Recap: HOUDINI AND DOYLE is Victorian X-FILES

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Season 1, episode 1, “The Maggie’s Redress”
Story by David Hoselton & David Titcher
Teleplay by David Hoselton
Directed by Stephen Hopkins

[Header photo courtesy FOX/Steffan Hill]

Back in April, I was lucky enough to attend an advanced screening of the pilot episode of Houdini and Doyle as part of my WonderCon coverage followed by a Q&A.

As a long-time fan of Harry Houdini (and having a recent re-interest in Arthur Conan Doyle due to my Sherlock obsession), I had been tentatively excited and interested in this show when I heard it was announced. But with it being on Fox and it looking very similar to certain other shows, I also was very skeptical. I figured this was going to be either hilariously bad or so awesome Fox was going to kill it after 11 episodes.

London: 1901. We open on dark, mysterious nuns, when one hears a cry and goes to investigate. It’s a dead body. When Sergeant Gudgett (Adam Nagaitis) is at the crime scene, he talks to Winnie, the nun who found the body, who says she knows who did it. She names Lucy Allthorpe. One problem, according to the head nun: Lucy’s been dead for six months!

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The scene cuts to Houdini (Michael Weston) in the middle of a water escape trick. After a tense few minutes, the trick is done and he walks off the stage. As his beautiful assistant apologizes for the lock sticking, he picks up a newspaper showing the story of how a ghost is killing people.

That same newspaper ends up being in the hands of Doyle (Stephen Mangan), at a society event, fresh from throwing Sherlock Holmes off the Reichenbach Falls and hoping to finally get away from writing about the character. But apparently Holmes’ death has been exaggerated, and Doyle’s agent has brought back Holmes from the dead. Doyle’s pissed: when the agent mentions that Doyle needs to write something new in order to sell something new, Doyle petulantly mentions his latest, The Great Boer War (there’s a reason only diehard Doyle fans know of it). In an exchange that is a bit on the nose for today’s fans, the agent asks, “Is it so wrong to give them what they want?” To which Doyle gives the great Artist (capital A intended) response, “I’d rather give them what they need.”

Meanwhile, Houdini decides to visit Chief Inspector Horace Merring (Tim McInnerny, playing smarmy to the nines), only to find Doyle already there. The two obviously know each other, and don’t seem to get along well. After a bit of banter between the two, where Merring is obviously not giving a hoot that the two want to investigate this ghost murder, Houdini threatens to call the head of Scotland Yard. When Merring asks why, we get to the crux of the show: Doyle is the Mulder of the team, wanting to believe that death isn’t the end and that science is closer than ever to proving that. Meanwhile, Houdini is our skeptic: ready to condemn con artists ready to use science to give people false hope.

Merring seems impressed, and offers to give them their own constable. But when it turns out to be Adelaide Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard), while Houdini is happy (“I think I’m going to like this century!”), when Merring and Stratton get alone, it turns out that Merring is only having Stratton keep the two busy and away from the ‘real’ detective work.

Meet the Met's newest recruit.
Meet the Met’s newest recruit. {Photo courtesy FOX/Robert Vigliasky}

The three investigate the murder, with Doyle ready to leap to paranormal explanations and Houdini sassily showing how it can be explained away naturally. (“Lots of people want to kill their bosses,” he says when explaining why he offers Winnie up as a suspect.) Winnie says the nun died because she had killed Lucy, and so Lucy is returning the favor. The nuns are at a laundry, and the motive of robbery is considered when they can’t find the money. Stratton is frustrated by this answer: not because she wants something paranormal necessarily, but because this was her one chance to prove herself.

Doyle, in an attempt to get a lead, visits a medium, who he also asks to contact his wife. This apparently works, and so he takes Stratton with him to Whitechapel, where the medium said the murderer/robber was. He finds who he thinks is the suspect, who runs – and is neatly taken down by Stratton and her truncheon.

They go visit Houdini at his theatre, discussing the apparent end of the case. Houdini has his doubts (and uses a little theatre magic to prove to the others how easy it is to have a haunting), and we find out that the main suspect, Sister Mathilda, did have a past that shows she could’ve easily broken into the office. After Doyle and Houdini almost come to blows regarding the afterlife, they find out that Sister Mathilda is dead.

At the site of the murder, Stratton finds a message written into the window: “All things come in threes”. Winnie indicates that Mathilda was part of Lucy’s death – had watched it happen – and that the third victim is most likely Sister Grace (the main nun). Houdini still thinks it’s Winnie, but Doyle and Stratton start going through the register of the laundry to see what they can find.

Our Trio {Photo courtesy Fox/Robert Vigliasky}
Our trio: ready to investigate. {Photo courtesy FOX/Robert Vigliasky}

While Doyle finds a hidden area under a floor bed, Stratton visits Houdini, who is having a celebrity-filled event (TESLA!!!) for his mother. He takes her back to a room that is filled with photographs – it’s a bit of a ‘takedown’ room for all the psychics Houdini has debunked, and we find out a bit more as to why he’s such a skeptic. Stratton has brought the blueprint of the facility, and shows that there is a hidden passage. They have a bit of an altercation, him calling her out for believing in ghosts and she in turn calling him out for treating the investigation as a joke when for her it’s a make or break situation.

They get interrupted by a phone call – it’s Doyle, with news. He’s found the money hidden in the secret area, proving that robbery wasn’t the motive. While discussing this in the laundry’s main office, they are interrupted by spooky sounds and lights – and Houdini admits it wasn’t him.

