Friday, August 26, 2016

"The Doctor Blake Mysteries"

My Aussie friends in Melbourne and Adelaide would probably chortle at my recent obsession with the TV mystery series The Doctor Blake Mysteries, set in Ballarat, Victoria, and produced there. The Public Broadcasting System has made a smart move by importing this series (and another, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries) from Australia. They definitely spice up the programming schedule of my local PBS TV station.

It doesn't bother me that none of the actors are familiar names or faces. Or that the series is set in the late 1950's. I love that it's a "period" piece, set in a time long before personal computers, cell phones, and blockbuster anything. These mysteries pit a doctor, a "police surgeon," against the murderer and his or her methods, flaws, mistakes, and pain. The police help or hinder depending on who's in charge -- there's been one Chief Superintendent whose handsomeness hid a black heart -- and always provide the authority Dr. Lucien Blake requires to catch the villain. These mysteries proceed quietly, slowly, penetrating the social strata of Ballarat and the surrounding area with some of the most haunting music you will hear on television.

Dr. Blake, the son of a beloved doctor in Ballarat, returns after years spent abroad. His background story seeps through each mystery episode, revealing his flaws and his pain, as well as his character as a person. He takes up residence in his father's house and office, and asks his father's housekeeper, Mrs. Jean Beazley, to stay and work for him. He takes in a district nurse as well as a young police constable or two as boarders. His medical practice would be that of a general practitioner at the time, supplemented by his work with the police. The nature of the show, of course, means that it actually seems like his police work is his major practice.

Craig MacLachlan, as Blake, brings a real presence to the role, a thoughtfulness as well as a kind of reckless drive to solve each mystery. I love that the medical forensics are so early in their development and use -- no DNA profiling here. We learn that a suspect can have the same blood type as that found on a murder weapon or at the murder scene. Poison seems to be a preferred method of murder in Australia, however, in stark contrast to what would be preferred in America, i.e. shooting with guns. Psychology is also in use by the police and Blake, although they don't ascribe to its use. They depend on their knowledge of and experience with human behavior. And so far, the writing has been original and imaginative, giving the actors opportunities to develop their characters as well as making interesting, sometimes twisty, stories.

Two subplots have been threading their way through all the stories, at least so far. One is the politics of the police in Victoria, and how Blake's work with Ballarat's police has shone too bright a spotlight from Melbourne on them. At times, it looks as if Blake will lose his job. At other times, it looks like he could end up in prison. How this subplot plays out is just as suspenseful as each of the mysteries, as complicated, and as full of nastiness as you can imagine. It makes office politics look tame.

The second subplot involves Blake and his housekeeper, Jean Beazley. Over time, the two actors do a masterful job of showing the gradual romantic attraction growing between these two characters. It has been fascinating to watch their reservation, their restraint, the way the social norms of the time govern their behavior, and so on. They are both middle-aged with grown children, and this is especially refreshing to see. They have problems, pain in their pasts, and have each lost a spouse in war. Will they get together?

Jean and Lucien (Not what it looks like)

What's been especially fascinating to me has been seeing Australian culture and a moment in Australian history after World War Two. They were an ally of the Americans in the Pacific Theater and have their own war stories to tell. I grew up hearing mostly about the European Theater of that war despite my father's service in New Guinea which he rarely talked about and then not in detail. Australia had its own struggle with Communism and prejudices, corruption and vice. I feel like with each episode I'm experiencing this time in Australia through these characters and their stories.

I'm almost finished with the fourth season and have been excited to learn that there will be a fifth. If you're looking for something different and you love mysteries, request (demand) your local PBS station to air it (if they aren't already)!

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