from the desaturated, naturalistic approach of the first series in favour of a more glossy, saturated and stylised look. So begins what, for many viewers, has since become a running joke, as the Cold Case squad appear to work in an office whose lighting conditions must make it impossible to actually see any of the evidence pinned up on the walls in front of them. Unlike Series 1, in which the five-person team seemed to be working in a building with other members of the police force, in Series 2 they seem to have the whole place to themselves. Finally, we learn very slightly more about the show's protagonists: the running theme, it seems, is loneliness, as it is made clear that Boyd, Grace and Mel all live alone, while Frankie never seems to leave her precious laboratory. Only Spence, who was the most underdeveloped character in the first series, seems to have anything of a social life, as, in two episodes, he calls on old acquaintances to aid his inquiries.

Otherwise, it's pretty much business as usual. The cases continue - four of them, each spread over two episodes, just like the previous series - using the same familiar formula as outlined in my earlier review, although it does appear to have been at this point that the writers began going for increasingly convoluted plots and solutions. Often, the trouble comes simply from trying to keep track of a large number of potential suspects, while at the same time sorting out their back-stories and relationships with each other. The first two cases, Life Sentence and Deahwatch, which are relatively concise and well-ordered, are probably the strongest, while the other two, Special Relationship and Thin Air, are considerably more muddled, with the latter especially coming across as more than a bit far-fetched. The trouble, essentially, is that of the detective fiction format: so much of the narrative is comprised of people telling each other what happened in the past, often mixing lies with truth, to the extent that it becomes extremely difficult to keep track of what is happening. This is further complicated by the fact that, unlike the likes of Inspector Morse, who would generally begin investigation within a short space of the crime in question having been committed, Boyd and his crew are digging up skeletons that have been buried for anything between 5 and 40 years. A lot, understandably, will have happened during this interim, and the result is that there is often simply too much to keep track of. I'm not criticising the show for assuming that its audience possesses a certain level of intelligence (after all, so many series and films in this genre seem to assume that the viewer is an idiot), but at times it does seem to be making things complicated just for the sake of it. The biggest offender is Thin Air, which, at the eleventh hour, throws in an incest subplot that seems to have come out of, well, thin air, but is crucial to the killer's motive.

Another problem, pointed out to me by fellow reviewer Anthony Nield, lies in the casting of famous faces in what almost always turn out to be pivotal roles. I'm not the world's best person at spotting such individuals, but when the late David Hemmings shows up in the episode Deathwatch as a retired detective, it's impossible to even consider him not being involved in some way. As for whether or not the identities of the various killers come as a surprise, since I watched all of these episodes when they originally aired and could vaguely remember their plots, it's difficult for me to say whether or not the whodunit aspect is entirely successful. Generally speaking, everyone is hiding something, so it's no use looking to the most (or least, if you're applying reverse psychology) shifty suspect. Some of the investigative leaps in logic should also raise a few eyebrows. A perfect example of this comes in Thin Air, in which it is discovered that the murdered girl, Joanna Gold (Sophie Winkleman), had a black boyfriend. By chance, it emerges that a club she once went to was run by a black gentleman (who happens to be Spence's old friend). Naturally, the team surmise that he is the man they're looking for - and, of course, they turn out to be correct. It is at moments like these that you can see the writers joining all the requisite dots, but the lines connecting them are a bit shaky.

For all its faults, I enjoy Waking the Dead a great deal. Indeed, I would consider it to be one of the most engaging detective series made in recent years. I know that a number of people have trouble getting past the character of Boyd, who spends a great deal of time screaming like a petulant child, but I consider Trevor Eve's portrayal of the man to be riveting, and, over the years, I have greatly enjoyed watching him gradually losing his sanity. Criticisms of the show's attempts to be confusing for the sake of it are perfectly valid, but ultimately Waking the Dead, when it gets things right, is about as good as it gets for TV detective fiction.

DVD Presentation

The first series of Waking the Dead was self-distributed by the BBC, but for Series 2, they have turned these duties over to 2 Entertain. The style of the packaging has changed somewhat (and I really hope someone managed to catch the enormous goof on the cover art, where Holly Aird's surname is spelled as "Aired", before it went to the printers - I only have check discs, so I'm going by the images available online), but the format is basically the same, right down to the static menus. Once again, the episodes come two to a disc (each one Parts 1 and 2 of a single case), for a total of four discs (the previous set had five, as it also included the show's pilot).

The transfer this time round is a little bit better than that of its predecessor. Detail is generally improved, while the richer colour palette means that the shadows no longer seem quite so murky. For some reason, like the first series, the discs are only single layer, but there are no obvious problems with the compression (although the use of dual layer discs would have allowed 2 Entertain to cut the number of DVDs in the collection by half).

The audio, again, comes in the form of a serviceable but unremarkable Dolby Digital 2.0 track with no obvious problems in terms of clarity. Optional subtitles are also provided, which are well-placed and legible.

There are no extras.

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Last updated: 31/05/2018 19:42:28

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