My Murdoch Mysteries post generated a lot of comments. One asked how Americans can see the series and the answer is you can’t.
Another referred to a post on Iden Ford’s blog that the Murdoch story room was influenced by the British series, Life on Mars. (For the uninitiated, Iden Ford is married to Maureen Jennings who wrote the Murdoch Mystery novels, upon which the tv series is based.)
I’ve watched Life on Mars, read the pilot scripts for both the original British and the proposed American series and written about Life on Mars in this space. And I didn’t see a strong ressemblance.
But I did see an opportunity to talk about some of the research that underlies series development. So I asked Cal Coons, who show ran Murdoch Mysteries this season and who helped develop the novels into movies of the week, what his influences on Murdoch were.
Here’s what Cal had to say:
We loved Life on Mars. It was, without a doubt, a major influence on us when we were writing the show. But it was by no means the only show that was a resource or influence.
We were interested in the idea of a man being ahead of his time and the effect that would have on his co-workers. To that end, I watched a lot of television series that I remembered having a similar premise and feel — shows like Wild Wild West, Night Stalker and The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr, for example. As well, I watched a number of movies — First Men in the Moon, The Time Machine, Van Hellsing, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — the list goes on and on.
All feature a central character who is looked upon with skepticism due to his wide and wild outlook on life. This character usually has an assistant of some sort — sometimes several. These characters are really archetypes traditional characters that have been used in telling stories throughout history. The trick is always to give them a fresh twist. If anyone is interested in how these are used in writing for television and movies, I suggest you read Vogel’s “The Writer’s Journey” or any of Joseph Campbell‘s writings (these books have had a big influence on how I structure my scripts).
Another common theme I looked at was the tone of these shows– a blend of serious, adventurous and humourous, something I felt would work well in Murdoch. Again, numerous examples cited above. This “tone” is what Iden Ford was referring to in his blog. (To be clear, Iden was not a member of our writing staff and was not privy to our work.)
The truth is that the Murdoch characters predate Life on Mars — both the movies of the weeks and the books. Inspector Brackenreid, the gruff boss, and Constable Crabtree, the simplistic side kick, always existed. Dr Ogden was a very tiny character mentioned in one book who we grew into a character for the purposes of the show. But their dynamics were well established by the time we started to develop the series.
This particular trio of supporting characters is time honoured. The gruff boss is a staple of cop/genre shows from Starsky and Hutch to Night Stalker. The inept assistant is equally plentiful — I specifically watched a lot of old Banacek because I loved the dynamic between the super sleuth hero and his chauffeur who was continually wrong about the crimes. The brainy love interest/scientist is nothing new either.
Instead, if you watch Life on Mars, you will realize that it takes classic stereotypes of the police genre and freshening them up by putting them in a new situation — and they do it brilliantly. And I looked at that, admired it and said we should try to be as good as this.
What we did when we developed the show was to make Murdoch a man of the future, a polymath who is exploring the boundaries between science and policing. He is ahead of his time. In doing so, we thought how would people react to a man that was advanced beyond them. We worked very hard to craft Murdoch. We did a lot of homework and were influenced by great — and even not so great — sources.
Thanks to Cal for giving us a glimpse of his development process and influences. Cal has had a tremendous influence on me personally, how I write, how I think about story and character and how I shape a story so it’s great to be able to bring his word directly to you.
You can also catch his act on CITY-TV Thursday nights at 10 via Murdoch Mysteries.