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Silent Witness s15: ‘Calm down, dear…’

2012 May 28

Silent Witness has just finished broadcasting its 15th series and, I’ll be truthful, I’ve been watching it for quite a few years. I’ve also been a bit of a fan of Emilia Fox for some years too – since seeing her in Reeves and Mortimer’s rehash of Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) as Marty’s almost-bride Jeannie, left at the altar as he plunged to his death. She’s always played strong women in everything I’ve seen her in, from Morgause in Merlin to the new Gordon’s Gin advertisement where she deftly puts one Mr Glenister (aka Gene Hunt) in his place.

A blonde woman in a white set of pathologist's scrubs stares just past the camera with an irritated look on her face.

Emilia Fox as Dr. Nikki Alexander doing a brilliant representation of my Unimpressed Face

She’s a great actress who I think does a lot for Women In Telly, so I was a bit disappointed with the way Dr Nikki Alexander (Fox’s character) has been portrayed in this series of Silent Witness.

***Quick spoiler warning goes here.***

I’ll get to Nikki, but I also wanted to mention that I’ve been a bit dismayed at the BBC’s dumbing-down of the series with woeful stereotypes akin to Channel 4’s recent “Let’s just cause a hoohah to get viewers” strategy. Every episode of Silent Witness this series has pretty much screamed ‘The Police are incompetent and corrupt and evil!’. Topical? You could argue that, but the way they’ve tackled it has been very clumsy and unsophisticated – not like the Silent Witness of previous years. Plus I haven’t heard of any police violently sexually assaulting pimps in public toilets with long wooden implements to death and then covering it up recently – have you?

They’ve also thrown in the old ‘people who play violent video games are all psychopathic killers’ trope – in the first episode no less – which left me with a well defined Unimpressed Face. Really, BBC? You want to play with such obvious, ill-informed, stereotypes? Disappointing.

They certainly haven’t done much for the female figures in this series either, with three suicides, all colleagues or friends of Leo, two of which were women and neither of which were portrayed very well. One also apparently found the draw of Leo’s soft gaze too hard to resist and snogged his face off in a lab despite, her being married and him in a long-term relationship.

The second was a pathologist who challenged a post mortem conclusion of Shaken Baby syndrome (also, quite topical) who Leo took personal action against to make her look like an illogical, flustered fool by using his influence as Head of the Royal Society of Pathologists to say “nah, she’s wrong.”

Nikki studied under this particular LadyPatho and was quick to defend her, but the script made both women look as if they’d been stranded in swathes of stereotypically female overemotionality. It felt like the Beeb had attempted to suggest science is Man’s Domain, what with the way they aired Nikki’s protests that LadyPatho was being purposefully railroaded by a patriarchal pathologist hierarchy, whom she had dared to go against by suggesting something other than their fave shaken baby triad might exist as a cause of infant death.

The potential of this, however, is totally undermined by the acting instructions Fox seems to have followed. By making an accomplished, strong, independent female pathologist who we know – from many years of her gracing our screens – to be a sensible, balanced and intelligent individual, behave in a disorientated, desperate, hysterical, conspiracy-theory, ‘the men are out to get us’ way sort of undermines the whole attempt at a feminists-in-the-mainstream angle. Or just, y’know, that whole taking women seriously thing.

It is difficult for me to accept Emilia Fox’s performance as a betrayal of Nikki, but realistically I don’t see how she could have agreed to play the scene that way without going against Nikki’s intrinsic character. That is certainly disappointing. The series’ new obsession with Lowest Common Denominator dross (probably ordered down through the BBC management levels in order to win some more viewers in these austere times) is also highly disappointing. Though the stories have been, generally, interesting enough, Silent Witness still feels like it’s strayed from its path.

I hope that, for next year’s series, the BBC drop this new Ch4-esque manifesto for just being offensive and shallow in order to viewer-grab away from whatever reality talent show rubbish is on elsewhere. If needs be, just move it to BBC4 and make it a clever criminal show again – it’ll fit in nicely alongside The Bridge and other similarly intelligent drama that treats women with a little bit more respect. There’s no excuse now that analogue TV no longer exists: we’ve all got the digital channels and there’s always iPlayer (even on your Xbox now)!

One Response leave one →
  1. May 28, 2012

    I found this latest series really disappointing. My boyfriend had never seen it before and I explained that it was a little far-fetched and had pathologists who easily slipped into crime-fighting action-heroes, but that the acting was great and the stories were good. With each episode, I turned to him and said, “Well, that was a below their usual form – it’s usually much better than that.”

    I was also upset by the episode in which a man was treated quite sympathetically, having been the perfect husband up to the point where he realised that his daughter was not genetically his, at which point he killed his entirely family, except the one child who was genetically his. And that was presented as some kind of likely and understandable tragedy. And you knew the wife had it coming because she had drunkenly kissed Harry.

    Eventually, whenever there was a scene of great tension, we’d ask one another, “Do you think they’re going to kiss?” – sometimes even when Leo was alone with a corpse.

    But by far the worse story was one in which they broke all the rules of the Silent Witness universe. I mean, I can cope with a drama which entertains the possibility of demonic possession, but after fifteen series of an entirely material universe… it was like if in a series of Merlin, they suddenly had an episode where they discovered that that Merlin kept seeing dragons because of a rare disorder in his pituitary gland.

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