Houdini & Doyle S01E03 “In Manus Dei” REVIEW

Houdini & Doyle S01E03 “In Manus Dei”

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stars 2.5

Airing in the UK on ITV Encore, Thursdays at 9pm
Writers: Melissa Byer, Treena Hancock
Director: Daniel O’Hara

Essential plot points:

  • At a performance by faith healer Elias Downey, a disbelieving man – Fred Batch – denounces his act, and God, as a fake. Seconds later he collapses, bleeding from the mouth, before dying.
  • Doyle, Houdini and Stratton want to investigate the case – the former to see if he really can heal the sick, the illusionist to prove that he’s a fraud. Although Merring tells them he cannot authorise an autopsy without evidence of a crime – dismissing it as a sick man dying rather than murder.
  • At Batch’s funeral, the trio question his widow, who reveals they went to the show to try and get help conceiving.

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  • Downey arrives to pay his respects, and Houdini questions his powers to provide a distraction, allowing Doyle and Stratton to examine Batch’s rash-marked body. Downey warns God will punish Houdini for his questioning the healer’s methods.
  • Stratton discovers four other instances of people dying after questioning Downey, although all appear to have been natural causes. They attend Downey’s show, but Houdini is suddenly and violently taken ill.
  • After watching the healer cure a lame woman, Doyle asks him to lay hands on his comatose wife Touie. Downey does, but tells Doyle he will also need to show his faith. As Doyle prays, Touie opens her eyes and begins to recover.
  • Houdini remains sceptical of Downey’s powers, so Stratton disobeys Merring’s orders and has Batch exhumed for an autopsy. At the graveyard Houdini again feels ill, and Doyle discovers his back is covered in boils.
  • Doyle conducts an autopsy on Batch’s corpse, but as he cuts open his chest a cloud of gas emerges and Doyle collapses. As he recovers, he confirms Batch was murdered – the gas is a side effect of cyanide.
  • Stratton and Doyle question Mrs Batch, who is enjoying the benefits of a life insurance payout on her husband – and Doyle thinks he’s found a clue with a note about apples in her room, but it proves a red herring.
  • Houdini performs the matinee of his show but passes out from a fever while submerged in the water tank and has to be cut free. Doyle warns him he needs to rest, and sees from x-rays that Doyle has suffered dozens of broken bones that have never healed properly, which has led to his infection and pain.
  • Despite his condition, the three confront Downey after discovering Mrs Batch met with the faith healer the night before her husband’s death. Houdini challenges Downey to drink cyanide to prove that God is protecting him – but the healer does so without blinking. The poison’s a fake – but Doyle is more convinced by the man’s faith.
  • As Touie continues to recover, she and Doyle make plans for a night together to mark her recovery. The doctors at her sanatorium will not let her leave, so Doyle says he’ll bring dinner to her – admitting he’d given up hope of her recovery.

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  • Houdini’s condition worsens, and he begins hallucinating. His mother tries to care for him, with chicken soup, and tells him he can escape his illness.
  • Doyle and Stratton track down the arsenic used for Batch’s murder to a break-in at a pharmacist, with the thief leaving behind a strand of long black hair. They also took Goa Powder, and Doyle deduces the killer – Downey’s sister, who suffers from psoriasis. She has been arranging for “miracles” to maintain Downey’s faith – who was blissfully unaware he wasn’t doing God’s work. Outraged, he grabs a gun to shoot his sister, but an ailing Houdini arrives, and convinces him not to before collapsing, and Downey’s sister is arrested for murder.
  • Doyle questions why Houdini turned up at Downey’s, given he didn’t know the other two would be there, and wonders if the illusionist was looking to be healed himself. He goes to the sanatorium for his dinner date with Touie, but she has relapsed, and is back in a coma.

 

Review:

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So, I’d like to introduce you to a little quote from David Hoselton, who is effectively showrunner of Houdini & Doyle, from the press pack ITV stuck out to support the show.

“We realised we would have to take some liberties with history – artistic license, we like to call it. After all, in reality, the two greats were in middle to late age when they met, and we couldn’t have that. So we backdated it a tad – twenty-ish years to be imprecise.”

‘Take some liberties’. There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Everything that’s wrong with Houdini & Doyle in one nice, digestible soundbite.

With “In Manus Dei” we have our first episode not written by Hoselton, or directed by Stephen Hopkin. Instead, CSI veterans Byer and Hancock churn out a by-the-numbers episode that could, frankly, have come from any US detective series you want to name. Well, except maybe The Wire.

This is about as close to rote as you can get in television writing – a search-and-replace exercise that could feel equally at home as an episode of Elementary (set in 2016) as an episode of Houdini & Doyle (set 116 years earlier). There’s absolutely nothing, beyond a poultice for a wound, that gives this any sense of place, or time. And that’s what’s killing this show.

