Warning: this review contains spoilers.
This isn’t promising. As a TV show, Strike‘s appeal has never been the ingenuity of its cases, with their cardboard characters, pantomime twists and baroque plotting. Instead, it’s always been about the chemistry between leads Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger, and an all-round sense of retro comfort. In the first episode of four-part series Troubled Blood, the chemistry was missing and the retro comfort had been swapped for a retro case that sucked the energy out.
Things start well enough, with a change-of-scenery trip to Cornwall where Cormoran is visiting adoptive parents Ted and Joan. She’s dying of cancer but keeping her terminal diagnosis a secret. More unexpressed pain for our King of unexpressed pain! Just what the doctor ordered. And here comes Robin, driving her clapped-out Land Rover all the way from London to St Mawes, a knight on a white steed come to rescue our man. This is what we came for.
And then? Nothing. There’s no electricity-pulsing reunion or meaningful silence, just a rejected offer of biscuits and on with the job. Granted, everything that really matters with these two is always left unsaid, and with Cormoran’s adoptive mother’s illness and Robin’s divorce, this is hardly the time for action, but throw fans a crumb? And then the all-important bubble of tension is popped when Cormoran’s sister asks him for one good reason he shouldn’t marry Robin. “I’d fuck it up,” he tells her. And that, save for a mildly comedic birthday present-buying sketch (Carnal Flower? Nah, you’re alright), is that. For now.
A brief phone call en-route brings us up to speed on Matt-the-twat (we could be polite and call him a wally but what a waste of a rhyme), who demonstrates as much likability as he’s ever had by crowing about his salary and quibbling over the divorce settlement. Dickhead is right, Robin, if only you’d come to that conclusion sooner.
Cormoran’s family troubles continue with the reappearance of half-brother Al, part of “the Rokesby diaspora“, who’s pushing for a reunion between Strike and his estranged dad. We’ve yet to meet the genetic pool that produced Cormoran, and with the arrival of Joan and Ted, this series promises to deliver on the character’s personal history – as seen in the ferry flashback to his and Lucy’s mother leaving them behind.
That was one of many flashbacks in this opener, which relied on them almost entirely to dramatise Troubled Blood‘s cold case.
Family history and messy divorces are all very well, but without being powered by the leads’ longing looks and obvious need for each other, Strike has to fall back on the investigation, and this one is immediately less satisfying than most. It’s Cormoran’s first cold case, which removes the ticking clock urgency and turns this episode into an hour of essentially seeing characters do homework. We watch Robin watch a lengthy YouTube video, over two scenes. We see them scrolling though news clippings (and for some reason, explaining what a subscription to an online news archive is) and take delivery of a slide projector. Other characters are astounded at Robin’s Googling prowess. It isn’t just slow drama, it’s barely drama at all.
The unsolved disappearance of Dr Margot Bamborough in 1974 is relayed through a hash of flashbacks and exposition-heavy monologues from characters who are adjacent rather than central to the case. It’s all very ‘get your next clue from the merchant at the bazaar’ videogame stuff.
First, we meet Margot’s daughter, who brings Cormoran the case after recognising him on the street. She was a baby at the time of her mother’s disappearance and puts her father frustratingly off-limits to the investigation. Then there’s Margot’s pal Oonagh, who – standard – has a topless painting of her missing friend hanging at home. Then there’s the son of the police officer who lost his mind and was replaced on the case by the police officer father of the police officer that Cormoran and Robin are in with on the Met. Gripping and pacy it isn’t. The whole thing feels as though the air’s been let out.
Flashbacks are overused – presumably, and understandably, in an attempt to pep up this evidence-gathering phase with dramatisations – but the end result leaves us neither here nor there. Conversations start in the present, slide into flashback and return, as if none of the scenes are gripping enough on their own to hold our attention. Nothing hangs together as a result.
As Unforgotten proves, cold cases can make excellent TV drama, but that relies on giving the audience access to the people who were at the heart of the crime, not their pal, neighbour or work colleague. Too much of this opener felt unnecessarily insulated from the action and the key players. It’s no fun watching detectives get told stuff, we want to watch them detect it! (Preferably, while dressing up in disguises and using fake accents). Strike’s first cold case needs to warm up, and quickly.
Strike: Troubled Blood continues on Monday at 9pm on BBC One.