Doc On The Box – Jonathan Creek Series 5

And lo, there was much rejoicing, on this blog at least, as it was announced that there would be a new series of Jonathan Creek. One of the criticisms of the recent specials – The Grinning Man, The Judas Tree and The Clue Of The Savant’s Thumb – was that they were too long, so there was much hope for the return to the c. 60 minute episodes.

Jonathan Creek 5

And then the first episode was screened and the internet lit up with some extremely negative comments – the twitter stream for #JonathanCreek was negative to say the least. I’d planned to post episode by episode reviews as I did for Sherlock, but there was a lot to think about and I didn’t want to make a knee-jerk reaction. Well, now I’ve thought about it – here goes…

It was disappointing, certainly. But so was series three for the most part. And so was series four. I actually enjoyed the Joey Ross episodes a lot, as despite some odd sub-plots and sub-mysteries, there was a decent central mystery and a dark and creepy atmosphere. I had very high hopes for this series, but it was in many ways an entire different kettle of fish than what had gone before.

The set-up now has Jonathan, Alan Davies, and his wife Polly, Sarah Alexander, settling into village life as mysterious goings-on plague their friends and neighbours. Let’s take them episode by episode.

1. The Letters of Septimus Noone

An impossible stabbing of the lead actress in the West End musical adaptation of The Mystery Of The Yellow Room and some mysterious love letters to Polly’s mother from a mysterious admirer, Septimus Noone – oh and some magically vanishing ashes.

The inverted mystery, where we know all and watch the sleuth work it out, is an old idea – Columbo did it for years – and it’s actually a sensible choice structurally as there’s far too much for the viewer to work out. Think of all the information that would need to basically appear out of nowhere if we hadn’t been shown it in advance and you’ll see that if you had to use the plot, this is probably the only way to make it work. But the question is, why do it at all?

The idea of Jonathan settling into village life and dealing with the mysteries there is a decent one, so why drag him to the West End to solve a murder there, one which he didn’t really have that much involvement with. The Sherlock-spoof character is a good laugh the first time he shows up, but the joke wore thin quickly. None of the mysteries have much of a spark to them – the identity of Noone is one that I’ve seen before – and I was waiting for a twist that never came in the central case.

And huge points off for the spoilers to the plot of The Mystery Of The Yellow Room

2. The Sinner and The Sandman

A mysterious creature stalks the night, the village newsletter has almost psychic levels of knowledge and winning lottery numbers are found under several sheets of ancient wallpaper in the bedroom of a local mentalist.

An improvement over the previous episode – the lottery numbers requires huge levels of coincidence to work, but that’s not the first time that an impossible crime has required such things. I enjoyed the village newsletter story more, as the key to the lottery number was rather obvious, although the casting of John Bird as the writer of the newsletter was odd, given that he’s been in it before as a Detective Inspector. At the end of the day though, the mystery element disappoints due to the fact that there didn’t feel like a focus for the episode. And the less said about the Sandman plot, the better.

3. The Curse Of The Bronze Lamp

The wife of a junior minister is kidnapped, an antique watch materialises inside a locked room and Jonathan’s cleaner has a dead gigolo in the bath. And it has stuff all to do with the Carter Dickson story of the same title.

Much more along the lines of the previous series and easily the best of the three episodes. The basic idea was a little obvious, although the plot specifics were cleverly put together. The dead gigolo bit seemed like padding, although it was necessary for something to make the running time. The first third was very empty, but things picked up a lot for the last half or so. The main coincidence was that Jonathan got involved in the kidnapping plot at all – now that he’s not involved with any investigators, this was always going to be a problem. But the idea was simple enough to work – one could argue about the necessary weather to make it work, but that was set up earlier in the episode.

At the end of the day, I have to say that the series was disappointing. When you remember the highs of series one and series two, this is a different show – deliberately, it seems, but disappointingly so. There seemed to be an increased amount of One Foot In The Grave style humour, and without Adam Klaus (I miss him) around, this all lands squarely on Jonathan and Polly’s shoulders. And the atmosphere that used to haunt this show seems to have gone. In the three episodes, there was no real villain, just a collision of circumstances to produce mysteries that were basically just puzzles.

But the most damning thing I can say about the series – I forgot that it was on by the time episode three came around and had to catch it on the iPlayer this morning. At the end of the day, it was still perfectly watchable – more enjoyable that a lot of things on television. But it’s not the series that it used to be – by choice now, it seems, and it’s going to take some getting used to. If the series does return, let’s hope the darkness that it used to have comes with it.