Doyle, convinced this is proof of an afterlife, goes back to the medium to get a motive. “It’s about redress,” she says. She then brings up the wife, supposedly speaking as her again, but then drops a ‘since I died’ which makes Doyle walk away. The wife isn’t dead – she’s in a coma. Meanwhile, Houdini is getting a back rub from his stage assistant and looking at a drink on his end table and the reflection it’s causing with the motion of the bed.

The two meet up again, and once again try to one up each other (this time, boasting that their automobiles can go the high speeds of 12 and 14 miles per hour!) and taking the tube (or the 1901 version of it), with Houdini making yet another bet with Doyle as to whether he’s right about something.

Houdini just wants his mother to be happy. {Photo courtesy FOX/Robert Vigliasky}
Houdini just wants his mother to be happy. {Photo courtesy FOX/Robert Vigliasky}

They arrive, only to be harassed by Sergeant Gudgett (who Doyle dispatches with a quick and badly thrown haymaker), and meets up with Sister Grace. Turns out the nun was secretly Lucy’s mother, and she was killing the others as revenge. She tries to escape (leading to the hilarious line, “Really? You’re going to outlimp us?”), but she manages to trap (and lock) them into a sewer grating with the water getting ever higher. Houdini tries to pick the lock using Doyle’s collar stays, but just when he’s about to give up and the two are about to drown, they are rescued by Stratton.

She knows Sister Grace is the killer, and has her handcuffed in the office. But there’s one problem: Grace is not only the killer, she’s the intended third victim. They come back to the office only to see Sister Grace attempting suicide. While Doyle and Stratton try to use logic to convince her not to do it, Houdini suddenly changes his tune and says he can feel Lucy, and that she doesn’t want Grace to do it. Then, the same spooky lights and sounds just as Houdini needs them. Once they get Grace settled, he reveals he realized it was subsonic vibrations caused by the train.

Back at Scotland Yard, Chief Inspector Merring is relating that Stratton apparently did well and being moved up with the rest of the team. High praise from Houdini as well, and in a turn felt by many a successful woman is assumed then that she is having an affair with Houdini to get said praise. Meanwhile, Doyle has sent Houdini a copy of his latest, and it turns out that despite Houdini’s cracks about Doyle’s stories, he has the whole set. We then end on the stereotypical sting of questioning whether there really is more than what we see.

Murder most foul. {Photo courtesy FOX/Robert Vigliasky}
Murder most foul. {Photo courtesy FOX/Robert Vigliasky}

While the show wasn’t hilariously awful, it also wasn’t grippingly awesome either. It’s very obviously an attempt at a historical X-Files-esque procedural, with Doyle and Houdini falling into your tropey believer/skeptic characterizations respectively. It’s helped, a bit, by the fact that this is, indeed, based in truth: Houdini was famous for taking down fraud psychics (to the point of setting up a code word with his wife should anyone try to say they had contacted him after he died), and Doyle was equally as famous for being such a believer he even fell for the Cottingley Fairies. The plot is a bit obvious, but then again it’s a pilot and they are notorious for being difficult to pull off well.

As with all shows set in another time period, you kind of have to turn a blind eye to historical inaccuracies, most notably the language. According to the Q&A that followed that WonderCon screening, Stratton is loosely based on the first female constable for the London Met, but who didn’t get appointed until 1915 (and wasn’t named Adelaide Stratton). Also, Doyle and Houdini were actually more friendly in real life, but then where would the drama go in the series if they got along? Finally, the feminism message of Stratton as a character is a bit anvilicious, but then again, some anvils need to be dropped.

What keeps this show interesting are the characters and the actors behind them. (The same reason I got into Castle.) Weston steals the show as Houdini, letting the snark fly in his constant digs at the far more serious Doyle. Mangan plays Doyle with a quiet certainty that shows how important it is to have a straight man when dealing with comedic sendups. Meanwhile, Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard) holds her own against the two, never feeling like she is going overboard in her fight to be taken seriously.

I hesitantly am looking forward to seeing the show develop, and see where they go from here. It’s a mystery as to whether the characters will sustain it.

 

Houdini and Doyle runs on Fox on Thursdays at 9/8 Central, and is available to view on FoxNow (and briefly on Hulu Plus).

You can see more of Angie’s work (and her social media connections) over at her website.

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Angie Fiedler Sutton

Angie Fiedler Sutton is a writer, photographer, and all-round fangirl geek. She currently lives in Los Angeles, and primarily covers geek culture, entertainment, and the performing arts. She's been published in Den of Geek, Stage Directions, LA Weekly, The Mary Sue, and others. You can see more of her work (and her social media connections) over at her website angiefsutton.com.

2 thoughts on “Recap: HOUDINI AND DOYLE is Victorian X-FILES

  • June 3, 2016 at 12:35 am
    Permalink

    I so admire your writing. I have only seen one ep-the Curse of Khorza, which had our own Emily Hampshire in it playing a very similar role to the one she does on 12 Monkeys. I was surprised by how ordinary it was. These were not ordinary people. I also didn’t like who the villain was. I don’t think it’s actually something people do. Also, I always got the impression that Houdini started busting mediums after his mom died. I’m sure the pilot was better than the episode I saw.

    Reply
    • June 6, 2016 at 10:51 am
      Permalink

      Thanks, Teresa! I hope to catch the others in the next couple of weeks. It definitely has potential, but it being Fox I’m not holding my breath. 😉

      Reply

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