2. Conversations with the Dead
Boucher announces his clever premise – and it is a clever premise – with a bit too much gusto here, as Spring has to ask Theroux to explain himself when he announces a murder investigation into two still living crew of a freighter that has plunged off course; they have limited life support and no fuel left to correct course, so they are “technically dead”. The conclusion isn’t quite so satisfying for either this case or the demise of Nathan’s girlfriend, but in general Conversations with the Dead improves on the opener through being attend to the investigation(s) rather than establishing the scene.
With the “dead” freighter crew investigation, there’s a similar problem to the guilty party in the opener in as much as once the main suspect enters the scene there’s no doubting its him. There’s a potentially dodgy Scotsman about (Sean Scanlan who, appropriately enough, has appeared in Rab C Nesbitt), but he reeks of deep-fried red herring and is dispensed with as a possible post-haste.
The move to the Moonbase (at Spring’s zero G-sick behest) is welcome from the point of view of limiting unwieldy and pace-destroying weightless scenes (the opening with Calder doing a bit of business is excruciatingly unconvincing) but it further underlines the stereotype-heavy nature of Boucher’s vision of the future. I mentioned Troughton era Doctor Who, and this really wouldn’t be out of place with a Frenchman wearing a neck scarf and beret talking about garlic.
Spring: I’ve just been hearing about your giant leap for space mankind. Congratulations.
With Spring on Earth due to the death of Lee, David does the legwork looking into the freighter’s misdirection (it’s unsubtly called the Daedalus), and unearths that the crew were a couple (against policy). Dr Paton (Alan Downer) shows up, announcing there’s some handy experimental cryogenics equipment on board (ostensibly bound for Mars) and this might be the solution to the crew’s terminal difficulties (using the ship’s air supply to course redirect; quite nifty logic, there). The problem is, Boucher’s unable to disguise how obvious this ploy is as soon as he lays it out for David.
Spring: It would save an awful lot of unpleasantness if you informed us of any journeys you intend making – in the next eight years or so.
We later learn that Paton was refused a licence for human experimentation so arranged the little mishap (“a melancholy way to test my equipment”), knowing “there will be a place in history waiting for the man who is successful in this field”. I like Boucher’s reflex cynicism (it pervades Blake’s 7 too), with Paton claiming Spring can’t prove any of this and that he is a man of influence. It certainly looks as if he will get away with it for eight years (as long as it takes for the freighter to return), the precise charges depending on whether they are “deep frozen corpses” or not.
So while the scheme for the titular case is a good one, it fumbles its reveal of the perpetrator. With the murder of Lee, the mystery itself is kept bubbling along engrossingly, including the introduction of soon-to-be Star Cop Colin Devis (Trevor Cooper, whom Graeme Harper had worked with on Revelation of the Daleks; Harper was instrumental in getting him the gig). However, the hopelessly unwieldy motivation fails to really satisfy, and no amount of characters’ marvelling over how unlikely it is can compensate.
Essentially, Lee is murdered by the security agencies so Spring will get on their tail and pursue one of them to an American space station where there are a lot of top-secret goings on going on (“We go in there. We bring him out and get everything he brings out and has learnt out the station”). Er… What’s to say the spy will learn anything? The plan is tenuous at best. Even with Nathan having asked the Americans to “stop him at all costs” it seems unlikely he’d make it there and just be allowed to wander about the place.
Again, there’s a palpable cynicism towards those that rule, where national and corporate interests are willing to use innocents as collateral in their quest for power or success, but in this case the motivation is too difficult to swallow (likewise, the idea that “John Smith” (Benny Young) should have got “a bit carried away that night in the park”, when the whole scheme would have crumbled if Nathan died).
Spring: He’s one of the department’s all-time cretins.
On the other hand, interaction with Devis yields some conversational gems. Spring, grumpy at the best of times like a Space Morse, is understandably even more so at the news of Lee’s demise. He requests of Devis “You may not be bright but you can at least be civil”, then goes on to be uncivil towards pretty much everyone he comes into contact with throughout. He causes friction wherever he goes with Devis’ deputy Corman (Sian Webber, who turns out to be with the security establishment, in a twist that actually isn’t readily apparent).
Theroux: Jeez, I wish I had a classical education.
Spring: I wish you had any kind of education.
His rudeness to David (when Nathan quotes Arthur Conan Doyle about eliminating the impossible, whatever remaining no matter how improbable being the truth) is nothing compared to the way he responds to Devis (Devis: You’re not as stupid as you look; Spring: I wish I could say the same for you, inspector”). The scenes between Calder and Cooper come alive in a way those with Evans don’t, mostly because Cooper’s a better actor, but also because Devis is such a thoroughly obnoxious character; sexist, boorish, slovenly and “thick” (as he admits himself). He’s also one of those characters who ends up likeable despite himself, mainly due to Cooper’s good work.
Of which, the colourful language is a calling card for Devis, whether it’s innuendo or talking about bat shit; there are times where one feels it’s for the sake of it, a sign of how this is “grown up”. Occasionally the non-coarse dialogue is also a bit intrusive (“I’ve just had a man executed, against all my principals and my beliefs” announces Nathan, just to let us know where his moral standing lies)
Christopher Baker does a solid enough job directing, but one only needs compare his results with Graeme Harper’s to see how he falls short. The attack on Spring in Chiswick Park recalls Deckard being attacked by Pris in Blade Runner, just without any of the style (Contrastingly it reminded the Anorak of Leon’s encounter with Deckard). Elsewhere, the model work is top notch, especially with the new Moonbase and buggy scenes. The incidental music continues to be very variable, however, like a bad ’80s US cop show.
Conversations with the Dead and its predecessor ought really to have been absent the opening title song (some would say they all should have been), since its resonance comes in only after Lee has died. While there are failings of plotting and motivation here, the whole is indicative of Boucher’s keen capacity for space age crimes developing from the “realities” of the environment. He also introduces a fine addition to the main cast in Devis (bringing charges against Corman has cost him his job) and continues to emphasise his man vs machines commentary on effective police work; computer decisions are not to be trusted and can miss things (a crucial autopsy of a roller-skating freak, or “Urban Apache” (!) is called off because its wasting Category A resources).