Waking the Dead: Series 4 Review

The Series

Because the premise and formula of Waking the Dead's third series is identical to that of its first, I shall quote the premise I outlined in my review of 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."

As the series enters its fourth year, there is a certain degree of cosy predictability about it all. The five members of the Cold Case squad are now readily familiar, their own individual foibles and personality traits instantly recognisable. And yet, in many ways, Series 4 turns out to be the end of an era for the show, since this is the final outing for the original team, with one character being given a dramatic send-off and another vanishing with barely so much as a mention (to avoid spoiling things, I won't say who, although those who are familiar with subsequent series will know all too well who stuck with the show and who didn't). This was also the final series to be overseen by executive producer Alexei de Keyser, who had made the leap from Casualty to Waking the Dead along with creator Barbara Machin and co-star Claire Goose. De Keyser died in June 2004, while the fourth series was still airing, at the age of 36, and, while it's difficult to know for how much of the end product he was responsible, one gets the suspicion that he was the one who prevented the show from becoming incomprehensible rather than merely complicated. Certainly, the increasingly baffling and nonsensical plots of the two further series that have subsequently aired would suggest that the show has since suffered from the lack of a firm guiding hand.

Despite the familiarity of the characters, however, it would be a mistake to think that the fourth series is in any way "business as usual". Waking the Dead's plots tend always to be built around a familiar formula - new evidence emerges that causes an old case to be reopened, Boyd loses his temper a few times, and eventually the culprit (usually the episode's most prolific guest star) is revealed, due to a combination of chance and dogged determination on the part of the team - but the exact details of the plots are often imaginative. Series 4 is, indeed, perhaps the most diverse of the lot, opening with In the Sight of the Lord, in which a serial killer is hammering nine inch nails through the skulls of the surviving members of a World War 2 regiment, and concluding with Shadowplay, where the team unearth surprising parallels between various cases in which young women with mental health problems all claim to have been driven to commit murder by a mysterious man known as "The Shepherd". The latter, especially, is riveting stuff, thanks to the manner in which it delves into Jungian psychology (hence the episode's title), but the standout of the series, for me, is Fugue States, which deals with the sudden reappearance of an amnesic man, who, along with his sister, was kidnapped as a young child. This case has special significance for the adopted Mel, leading to a level of personal involvement uncharacteristic of Waking the Dead, which normally steadfastly avoids exploring the personal lives of its characters. The only case in the entire collection that comes even close to striking a bum note is The Hardest Word, another serial killer romp which sees the team forced to work with a squad of less than cooperative Organised Crime experts, and even it proves to be enjoyable stuff until it comes to an abrupt and not entirely satisfying conclusion.

Waking the Dead is one of these shows that can rub people the wrong way. Many viewers dislike the character of Boyd and his temper tantrums, and the manner in which Trevor Eve portrays him (although, in comparison with the most recent series, he is an absolute saint here). Others find it confusing for the sake of being confusing (again, this may be true of later series, but the cases presented here are for the most part, logical). I consider it an excellent series, however, and one which, at least at this stage in its life, could be relied on to deliver solid entertainment week in, week out. It may be resembling CSI more and more with every year that passes (there's always something slightly painful about an older child aping its younger siblings), but it's nice to see a home-grown crime series which doesn't insist on insulting its audience's intelligence.

DVD Presentation

As with Series 1 through 3, the fourth series of Waking the Dead arrives on DVD in a distinctly no-frills package, courtesy of 2 Entertain. I received six single layer check discs, each containing a single two-part story. However, the press materials indicate that the retail version is a three-disc set, and, given that the menu screens are labelled as discs one through six, my best guess is that the retail discs will be dual-sided. The previous series were eight episodes long each (plus the two-part pilot included with Series 1), whereas, from Series 4 onwards, the count was upped to twelve. Additionally, unlike the DVDs of Series 1 through 3, this set retains the pre-credits recaps that precede the opening credits of the second of each two-parter (the dedication to Alexei de Keyser, displayed at the end of the final episode when it originally aired, is, however, missing).

Anyway, the transfers are comparable to those found in previous releases: not the most wonderfully detailed you're ever likely to see, but more than adequate, given their TV origins, and certainly better than the overcompressed helpings of MPEG soup that I had to put up with courtesy of Freeview and digital cable. The audio, too, is fine - Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, with decent clarity and acceptable bass, but obviously lacking the depth of a surround mix. English subtitles are also provided.

There are no extras.

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