February 6, 2008 Jill

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.

Comments (12)

  1. debi marquis

    I’m loving the show, as are my husband and my father. (and THAT is a minor miracle!) Great work.

  2. Donna

    I love the show, and at first, I wasn’t so sure, however, the episode, I watched on Sat 17 Feb 07 the supernatural of sorts, I noticed that the actors seemed a little more relaxed. then again with any new show it does take time.

  3. Honey Lace

    Love the show:I hope you all stay on the air for many years to come. How much I enjoy that this is like our own Sherlock Holmes right here in Canada and the craftiness of the plots.A.C.D would be proud I know I am loving it all…..oh a nemiess would be great like a stalker or such of some sort……

  4. Paul Keeble

    I watch ‘Murdoch’ in the UK on Tuesday nights on UKTV Drama. It is brilliant. I like the idea of it being set in late 19th Century Canada and seeing the resemblance to British symbols, etc. Great viewing. I hope there will be more.

  5. admin

    There will indeed be more Murdoch. Murdoch Mysteries was picked up for a second season and is in pre-production right now.

  6. Linda Mooradian

    I look forward to this show every week now. After the stale reality shows and medical dramas left to choose from Murdoch Mysteries is very refreshing. Certainly hope there is more to come – didn’t realize would not be on this evening because putting a show like America’s Smartest Model on in place of Murdock is just plain ridiculous.

  7. eric butchereit

    the last couple of weeks, the show was not seen at 10pm on thursday, has the show gone on hiatus for the summer.——————————————- I have become a great fan of the show, not being a great fan of canadian tv. i have mostly found it boring over the years. i’m 46 yeaars of age.not to say i love –u s a tv. i love a show that can hold my interest. i love shows like columbo,banacek,dallas, bonaza,smallville,stargate sg1. I just can’t stand watching all this REALITY CRAP, it so sad that the networks don’t have any imagination. ( i love the show )i wish you all the success and that we the people will enjoy this show for years to come, maybe to become the longest running show in canada. E.R.B

  8. Sheila Gibbs

    I watched the series before when it had a different star ( the fellow who has been on ReGenesis) and really like the present actor much better. The relationship between the main characters is fun to watch, the plots are different and the Canadian setting is a delight. It’s wonderful to hear references to Canadian places and to get away from the endless and mindless reality shows. I too hope this series is renewed for many years to come. Congratulations to the actors, writers, producers and crew. It’s a real treat to watch.

  9. pat

    Good subject for an interview, Jill; thanks for thinking of it.
    Hope MM does turn up in the USA sometime-but only if it appears as a Mystery series on PBS. Anything more mainstream would eventually influence the degree of violence depicted, I bet. And we can’t have that! Setting it in generally law-abiding, respectable Canada is a big part of its charm.

  10. Cassandra

    Hi, my name is Cassandra, I’m 15 years old and I love Murdoch Mysteries! It’s always the highlight of my week! I first heard about the show when I was looking up the actor that plays the main character. Then when I saw that the show was on my tv guide I decided to give it a try. That’s when I fell inlove with the show. I enjoy all the romantic stuff between the Detective and the Doctor! I will hopfully someday get my hands on the Dvds, and I am looking forward to the 3 season! Thankyou for creating this show!!

  11. Pat

    Just wanted to say that here it is nearly November ’09 and I am so hard up for new Murdoch Mysteries that I am now reading Maureen Jennings’ books! Our local library has half a dozen different titles and they’re very popular. Reading them makes me appreciate how important the historical details are and how well the actors perform on TV.
    One word of caution to the producers: don’t mess with success; you’re doing fine!

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