Houdini & Doyle S01E09 “Necromanteion” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on ITV Encore, Thursdays at 9pm
Writers: Melissa Byer, Treena Hancock
Director: Jeff Renfroe
Essential plot points:
- At Falcroft Manor in Canada, Clara Reid awakes to find her husband stabbed to death and pinned to the wall via three swords. She tells the police that a poltergeist that haunts the house which was responsible, but they believe she did it and arrest her.
- Doyle and a seasick Stratton are accompanying Houdini on his trip across the Atlantic – having been contacted by a psychic investigator to look into the Reid case. The man Stratton wants to speak to about her husband’s murder is ignoring her messages, while Houdini continues to say goodbye to his late mother in the cargo hold.
- He takes her body back to New York for a Jewish burial, where he confronts his brother, saying she would not have wanted the service and mourning, although his brother says he wants to honour her memory.
- Doyle and Stratton speak to Mrs Reid, who has seen the poltergeist before; she says it pinned her to the bed when she awoke one night, although Doyle recognises this as sleep paralysis. It emerges the Reids recently lost their newborn son – and that her husband had struck her before, in public. But Mrs Reid remains convinced it was a poltergeist.
- At Falcroft, Doyle and Stratton meet the others helping look into the case: empath Milly Pasternack; Roland Carson, who asked them to look into his friend’s case; and “celebrity” inventor Thomas Edison, who claims with assistant Mavari to have created a device for communicating with the dead.
- The Reids’ home had a history of violence, with the previous residents – the Turners – having been killed in a murder–suicide by the father 10 years previously.
- Edison reveals his Necrophone, saying he made contact with the dead through it once. Pasternack questions how wise making the device is, claiming it could be abused, but Edison thinks her scepticism is because it will put mediums out of business.
- That night Edison tries out the Necrophone. At the same time, Pasternack sees a vision of Mr Turner in the mirror, and objects begin falling from shelves in the room, while a bible on the table mysteriously flips through to a page. They check the Necrophone, but Houdini arrives and reveals that he mocked up all spiritual intervention up to prove the machine’s a fake.
- He shows Adelaide a newspaper he found on the train, which reveals that Walbridge’s – the store she needs to visit for a clue about her husband’s death – has closed. Houdini says he spoke to the realtor and got a forwarding address for Walbridge so she can telegram him to set up a meeting.
- Adelaide has a nightmare that her husband is contacting her via the Necrophone, telling her to leave the case alone – then awakes to find a chair in her room mysteriously moving across the floor by itself. Houdini and Doyle also witness it but, on investigating, can’t find any cause. They check the Necrophone, and hear a voice directing them to the nearby cliffs – where they find the body of Edison’s assistant.
- Doyle finds unusual scratches and wounds on Avari’s body, and odd soil on his shoes. He wants to use the Necrophone to contact Avari and find out who murdered him, but Houdini insists the device doesn’t work and was tampered with to send them a message.
- Doyle believes Houdini wants to use the device to contact his mother, and likens it to his own interest for communicating with Touie, but Houdini points out Doyle’s wife remains alive, and he should not give up hope on her recovery.
- Houdini questions Edison over whether the scientist killed his own assistant to cover up the fact the Necrophone doesn’t work, but Edison reveals he created it because he wants to contact his own mother, who died before he found success – not because he wants to become rich off of it. Suddenly the machine comes to life – and a shaken Houdini hears his mother speaking his real name, Eric.
- Adelaide visits him in his room, where he dismisses the voice as the power of suggestion. He works out she hasn’t sent a telegram yet to Walbridge because she doesn’t want to know the real truth about her husband. She comforts Houdini over the death of his mother and the two kiss – before being interrupted by Doyle.
- He’s worked out where the soil on Avari’s shoe came from – the basement of the house. They investigate, and discover a hidden room containing a giant electromagnet used to move Adelaide’s chair – and a puddle of blood where Avari had been killed. They also find the grave of the Reid’s late son, with fresh flowers on it. On exhuming him, Doyle discovers the child had been beaten to death.
- They question Mrs Reid again, who admits her husband had beaten her after finding a love letter revealing her affair – and that he had killed the child in rage afterwards.
- Back at the house, they stage a seance using the Necrophone, which produces a voice urging Carson to admit his guilt – which he confesses to, although Houdini reveals he set the stunt up. Then the machine bursts into life again and all manner of voices are heard – including Houdini’s mother. Fearing it’s allowing the dead to break through to the real world, Edison destroys the machine.
- After speaking to Doyle and urging him to have faith in Touie’s recovery, Houdini finally mourns his mother by her grave, thinking he sees a vision of her in the process.
- Adelaide receives a telegram from Walbridge looking to meet her – but when she arrives, she finds her late husband waiting for her. He claims he faked his death to protect her from the anarchist group, and will return to her once he’s finished investigating them – but warns her to drop it or the group will kill her too.
Nine episodes. That’s how long it’s taken for Houdini & Doyle to land an episode that feels like a genuine, must-see piece of television. Nine episodes into a ten episode run.
