Ah, Christmas! That wonderful time of year when we trim trees, put up wreaths and lights, sing carols, and eat plenty of delicious turkey, ham, stuffing and plum pudding. My wife, son, and I might even get a gift or two or (ahem) three from Santa Claus.
It’s been my pleasure to write an annual piece for The Interim recommending Christmas-related items for your family and friends. This holiday season, I’m going to delve into one of Canada’s most successful Canadian TV series, Murdoch Mysteries.
The show’s main protagonist, detective William Murdoch, was originally conceived by author Maureen Jennings. She wrote several detective fiction novels about his life and career, including 1997’s Except the Dying and 1998’s Under the Dragon’s Tail. (Her first new Detective Murdoch tale in a decade, Let Darkness Bury the Dead, was released in November.)
Jennings’s titular character was born in Nova Scotia in the 19th century. A devout Roman Catholic, he was educated by Jesuits and spoke perfect French. His faith served as an important moral compass in his daily life, as well as the difficult murder cases he faced.
Murdoch works for the Toronto Constabulary at Station House No. 4. He’s aided by an impressive cast of characters, including inspector Thomas Brackenreid, constable George Crabtree and Dr. Julia Ogden (who later becomes his wife on the TV series). He helps them solve perplexing mysteries with his forensic skills in fingerprint identification, blood testing, and locating trace evidence. He also has a photographic and working memory, and is a polymath.
The great detective’s intelligence and deductive powers are head-and-shoulders above most of his colleagues and contemporaries. Nevertheless, he’s earned their loyalty, respect and admiration – and achieved near-legendary status in his adopted city.
It didn’t take long for these written accounts to be turned into visual adaptations.
Three made-for-TV movies based on Jennings’s novels were broadcast on Bravo Canada in 2004. Shaftesbury Films then produced and developed Murdoch Mysteries, a weekly, hour-long drama series that ran on CityTV for five seasons (2008-2012). After the highly acclaimed show was unexpectedly dropped, it was picked up by the CBC, where it has remained ever since.
More than 1.4 million Canadian viewers tune in to this program each week. The show is carried in more than 20 countries. Acorn Media offers it on a premium service, and produces Blu-ray and DVD releases of each season.
There have been some fascinating historical characters in different episodes, such as Sir Winston Churchill, Henry Ford, Helen Keller, Tom Thomson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Annie Oakley, Nikola Tesla, and Wilfrid Laurier. Some popular guest stars have included William Shatner, Victor Garber, Allan Hawco, Mary Walsh, Colin Mochrie, Brendan Coyle, Arlene Dickinson, and former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
OK, but what does a successful TV series have to do with Christmas? Let’s solve that mystery right now.
Murdoch Mysteries recently started a tradition of releasing an annual Christmas special. “A Merry Murdoch Christmas” was broadcast on Dec. 21, 2015, followed by “Once Upon a Murdoch Christmas” on Dec. 12, 2016. The former contained appearances by well-known U.S. actor Ed Asner and recently retired CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge, and the latter featured Canadian actors Frank Moore (The Far Shore) and Rainbow Sun Francks (Stargate Atlantis).
Both projects were stand-alone and non-canonical, meaning that viewers who only occasionally watch Murdoch Mysteries could follow along without too much difficulty. “Nearly two million (1.969M) Canadians enjoyed the gift of last year’s inaugural two-hour holiday special,” according to a Nov. 7, 2016 CBC Media Centre release, “making it the highest-rated Murdoch Mysteries ever. Overall, it reached 3.5 million Canadians – or 10 per cent of the population – over the course of the two-hour broadcast.”
Meanwhile, the two Christmas specials contain a healthy respect for the holidays and, believe it or not, religion.
“A Merry Murdoch Christmas” includes carolers, a short scene from Hans Christian Andersen’s play, “The Little Match Girl” (where the young girl’s grandmother takes her soul to Heaven), Asner’s fine performance as Kris Kringle, and subtle references to A Christmas Carol, A Charlie Brown Christmas and Roch Carrier’s “The Hockey Sweater.”
Similarly, “Once Upon a Murdoch Christmas” had Brackenreid dressed up in a Santa Claus-like beard, a holiday-inspired banquet, beautiful carols (including “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” and “Come All Ye Faithful”), Murdoch’s special Christmas mystery for Julia, and a Christmas miracle.
Without spoiling the plots, these two specials are positive, upbeat, and uplifting. Adults and children will enjoy the camaraderie and playful banter between the main characters and guest stars. There are some traditional Christmas themes one would have seen in early 20th century Toronto, from fragile ornaments on the tree to the first attempts at making eggnog. And, while there’s obviously a mystery (and murder) to solve, both episodes would still be regarded as family oriented.
The Murdoch Mysteries Christmas specials can be purchased on DVD and Blu-ray, and are available on the CBC website with free streaming. My hope is this year’s special is just as magical and memorable as the others have been.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.