Written and directed by David Renwick
Paul McGann played the eighth incarnation of Doctor Who, working with Sheridan Smith on a series of audio stories. He also has a number of genre credits including a recurring role in Luther, Waking the Dead and Poirot. My favorite of his roles though is as Eugene Wrayburn in the exquisite 1998 adaptation of Our Mutual Friend – not really a mystery though it has some mysterious elements…
Ian McNeice also has a Doctor Who connection in his recurring role as Winston Churchill but he has a varied career that includes roles in high profile shows such as Rome and Doc Martin as well as a wealth of genre credits including Inspector Lewis, Murder Rooms, Cadfael and Ruth Rendell Mysteries.
Doreen Mantle is perhaps most familiar for her recurring role on Renwick’s comedy series One Foot in the Grave as Mrs. Warboys. She does have several genre credits including Father Brown, Inspector Lewis and the 1979 adaptation of Malice Aforethought.
A failure but an interesting one. I appreciate that this at least attempts to try and tread some new ground. Sadly the solution feels undervalued and contrived…
Years after witnessing a house vanish into thin air, Emily comes to work for the mystery novelist Hugo Dore in a house with its own strange history. Over a century earlier the owner of the house died at exactly the moment his death was predicted by his Egyptian mistress. Following her employment she experiences a number of strange events including seeing an apparition of that woman and Dore’s wife starts receiving notes predicting the moment of her own demise. That prediction comes to pass as she is seen falling from a window to her death and Emily becomes the prime suspect.
So I finally get to The Judas Tree. I must confess that I have been both eagerly anticipating and rather dreading writing about this one. You see, I consider the episode to be one of the most interesting of the whole series run and yet I would also argue that it is among the least successful. It’s going to be tricky to explain exactly why, particularly in the spoiler-free section of the review, but I will give it my best effort.
The episode, like many of the previous specials, incorporates multiple strange events and impossibilities though I would suggest that the sheer number contained here is quite notable. Among the many events Jonathan will be called on to explain are the disappearance of a house in a matter of seconds, a photograph managing to alter its appearance, an apparition of a long dead woman appearing on a woodpile, a historical murder where a man died at a predicted time and place with no one in his vicinity and the murder of a woman in the present day where she seemed to be pushed out of a window while all the suspects were gathered below.
That is a long list and frankly it’s hard to escape the feeling that the episode is rather overstuffed. Though each of these strange events will be important to understanding the broader mystery of the episode, viewed individually several of these problems may strike the viewer as quite straightforward. Take for instance the appearance of the apparition which is so simple that it is disposed of in just a few moments as part of a broader explanation. Similarly, the matter of the photograph is also quite quickly explained although there at least there is a little cleverness in an aspect of the setup that I did appreciate.
The disappearance of the house, a problem which is introduced in the episode’s opening montage which is presented with some garish visual processing, is quickly set up but subsequently hardly mentioned except as evidence of Emily’s unreliable nature as a witness. There is at least a clue to what happened here, though I would suggest that it is not enough for Jonathan to be able to prove the solution he reaches. Instead we are supposed to accept it because it fits all of the facts we have been given.
There the episode is on stronger ground with its two murders with the episode once again playing with the idea of historic crimes influencing events in the present (and possibly being repeated). I think the way that idea is used here is less successful than Mother Redcap, Satan’s Chimney or The Grinning Man but I do appreciate that it seems that Renwick was trying to explore that idea slightly differently in this story. I would also add that given I rate those three stories incredibly highly, failing to live up to them is reflective more of those stories’ greatness more than the weakness of this effort.
The historical murder is the less interesting of the two, in part because it feels much more limited. Unlike those other episodes I referenced we are not looking at a series of events but a single, isolated occurrence. I think the bigger issue I have with it though is that the circumstances of that murder all feel rather convoluted and silly, being designed with the idea that we will try and link it to the modern day case rather than for it to make sense as a plan for murder. Still, given how brief the discussion of this case proves I appreciate it for its color and the atmosphere it gives the episode.
The meat of this story then must lie in its modern day murder. This seems particularly apparent if we acknowledge that all of these other puzzles exist to feed into it, creating a sense of atmosphere and being used to define Emily’s character. The moment in which our victim is murdered has a shock value, even if some of the ambiguity of the action is spoiled a little with the certainty that the camera gives. Regardless, it makes for an intriguing problem for Jonathan to solve.
Interest in the scenario is elevated by the introduction of a deadline being imposed upon Jonathan. While we saw a race against time element employed at the end of the previous story, this sets that expectation from the beginning by having the investigation take place against the backdrop of Emily’s trial and that he needs to discover the truth to prevent her from going to prison.
The case, which unlike the other plot threads does at least have some clueing, is elevated by some splendid acting performances – particularly from Paul McGann who gives a beautifully ambiguous performance as Hugo Dore. He has long been one of my favorite actors because of the way he is able to project sincerity and warmth, even when his character’s actions seem to have quite different motivations. He is great here, coming across as quite ambiguous throughout the case and I was really impressed by how well that is sustained throughout this episode.
The solution to how this is worked is mechanically smart, even if I think it relies a little too heavily on everything going according to plan. There is a moment for instance where I feel some witnesses should be able to see something and had they the story would have had a distinctly different resolution. Similarly I can’t help but think that there were countless opportunities for the killer’s plan to go wrong and yet everything miraculously comes off without a hitch. It’s all pretty convenient…
Perhaps the biggest complaint I have about the solution though is that a key aspect of it feels like it emerges from nowhere. When it comes to the motive for the crime, there is little in the episode that I think suggests the solution that we end up with and so that aspect simply seems to come from nowhere. It is rather unsatisfying…
So, what makes this episode interesting? I think it has to do with some beats that this story takes towards its end that take the action into some territory that was entirely new both for Jonathan and for the show as a whole. This not only allows Alan Davies to portray the character in a different sort of situation, I think it raises some interesting questions about how this case ought to be resolved that the reader can consider and judge for themselves.
This somewhat different direction results in the ending feeling somewhat unsatisfying. Unlike most stories, we are left without the certainty that justice has prevailed. A brave narrative choice, even I’m not sure it quite pays off. Perhaps if the gaps between the episodes hadn’t been quite so long it would have been easier to accept.
Normally this is the point where I would moan about the secondary plot with Adam Klaus. While I cannot say I particularly enjoyed his subplot, I did appreciate that he becomes the figure of fun here and the victim of the joke. Is it needed? Probably not, though I also like that Renwick avoids going overboard and uses it mainly to cap the episode.
Overall then it’s hard to view The Judas Tree as anything other than a mess as a story but I will say that I appreciate that it was at least attempting to do something a bit different, even if it missed more often than it hit.
Aidan Spoils Everything
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