The Marvels of Murdoch Mysteries: Characters, History, Science, and Faith

2:49 PM

I do not watch much television. I have a few favorites like The Daily Show. I watch news. I am not heavily invested in television series. Nonetheless, I love Murdoch Mysteries. I got into it when I spent some time in Canada last year. Subsequently, Mom DVRs it each week on the local PBS station, and we have watched other seasons borrowed from the public library.

Murdoch Mysteries is a Canadian television drama series aired on both City and CBC Television, titled The Artful Detective on the Ovation cable TV network, featuring Yannick Bisson as Detective William Murdoch, a police detective working in Toronto, Ontario, around the turn of the twentieth century. Murdoch Mysteries was initially adapted for television from Maureen Jennings’s popular Detective Murdoch series of novels as three made-for-TV films broadcast in Canada in 2004 and 2005. The series first premiered in Canada in January 2008.

Detective Murdoch is conspicuously Catholic. As he arrives at the scene of each homicide, he makes a devout Sign of the Cross. Early episodes show the tension around his being a "Papist," and the discrimination faced by Catholics in "Protestant" Toronto. In fact, he was denied a promotion in the constabulary owing to his Catholic faith. In another episode, we met his parish priest, who fostered his love of learning. We know that he was educated by Jesuits. His sister, as revealed in one episode, is a nun. His relationship with Dr. Julia Ogden (played by Hélène Joy) has been frustrated, at times, by some of his Catholic convictions. And, yet, in other ways, over the seasons, we see less of how his Catholicism shapes him in a daily way.

Across the board, the cast is strong. Murdoch and Dr. Ogden are accompanied by other well-developed characters. I particularly enjoy Constable George Crabtree (Jonny Harris, a comedian by profession), Murdoch’s eager but sometimes naïve right-hand man. Crabtree has a habit for speculating how technology might be adapted for use in the future. He also has a very complicated family tree. Inspector Brackenreid (Thomas Craig), Murdoch’s fiery boss, emerges as a warmer figure. Coroner Dr. Emily Grace (Georgina Reilly) fills a vital role as Dr. Ogden’s protégé, Crabtree's beloved, portrayed with verve and enthusiasm.

A period police drama, Murdoch is a pioneer in criminal investigation, employing new methods like "finger marks." In fact, new technology frequently appears as the episodes involve encounters with figures from the Age of Invention: Alexander Graham Bell, Nikola Tesla, and Henry Ford. Other historical figures like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Winston Churchill, Jack London, Buffalo Bill Cody, Harry Houdini, H.G. Wells, and Mark Twain (played by special guest star William Shatner) make appearances. Also, then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper played a desk sergeant in one episode.

The Age of Invention lends itself to a demanding task for the show's props department. The Globe and Mail noted in a 2012 article:

The props department on the set of the TV series Murdoch Mysteries is a busy place: In the fifth season, property master Craig Grant stuck a recumbent bike inside a Thule cargo carrier to create a purely fictional electric car. This season he turned an ultra-light plane into something the Wright brothers might have flown, recreated the first fountain pens that used refillable cartridges and built an early version of a metal detector.

Murdoch Mysteries, as a Canadian program, has a different vantage of their neighbor to the south than most U.S. programs. The program can be more critical of decisions, historical and contemporary, in the script. Watching Murdoch is fascinating for what it teaches of Canadian history as well. Our neighbor to the north had a slightly different journey than the U.S., and it is worth knowing better.

Returning to the questions of faith (and I must confess that I have not seen any of season 9), Murdoch's character has evolved over the seasons. He has had to embrace greater ambiguity in his life. As Murdoch has invested more of himself into science and learning, we see less to suggest how he relates his experience and learning to his faith in the middle seasons. I believe that there is rich material to be unearthed. I'd love to see a plot where young Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. visits Toronto, long before his great discoveries. Or Fr. John Zahm, C.S.C. could serve as a precursor. Such a plot could allow for a greater conversation that digs deep into the question of how scientific inquiry and faith in God are compatible in Murdoch's life. Many of the great physicists are, in their own way, mystics.

If you have not seen Murdoch Mysteries, take some time to see it. You may just get hooked on it, like me.

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