Talk about communicating with the dead…
The fruits of the hydra-esque co-production deal that puts Houdini & Doyle on our screens are finally reaped as the show transplants setting, and location, across the Atlantic to pitch up in Canada. For eight weeks the show has felt like a US/Canadian procedural uncomfortably dropped onto British shores, like that Murder She Wrote where it’s always foggy in London.
Now we’re in Ontario, and it’s like the show has come home – an irony given the show is largely filmed in and aboot Manchester. As with last week, we’re in celebrity historical territory, with a version of Thomas Alva Edison drawn largely from the public perception of the inventor rather than the truth.
It’s also neatly timed, given the increased publicity around Edison’s planned necrophone which came out last year thanks to a French translation of Edison’s diaries. Applying scientific rigour to the process of contacting the afterlife was something that had intrigued and motivated the pioneering inventor, creating a thread of scientific clairaudiency which exists in popular fiction today, showing up in everything from White Noise to Doctor Who’s series eight finale.
There’s a remarkable sense of confidence about the episode – as if being freed from the Disneyland London that the previous stories have largely been set in has taken the handcuffs off the writers. Everything feels more polished and accomplished – there’s a strong A-plot, albeit a traditional procedural one, and the B-plot around Adelaide and her husband feels like it’s genuinely going somewhere now.
There are also some strong performances right across the board. Weston, Mangan and Liddiard all get moments to shine and they all genuinely do. Mangan especially lands in the episode, which finally gives Doyle both some proper investigating to do, and a focus for his interest in the afterlife – something that, given his wife isn’t dead, has felt spuriously tacked on and Mulder-ish at times.
Tonally it feels right too. Dark, grizzly, with a nice vein in humour and emotion for the characters, mixing scepticism with a faint hint of the genuinely supernatural. It feels like a Victorian X-Files episode, which is exactly what Houdini & Doyle needs to be to sell its premise.
In fact, this almost feels like a soft reboot of the show, shifting the location and the tone, and by doing so injecting a much needed sense of drama into the format. The characters have all undergone a slight shift, the relationship between the three feels genuinely well defined… yes, there’s still some clunking infodumps, but it feels like the first time the “formula” of the show lights up like one of Edison’s lightbulbs.
In last week’s review we made a joke about the show invoking a sense of Stockholm Syndrome, wherein viewers were starting to sympathise with it, if not actively enjoy it. Thankfully, this isn’t such an instance – after a season so patchy you could use it as a quilt, it’s finally reached a point of genuine entertainment. Shame it’s taken so long to get there.
- The location filming in Ontario brings a much-needed new look and sense of place to the episode. That’s not to say the previous stories have been bad, but there’s only so many times the Northern Quarter’s Dale St can be redressed before it gets a bit obvious…
- For once, the grinding historical inaccuracies are balanced by some genuine reality – in this case, Houdini’s comment about Tesla still being owed his $50,000.
- Renfroe directs the episode like a gothic horror, with lots of nice visual tricks in the flashback scenes and lingering glimpses of blood and blades.
- The one thing that’s missing from the episode, and perhaps needed, is that we don’t actually know why Doyle and Adelaide are going to investigate the Canadian case. Houdini’s going to bury his mother, and last week told Adelaide he’d take her to America to track down the clue about her husband – but this random case appears to have come out of nowhere, purely as an excuse to drag Doyle along across the Atlantic.
And the Random:
- Horror director Jeff Renfroe takes the helm for the final two episodes of Houdini & Doyle. He directed the surprisingly watchable and quirky The Colony, with Charlie Brooker lookalike Lawrence Fishburne, along with a bunch of TV shows including the US remake of Being Human, the reboot of Beauty And The Beast, and Helix, but let’s not hold that against him.
- Houdini and his wife Bess (the one the show pretends doesn’t exist) were genuinely interested with the idea of communicating with the dead – mainly to avoid fraudulent mediums claiming they’d made contact with him after his death. To this end, he and Bess set up a secret code, made of ten words picked from a letter sent by Conan Doyle, with the idea being that should Houdini genuinely be able to reach out from the afterlife, he would use the code to prove his identity. They offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could produce an authentic message – which medium Arthur Ford claimed to produce three years after the escapologist’s death, with a message from Houdini’s late mother chucked in at the same time. At the time Bess claimed he’d got it right, but was also ill and drinking heavily. She retracted her claim shortly afterwards, with evidence published later appearing to show the whole thing had been faked by Ford. A seance to contact Houdini has been held every year, initially by Bess, then by Houdini’s friend Walter Gibson, and nowadays at the Houdini Museum in Pennsylvania.
- Thomas Edison did indeed conceive of the Necrophone, a device for contacting and hearing the voices of the dead, although it wasn’t until 1920 when he claimed to be working on the idea. His thinking behind it was to bring scientific rigour to the world of ouija boards and mediums, telling Scientific American magazine: “I believe that if we are to make any real progress in psychic investigation we must do it with scientific apparatus and in a scientific manner, just as we do in medicine, electricity, chemistry, and other fields.” A French translation of his diaries published in 1949 revealed he was looking to his phonogram as a basis and, like Houdini and Bess, had made an arrangement with a friend for a message one would pass on to the other from the afterlife if either died first.
Review by Iain Hepburn. You can listen to his podcast at www.fromthesublime.com