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
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14 Responses to Doc On The Box – Jonathan Creek Series 5

  1. I have yet to watch the final two just due to pressure of work rather than any waning desire but very glad to hear it picked up – maybe this evening … Like you, I applaud the way that Renwick has embraced change but it was would be nice if (pun intended) he could get some of the old magic back – maybe an episode in which Adam Klaus takes part in a celebrity big brother and becomes the prime suspect in a murder under constant surveillance and Jonathan is handling the PR or … point is, the new set up can definitely work – let;s hope Renwick (and the BBC) want to!

  2. PS really excited to see you delving into the world of Matt Scudder – can more hardboiled devilry be far behind?

  3. david gideon says:

    I agree that the third ep was easily the best, but even so, the explanation for the central puzzle seems to defy the laws of physics; I don’t think the weather as depicted is enough. In ep 1 I guessed the identity of Septimus Noone as soon as the title appeared (I suspect like you I may have seen that before somewhere though I can’t put my finger on it) and once that clicked I spotted almost all of the other similar tricks in the episode instantly as I couldn’t help but look for them. The thing involving a disappearing halo on an old clipping seemed to have an unguessable explanation as I don’t think the key clue was even shown to the viewer. Though I might have been distracted and missed it. I had trouble staying awake during ep 1.

    • I forgot about the halo thing, it was so inconsequential. And yes – and how the heck was the pair of tights connected to the other thing (being vague for spoilers)?

      I heard the Noone thing in the relatively recent Doctor Who audio A Death In The Family, but I doubt that’s the only place it’s occurred.

    • richmcd says:

      Sigh. I was hoping to pretend this latest series didn’t exist, but all these hints about a weather-based solution are so intriguing I have to at least watch the third episode.

      • richmcd says:

        Okay. Well it was obvious from within the first ten seconds, but that’s not a problem. It’s an interesting set up. I’m not sure it stretches the laws of physics in an upsetting way. (Laws of acceptable coincidence in a story, maybe…) It’s certainly not as bad in that regard as The Grinning Man, which was a truly lovely idea ruined by the fact that a moment’s thought about how water and people work shows that it just wouldn’t be possible in real life.

        The real problem with the episode is that it’s just not very interesting, atmospheric or funny.

        Maybe if Renwick just concentrated on presenting one mystery in a straightforward way, but trying to stick all these tiny plots together just doesn’t work. June Whitfield and John Bird tried their best, but it’s pretty weak sauce.

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    Series 1 and 2 were excellent. After that, the quality started declining and it seems to have reached the nadir in series 5.

  5. Dave says:

    I agree it felt very like One Foot in places. Almost ridiculously so. The third one was the best and I love the show as a whole but these three were disappointing, yes. Shame, as Renwick is such a genius, really.

    • richmcd says:

      A theory: Incredible coincidence can work if we’re allowed to watch the contrived situation as it unfolds, building up to ludicrous or unexpected finale (e.g. One Foot, basically any heavily constructed farce). But if you reverse it, and begin with the finale and genuinely ask the audience to decipher “how on earth did we get here?”, then the whole thing breaks down (New Creek). Working out strange or obsessive motivations for one or more villains is one thing, but reverse engineering a cosmic Rube Goldberg machine is no fun.

      “The infernal cussedness of things”, as H.M. would have it, can certainly be a rich vein of comedy. But it’s not a rich vein of interesting mysteries (or, more accurately, of interesting mystery solutions). Coincidence in mystery needs to be offset by something – a particularly good setup, a particularly clever villain etc. Renwick seems to be under the mistaken impression that “Huh. Yes. That would be particularly weird if all that happened” is a sufficient and desirable audience reaction.

  6. Al says:

    I am a lover of classic mysteries like yourself and I just discovered your blog. I also loved watching the first 4 seasons of Jonathan Creek on BBCAmerica when they aired several years ago. By reading this blog post, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that this new Series 5 was made and has been shown to the public. I live on the East Coast of the USA. Does anyone who follows this blog know how I can see these new episodes? I looked at BBC America’s schedule and it is not listed as airing anytime soon. Any ideas would be appreciated. Thank you.
    Al

    • A trawl through the internet has found no information on BBC America showing it. But if you’re a fan of the first four series… then don’t expect too much from this series. It is generally regarded as not being great…

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