It is a delicate balance in the detective genre between telling a succinct and compelling mystery and having the audience care about the main characters. In order to care about them, we need to know something about their personal lives. An important part of one’s personal life is one’s hopes and dreams for the future.
It is also a delicate balance between telling a historical mystery and keeping to “the facts” as they roughly took place. Murdoch Mysteries has a fine tradition of including historical characters and integrating them into the story in such a way that their presence is entirely believable. Some of these characters are not yet famous, while others are already well-established.
8 Footsteps introduces Helen Keller, who was already a celebrity by 1905, and brings back Alexander Graham Bell and his wife. Bell shares Detective Murdoch’s penchant for invention and solving puzzles, so it is fun to see them partner up using Bell’s latest recording technology to try to identify the killer in a classic “dark dining room” mystery. Having Keller appear was also highly enjoyable – she was not merely a cutesy addition, but an integral part of the plot.
One of the saddest parts of this episode was the discussion about how Helen Keller believed that she was not able to have romance in her life; rather, she was told that. There are many reasons for this belief: that she needs extra care; that she does not communicate normally; that she would be exploited; and that she could/should not have children. The last one was particularly popular in the early twentieth century as part of the eugenics movement. (Even though her condition was not hereditary but brought on by childhood illness, this was not well understood at the time.) Aside from the eugenics movement, there was also a drive to keep Helen childlike and dependent.
What concerns me is that this is not a view left in the past. While eugenics has been largely discredited, it still has its modern adherents; it also goes by different names now. The mindset is still there – women with any type of disability (hereditary or not) are often discouraged from having children, whether it is because doctors think it will be too difficult for them or whether it is outright because they think the child will have a high risk of having a similar condition. Commenting on grown adults having children is still a social pastime, whether it has to do with people having too many children, not enough children, or not raising them the way that the commenter requires. It is strange, but as a society, we still think that reproduction should be controlled and we have a difficult time seeing all grown adults as indeed adults. Just because someone has a disability or chronic condition does not render them permanent children. Nor are we selfish for wanting children of our own.
Aside from such a heavy topic, this episode was lighthearted and an amusing puzzle. We were also treated to Constable Higgins getting to be the romantic hero – perhaps his near-death experience in the season finale made him bolder.
Meanwhile, The Canadian Patient delves further into medical science that was cutting edge for the early 1900s. Literally cutting, in fact – the case centres around a doctor attempting to perform the first successful organ transplant. It raised many questions about ethics and scientific experimentation. Is it worth how many people died in order for something to be perfected? What about when they know the risks involved? If the patients are dying from their illness or condition, what does it matter that they try a risky operation or treatment? Should medicine be even used at all? (The Christian Science movement gets involved in the case.) When does experimentation become murder? After all, it is not possible to conduct all medical research using non-humans.
The very idea of an organ transplant was not only novel in 1905 – it was downright impossible outside of science fiction. Constable Crabtree gets philosophically worked up about it, wondering how much of a person was contained in each part, or how many parts of a person would need to be replaced before the person himself was replaced, or whether one could stop at internal organs like kidneys and eventually work one’s way up to a whole head. Despite being a fairly open-minded and curious man, Crabtree is just plain weirded out by the thought of organ transplant. He certainly was not – and is not – alone. We still struggle with these questions. Science fiction writers certainly still have a field day with them.
Finally, this episode turns to the future of the characters themselves. We are introduced to Violet Hart, who is eventually hired as Dr. Ogden’s new assistant. She is nothing like Rebecca James – she is forthright, outspoken, confident, and not about to let her gender or skin colour define her. She reminds me a lot of the younger Dr. Ogden that I see in early episode reruns.
And speaking of Dr. Ogden, she has not given up on having children herself. At some point during her travels for medical conferences, she was consulting with doctors about whether or not she was actually damaged beyond repair or not. It turns out that her initial diagnosis was wrong and she should be able to have children, albeit she is in her mid to late thirties. Without yet consulting her husband, she partners with a researcher on hormonal treatments and suggests herself as the test subject. I can see why she has withheld this from her husband – he would either say no (worried for her health) or get his hopes up prematurely. On the other hand, it is an important decision that they really should be discussing together. The type of treatment proposed could easily kill her – not to mention the obvious fact that her getting pregnant would be a surprise. A happy one, undoubtedly, but still…
I confess that while I am excited about the potential for this storyline, I am also a bit disappointed. Yes, it fits with the theme of scientific inquiry that has been present throughout the show and it is certainly better than just having Dr. Ogden spontaneously get pregnant. However, I enjoyed watching Murdoch and Ogden being a couple together and I enjoyed the adoption idea. (Perhaps they will still go with this storyline, of course.) Adoption is not “sloppy seconds” to biological parenthood and would have been an equally interesting story.
I will put my faith in the writers that regardless of how this plot works out, I will be entertained and it will be right for the characters.