Saturday, February 23, 2013

Review: The Doctor Blake Mysteries

There's a new TV series here in Australia called The Doctor Blake Mysteries (it's also going to be shown on UK television). It's about a police surgeon in the regional city of Ballarat in the late 1950s who solves various police cases.

I do have some positive things to say about the series, but it has to be said that this is a show with a liberal message. You get a sense, in fact, of how the makers of the show imagine a liberal hero: he is a figure people respect and look up to, but he is outside of the establishment, and he has to battle the corruption within the conservative institutions of the city, such as the police, the army and the church.

(At the end of the last episode, an admiring female journalist asked Doctor Blake why he would choose to settle in such a conservative town and he answered "I'm here to make a difference".)

Could the show have been set, say, in the Melbourne of today? I don't think so, as the establishment now is so obviously a liberal one that it's difficult to imagine someone like Doctor Blake being a "liberal lone ranger" battling conservative institutions in the pursuit of justice.

I'm not the only one to have noticed the political slant of the series:
The show is a little redolent of Heartbeat and other nostalgic shows, with our hero (and his friends) improbably liberal...while various supporting characters are wheeled out to be reactionary and Wrong.
Even so, this is not the most striking aspect of the series. What's really different is that Doctor Blake is portrayed as a grown-up man. He looks like a grown-up man, he sounds like one and at times he asserts himself as one. I'm not sure that's happened in an Australian TV series since about the 1970s.


The show also does a good job in recreating the atmosphere of late 1950s Ballarat, and the historic architecture of the city is used to good effect. I was reminded by this of the potential of television to connect people to the past.

Despite not sharing the political leanings of The Doctor Blake Mysteries, I've enjoyed the series so far. And if there's a lesson to be drawn from it, it's that we should aim to make shows like it ourselves in the future.


  1. I wouldn't watch it. It's delusional and dishonest. There hasn't been a full fledged creepy evil conservative establishment since the arrival of The Enlightenment and Modernity.

  2. Elizabeth, I agree that the real establishment types in Ballarat in the 1950s most likely identified as liberals (in the larger sense of the word). So, yes, the premise of the show is delusional. And most likely I'll eventually tire of the liberal messaging and no longer watch the show.

    But some of the episodes have been well-written; the lead character is unusually adult and masculine; the historic architecture of Ballarat is worth seeing; and you do get a sense of people and place at times during the show.

  3. Mr. Richardson, have you seen Foyle's War? I have not seen every single episode but it did seem to exxhale that sort of liberal self-righteous attitude at times. I don't know if Foyle saw himself as a liberal seeking to undermine conservative institutions, though that's what he conveniently may have ended up doing in pursuing "justice."

  4. Interesting especially considering the classic model for the detective (as envisaged by Raymond Chandler), Philip Marlowe, was very much a cynical conservative: "It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in." " I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be." "I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room."

    I haven't seen the show. What makes him a liberal fighting against a conservative establishment?

  5. What makes him a liberal fighting against a conservative establishment?

    The message comes through in two ways. First, he is portrayed as holding progressive views on issues like capital punishment and homosexuality, unlike the stiffly conservative people around him. Second, he gets to be both a successful and respected doctor but at the same time to be an anti-establishment outsider, who battles the corruption and the closing of ranks of army officers, police officers and priests.

    I should say that the show doesn't portray all this in a cartoonish way. It's fairly subtle, for instance, we're even meant to think of the corrupt or closed-minded police officers as decent people, just less enlightened or intelligent than Doctor Blake.

    And Doctor Blake is given a couple of failings too. He drinks a bit too much and he's a bit emotionally insensitive, particularly with his housekeeper.

  6. It sounds like he is conservative insofar as he is defending the establishment values of today.

    During John Howard's tenure as PM lefties frequently complained that he was 'taking Australia back to the 1950s'. So setting a telly drama in the 1950s seems a very convenient way of enacting a favoured narrative, of a progressive Australian confronting regressive values.

  7. Dull, formulaic, could be Ballarat in the 50s, could be anywhere, anytime and why is it filmed in the dark? You need to shine a torch onto the screen to see what's going on. Australia has produced many good, entertaining series. This isn't one of them.

  8. Dr Blake series is BRILLIANT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

    1. I have to agree, Graham, that the second series has been very enjoyable so far. One of the better things on Australian TV of late.

    2. Thanks Mark. I like it because it is just good old fashioned policing and simple, not complicated. If I remember some people seem to criticize the picture color quality, but I think this adds to the overall setting and TV as it was in that era.