The turn of the century was a time of immense change. If you think driverless cars and the Apple Watch are revolutionary, imagine seeing a car for the first time. Imagine electric lights illuminating a city at night and being able to send a message through the air without wires. We were learning to trust science and question even those things we saw with our own eyes. At the same time, our fascination with mysteries and the occult was on the rise. This juxtaposition between science and mysticism is the driving force behind the new Fox series Houdini and Doyle.
Harry Houdini (Michael Weston) is a world-renowned magician and escape artist. He’s an American in London; outspoken and a little crass. Doyle, is author Arthur Conan Doyle (Stephen Mangan) aka the creator of Sherlock Holmes. They each know of the other, but are inclined to act more like frenimies than admirers when they meet at Scotland Yard.
Both men end up there because they’re interested in investigating the supernatural murder of a nun. Houdini sees it as an opportunity to debunk a ghost story while Doyle hopes its proof that there is life after death.
Unable to dissuade them, the chief inspector sends the other thorn in his side, Constable Stratton, along to babysit. Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard) happens to be the first woman on the London Metropolitan Police Force and she’s anxious to prove that she’s a top-notch investigator. Together, they solve the case of the convent killer; but was it a ghost or a human that did the foul deed? I’ll never tell.
Houdini and Doyle is a rich and visually stunning, period piece with all the required sets and costumes. But what really impressed me was the use of light and shadows. In one scene, Doyle goes to visit a Medium. When she contacts the other side, she leans back into complete darkness. It’s a gutsy move, to hide an actor in the shadows. It forces her to deliver her entire performance with nothing but her voice. In this scene, it was marvelously spooky.
As much as I appreciate good production design, it’s not enough to hold me if the characters don’t shine. I think all three leads were well cast, but suffering slightly from “first episode exposition sickness”. You’ve seen it before, it’s characterized by a forced dislike for each other and a ‘the writers don’t know how to write for me yet’ stiffness. I was also put off by a few of Houdini’s lines which felt very anachronistic. Were we calling police officers ‘cops’ in 1900?
The pilot episode plot was intriguing but it felt like a “b” story to the bigger “a” story of the two men battling to show off their smarts. When I first learned of the show, I assumed it was a straight Victorian murder mystery. I was delighted when I realized that the supernatural was a big part of show. I’m a little worried that it’s going to be Scooby-Doo every week – ‘it’s just Old Man Heffer in a mask!” I won’t like that. I don’t mind if some of the paranormal events are easily explained away but for this to work, there has to be a few questions left unanswered.
Bottom line, Houdini and Doyle ticks almost all of the boxes for me;
Turn of the Century London
The only box that isn’t filled in is that undefinable magic when the right actors get the right script. Maybe next week? Here’s hoping.