So Winston Churchill, Emma Goldman, and Alexander Graham Bell walk into a bar…
Murdoch Mysteries isn’t quite as over the top as that, but it’s still basically what you get. Substitute Benjamin Franklin, Betsy Ross, and Pandora and you’d have Sleepy Hollow, which actually is that over the top. They’re examples of the nearly endless narrative possibilities that open up when you use historical characters as part of your source material for fictitious stories. There’s always an element of cleverness when you turn something familiar into something slightly new, use it differently or find a fresh angle. Bringing in characters the audience already knows in another context uses the interaction between the image already in the viewer’s head and the script to create humour and meaning. The fact historical figures are usually portrayed very seriously is icing on the cake.
Murdoch Mysteries is an entertainingly nerdy twist on period drama set in Toronto at the turn of the 20th century. Detective Murdoch is a Man of Science, who creates all manner of inventions ahead of his time and interacts with a wide variety of historical figures over the course of his investigations. There’s a slightly steampunk quality to it in the combination of the late Victorian setting with Murdoch’s technological creations and a thread of social commentary that verges on anachronistic.
The conceit with the character cameos is that they are showing moments in the lives of famous historical figures that would never be recorded in history books because they were of no major significance. They call in Arthur Conan Doyle to consult on a case that involves a man who believes himself to be Sherlock Holmes. When Winston Churchill wakes up in a hotel room with a dead man and no memory of what happened, they help him reconstruct the events of an evening during which it turns out he insulted both the Toronto temperance league and a bar full of Irishmen. Constable Crabtree helps Annie Taylor, the 63 year old woman who was the first person to survive the trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel, recover her barrel when it’s stolen as part of a fraternity prank along with the coroner’s model skeleton and one of the other coppers’ hats.
Sleepy Hollow takes a different approach, weaving Washington Irving’s story together with a modern apocalyptic fantasy. Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman rise from the grave in current day Sleepy Hollow and continue their part in a battle between the legions of heaven and hell for dominion over the earth. The conceit is that the Masons were actually a society with a secret supernatural mission to defend against the powers of Hell, so naturally none of the stories Ichabod has to tell about them would be a matter of public record. Betsy Ross was a kick ass secret agent, Benjamin Franklin’s experiment with the key and the kite was actually an attempt to destroy a key to Purgatory, and George Washington was briefly resurrected from the dead in 1799 to make a map of it. With time travel, witches, demons, and the Sandman, what’s a little liberty here and there with American history?
Both shows rely heavily on anachronism but they use it quite differently. Sleepy Hollow transposes characters from the past into the present day and allows them to provide running commentary for the benefit of the audience. Ichabod Crane is a literal anachronism. He’s experiencing the immediate juxtaposition of the founding of America with the reality of present day America, which allows for some snappy criticism of how far some of the current policies and values are from the ideals the country was grounded on. Also watching him learn to use a cell phone is an ongoing source of entertainment. One of the most fantastic examples, though, is when Ichabod and Abbie visit the Colonial Times Restaurant in search of a secret message hidden in the lining of Betsy Ross’ satchel. Ichabod is appalled by the kitschy décor (including a giant Benjamin Franklin bobblehead), menu (“Eggs Benedict Arnold? For shame. For shame!”) and multitude of inaccuracies (he loses his temper and adjusts the host’s tricorn hat: “The corner goes at the front! You’re not a pirate.”)
The anachronism in Murdoch exists in the tongue in cheek awareness of the time period the viewer comes from. It uses the audience’s awareness of the 20th century to create humour as the characters, unaware of what the future holds, make predictions and come up with innovations. Murdoch invents a number of things, such as curling shoes and bicycle gears, but it’s established that he is busy being a detective and unwilling to attempt to patent them, which explains why he’s not on record as their inventor. Faced with an early motorcycle, he speculates on the improbability of “a world full of mechanized vehicles like this – the fumes alone, let alone the roads needed to carry them…” and Constable George Crabtree ruminates with Officer Henry Higgins on the possible evolution of wireless telegraphy:
GC: We just received this telegraph from a ship! […]
HH: George, I’ve heard of wireless telegraphy.
GC: Well, Henry, how can you be so completely lacking in awe? We’re no longer constrained by wires now! We can send messages over electromagnetic waves that spread in all directions.
HH: So doesn’t that mean that everybody can receive everyone else’s messages?
GC: Well, perhaps that’s true, but that might be a good thing. I might have something to say that I want the whole world to hear.
HH: Yes, yes. You and everyone else, George. Just think of all the birds outside your window tweeting at once.
GC: I think the word is twittering, Henry. But you might be right. This doesn’t portend well.
The nod and wink to the modern day isn’t limited to technology. Crabtree introduces his sweetheart, Dr. Grace, to culinary trends like Coney Island hot dogs, pizza slices sold off of a street vendor’s hat in Cabbagetown, and hot hamburger served between two slices of bread as a portable meal. He’s also drawn to supernatural explanations for mysterious happenings, for instance when adventurer and deep cave explorer Elva Gordon gives a speech on the Hollow Earth theory and he becomes convinced that a series of underground robberies are actually being committed by a species of mole people tunneling up from the hollow core of the planet to steal diamonds.
One of the most overtly layered episodes, though, is one where inventor James Pendrick decides to shoot a motion picture where the main character is Detective Murdoch. Pendrick gives Murdoch a chance at playing himself, but he’s too preoccupied with accuracy so Crabtree ends up replacing him with suitable dramatic flair. The initial title of the picture is “The Filmed Adventures of Detective William Murdoch,” but Crabtree finds that a mouthful and suggests it be shortened to a catchier title, like “The Murdoch Mysteries.” Murdoch is skeptical that it will succeed:
WM: Murder, crime as entertainment?
JP: We have mystery novels. I’m simply trying to create a visual narrative.
WM: Yes, I understand that but… filmed depravity is something completely different.
JP: See, I’m willing to bet that you’re wrong. I believe that The Filmed Adventures of Detective William Murdoch will play to standing-room-only crowds from coast to coast. Moving pictures are this century’s predominant form of entertainment […]
WM: I highly doubt that. But I wish you luck.
Despite being subtly insulted for enjoying the show by the main character himself, I do really enjoy it. In fact, possibly I enjoy it precisely because it’s the kind of show where I’m drawn into the narrative that directly. I find I’m entertained as much by present day characters telling silly stories about famous people from the past as by watching characters from the past make silly jokes about things that I know will happen in their future. I wonder if we’ll ever find out what would happen if Winston Churchill, Emma Goldman and Alexander Graham Bell walk into a bar?
alex MacFadyen wants to know how many Horsemen of the Apocalypse it takes to change a lightbulb?