When Hoselton says they took liberties he wasn’t kidding. He, and everyone involved in Houdini & Doyle, created a world so utterly devoid of its actual sense of place and time it might as well be set now. It’s not just the genuine factual liberties they take, and God alone knows you could fill a book with those, just three episodes in. No, it’s the creative liberties.

Houdini & Doyle are written as every mismatched detective duo you could think of, with a junior cop as a sidekick and a gruff boss behind a desk whose rules they keep on breaking.

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Even if you put them into the context in which the show exists, they’ve missed a trick. They’re in Victorian London. They’re debunking the supernatural. They’re two celebrities. They’re working with a woman in an extremely patriarchal society. Any or all of these should be enough to mark the show out as feeling different. But instead, they’re barely window dressing to what could be an episode of CSI, or NCIS, or Elementary.

In fact, that Elementary comparison’s the most apposite. Two amateur detectives, paired up with a relatively junior police officer, working as “consultants” to an at times reluctant police force. If it turned out Houdini had a pet tortoise in one episode you wouldn’t be hugely shocked.

Remember a few years ago, to great fanfare, the sitcom My Family said it was taking a US approach to comedy writing, putting together a writers room led by someone from Friends? It didn’t make a vast difference to anything, in the end, because the folk coming into the show were used to working in a certain way, with a certain format, and what you got was just a British sitcom that happened to have a few more writers on it.

That’s what this feels like. It feels like a US crime drama that just happens to have been filmed around Liverpool and Manchester rather than New York or Toronto pretending to be New York. Compare Houdini & Doyle with, say, Ripper Street – a show with a similar time frame, but an entirely different sensibility. Ripper Street sells its Victoriana, its sense of place and time. The two shows film in some of the same locations, but with Ripper Street it feels like a depiction of Victorian London. With Houdini & Doyle, it feels like Disneyland.

With “In Manus Dei” we have a murder mystery that could easily have been a CSI episode, with its delayed poisonings, its cyanide gas from stomach acid cliffhanger moment, it’s questionable science and it’s underplayed emotional B-plot. It’s clear now Houdini & Doyle’s never going to be more than, at best, an average procedural hung on a false gimmick – which, given that the real life relationship of the pair was far more interesting than what we’ve been served up, is the real crime here.

 

The Good:

  • The slapping joke.
  • That’s it. Oh, okay. Tim McInnerny does a nice line in gruff scowling, and that’s on display again.
  • Sorry, we’re done.

The Bad:

  • James Jandrisch’s score continues to grate. We appreciate there’s a stylistic choice at work here, to try and create a modern look and feel to the Victoriana on display. But the music is so wildly inappropriate it undermines the tone. The awful guitar playing under what’s supposed to be a hugely emotional scene, as Doyle prays for his wife’s return, sounds like a 13-year-old trying to tune up in his garage before rehearsing with his pals.

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  • Yes, we ragged on Mangan last week. And the episode before that. But he’s woefully miscast in Houdini & Doyle, and nowhere is that more exposed than in “In Manus Dei”. It’s a story that, at its core, revolves around his emotional response to something. But his dead-eyed, flat-voiced performance wrecks any scene he’s at the heart of. This is a man who’s had the love of his life (although, you know, let’s skip the historical inaccuracies there) brought back to him, then snatched away on the brink of him finding happiness again, yet from the way he sells the scene, and the one afterwards with Doyle’s daughter, you’d think he’d just been told the shop had run out of his favourite sweets. The frustrating thing is that Mangan can be great. Dirk Gently was divisive but the performance was engaging. Green Wing showed great comic timing and acting as a good straight man foil – something Doyle’s set up as to Houdini in this show. Perhaps it’s the scripts, perhaps the direction, or perhaps it’s just Mangan not feeling it, I don’t know. But he is a cast iron anchor in every scene he appears in so far, and it’s dragging the show backwards.

 

And the Random:

  • The duo of Melissa Byer and Treena Hancock are veterans of the US TV circuit, having worked as writers and producers on everything from Crossing Jordan to The Bionic Woman reboot with her out EastEnders. Most recently they were executive producers on the parent series of CSI. You’d never guess, would you.
  • Director Daniel O’Hara comes to Houdini & Doyle fresh off the Doctor Who series nine double bill of “Under The Lake” and “Before The Flood”. He was also a regular director on Being Human – including its final three episodes.

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  • If the hapless Mr Batch looks familiar, it’s because he’s played by Nicholas Burns – a familiar face on British telly over the last decade, but perhaps most famous for his roles in Benidorm and as the titular character in the Chris Morris/Charlie Brooker collaboration Nathan Barley.
  • While faith healing has been around for centuries, the style on display by Elias Downey seems to have more in common with Pentecostalism. Which causes a slight issue with the timing, given we’re still supposed to be in 1900 yet Pentecostalism wasn’t founded in the US until the next year. But, as I’m sure you all know by now, historical accuracy and Houdini & Doyle are barely on speaking terms anyway…

Review by Iain Hepburn. You can listen to his podcast at www.fromthesublime.com


 

Read our other Houdini & Doyle reviews

 

 

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