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Silent Witness has now become a relatively long running BBC crime series. The show stars Amanda Burton as Dr Sam Ryan, a criminal pathologist who usually plays the key role in solving a featured crime – in most episodes a murder.
The storylines involved in most episodes tend to be nothing more unusual than any other crime series. As the stories develop, there are the usual token twists and convolutions that you would expect from any classic “whodunnit”. Of course, where the series differs is that much of the investigative work is actually completed by Dr Ryan.
So is the series worth taking time to watch? Yes and No.
The element that sets these stories apart from most other police series is the science. Dr Ryan is normally requested to carry out the autopsy of a victim killed in mysterious circumstances. The autopsy scenes are generally carried out in some detail – more so in some episodes than others - and Dr Ryan very quickly notices details about the body or the condition of the body that may provide some clues as to the identity of the killer. The series is keen to identify the links between science and old-fashioned police investigations, and Dr Ryan very often continues to provide information for the police as she investigates unusual findings more closely. The series is never gratuitous – in fact the autopsy scenes are generally very understated – but the cameras examine important details closely, in order that the viewer becomes closely involved in what is going on. Strangely enough, it is normally some very small, largely unscientific clue that each “Silent Witness” provides – the way a victim’s hair has been tied or the way in which the victim’s clothes have been arranged.
Silent Witness is not an exciting programme. From the start, the quiet, haunting theme music sets the scene for what is usually a subtle, slow-moving, but nonetheless very tense programme. Very often, the director shifts from one scene backwards and forwards to another, to show how the police investigation is being carried out, compared to the thoughtful studies being employed by Dr Ryan. Throughout the programme, the soundtrack is suitably dark and morose and the subject matter is always treated sincerely.
The plot tends to be written carefully, in order that there are plenty of opportunities for Dr Ryan to become involved. A single murder would very often lead to only very limited involvement from a pathologist, so many of the stories involve multiple murders – plenty of bodies = plenty of autopsies. The programme is well researched, and uses scientific information accurately and feasibly. Dr Ryan has a clear fascination with the criminal mind, and will very often work hard to find a link between the forensic evidence that she provides, and any other evidence that the police may have found. For me, this is where the programme very often goes wrong.
Dr Ryan’s involvement with each case is unrealistically extensive. The programme makers seem intent on making the observation that it is not the police who solve a crime, but the pathologists. This is unendingly reinforced by the extent to which Dr Ryan becomes involved. Amateur criminal profiler, police detective, victim counsellor, scene of crime officer – the list of Ryan’s skills is almost limitless and any police officers involved are often portrayed as insensitive and ignorant – only able to get a result through the constant intervention of Dr Ryan.
This isn’t really helped by the fact that Ryan’s character is essentially quite difficult to like. Seemingly emotionless, Dr Ryan cuts through each situation with an icy glare, matched only by the frigid tone in her voice. I can’t help but compare Ryan’s cold empathy with the mischievous Scottisg pathologist in Taggart who exhibits more energy in ten minutes than Ryan provides in a whole hour. Ryan seems to have limitless friends and contacts – and yet displays few qualities that any friends might value. The show has tended to stray away from Ryan’s personal life – any relationships that have been shown are more often than not unsuccessful – and it is left to Ryan’s supporting cast to provide any warmth or emotion. It comes as no surprise that Dr Ryan is always right – and she has a limitless capacity to be smug and self-righteous.
Nonetheless, most of the stories that I have seen have tended to be quite interesting to watch, and certainly compare favourably to many of the other crime series on television. Perhaps the biggest weakness of Silent Witness is that there is a tendency to compare Dr Ryan to Helen Mirren’s Superintendent Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect. This is probably unfair – Mirren’s assertive, passionate police officer was never likely to behave in the same way as Dr Ryan’s pathologist. Indeed, it would probably be quite fair to expect a certain amount of self distance from somebody who spends more time with the dead than the living.
Recommended for those who like this genre of drama, but not ground-breaking material.