Silent Witness: The Complete Seasons One and Seventeen DVD Reviews: Ch-ch-ch-changes

BBC Video releases the earliest and latest seasons of the long-running crime drama series.
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In 1996, the BBC debuted a new contender into an arena of crime dramas that was already heavily populated by a venerable assortment of combatants both old and new. Silent Witness certainly wasn't the first series of its kind, but it has nevertheless managed to cope with the ever-changing world it is based upon - all the while making a number of substantial alterations within its own fictional settings. Though the elements of adult-themed story devices and the sight of a rotting cadaver is something television producers across The Pond have embraced ever since they determined they could get away with such Nielsen winners, Silent Witness never seemed to view its own exploitation-style goodies (i.e. nudity and gore) as meal tickets. (Although it does include those two aforementioned surefire sellers.)

Instead, Nigel McCrery's Silent Witness regarded such affairs as secondary; it was all about the story and the drama here (which comes as no surprise considering its creator is a former murder-squad detective). In fact, the BBC series has earned several awards (as well as nominations) over the years for its performances. But what really might stand out when you compare it to your average long-standing U.S. procedural is a change that is completely alien to American dramas: a complete change in cast. Sure, we've all seen a lot of a minor characters depart a series in the States, and we have even witnessed a lead bowing out (or perhaps, being fired) every now and again. But for a dramatic series to change its entire cast over the course of time is practically unheard of here.

In Britain, however, it's not all too uncommon. The Scottish series Taggart initially debuted in 1983, ran for twenty-eight years, and went through a complete cast change, even retaining its name after series lead Marc McManus (who played the eponymous detective) passed away in 1994, his part never being replaced by that of another actor (that's some serious respect there, ladies and gentlemen). Current cop/comedy New Tricks (which was co-created by Mr. McCrery) only recently bid adieu to three of its four original leads, including the top-billed Amanda Redman. In short: everything changes between the recent releases of Silent Witness: The Complete Season One and The Complete Season Seventeen, so you had better get used to it now.

In Silent Witness: The Complete Season One, our protagonist is one Dr. Samantha "Sam" Ryan - expertly brought to life by award-winner Amanda Burton. Pathologist by profession, loner by nature, Dr. Ryan returns to her native Cambridge to take up a position teaching whilst working for the local police. Between her daily grind investigating suspicious deaths and butting heads with the people she works with, Sam deals with her estranged family in her private time: an increasingly senile mum (Doreen Hepburn), rebellious nephew (Matthew Steer), and a sister (Ruth McCabe) that blames her for everything that has gone wrong in their lives. Clare Higgins is the Detective Sergeant who rules with an iron fist, John McGlynn (the Scottish Eddie Constantine) is the chief investigator who is having a hush-hush affair with a junior trainee (Ruth Gemmell).

In "Buries Lies", the debut of the series, Dr. Ryan is asked to investigate the cause of death for a six-year-old girl found floating in a creek. Discovering clues that clearly indicate child abuse, Ryan receives information from an inmate who is in for murdering her own daughter - a discovers a unsettling similarity. "Long Days, Short Nights" begins with a wealthy occultist of an infamous ill repute bidding an out-of-control pal adieu, only to be accused of murdering the latter when his body is later discovered showing marks of an occult sacrifice. But that's only the beginning, and soon more bodies are piling up. Colin Salmon of the Pierce Brosnan-era James Bond films delivers a great guest starring role as the suspect, and Emily Mortimer is his terrified junkee gal pal.

"Darkness Visible" finds the now-established rocky crew of police and pathologists trying to determine just who is responsible for the death of a gay man tossed into the drunk tank late one fateful night. Was it the belligerent intoxicated cellmate (Michael Troughton)? Or does the strong tainted odor of a coverup indicate some very bad police work was at play? Ken Stott and Philip Glenister (preparing for his role in Life of Mars and Ashes to Ashes, no doubt) guest star as police officers/suspects. The season concludes with "Sins of the Fathers", wherein a Vietnamese medical intern (Teo-Wa Vuong) with a horrific past seeks out advice from Dr. Ryan, only to wind up involved in a murder after her father and the man he arranged for her to marry duke it out.

As the last episode of the season concludes, we witness a devastating loss to police personnel; the resolution of which (if any) will have to wait for any inexperienced viewers, since from here, we jump into the 17th season. (Look, that's just how the BBC released these in this instance, OK?) Eighteen years on, the set is no longer set in Cambridge, having instead transported its crew over to London. Between that time, Dr. Ryan and her colleagues have all moved on, having been replaced even more times than William Petersen's character of Gil Grissom on the show's flashier, more style/less substance American competitor, CSI. Upon the opening of Season Seventeen, it's clear things have changed considerably - as evident by such things as mobile (smart)phones and a bad case of political/religious outrage following the insensitive tweet of an idiotic football star.

As this season opens, our main protagonist is Dr. Nikki Alexander (Emilia Fox), who is going through a transition of her own at the Lyell Centre (read: nice big pathology lab) following the departure of one of Dr. Ryan's replacements. A new head of the department arrives in the guise of Dr. Thomas Chamberlain (Richard Lintern), who alienates everybody with his odd stereotypical British behavior, which he best describes to Nikki as being declared "easy to like" (and he is) by everyone in his graduating class (translation: not much outward personality, but a bit of heart if you dig deep enough). Returning from the previous season(s) are comedienne/broadcaster/disability rights activist Liz Carr as Clarissa, the Lyell Centre's resident smartass lab techie, and David Caves as forensic scientist Jack Hodgson, who is just as keen to use his fists as his brain.

"Commodity", the first episode of the latest season, finds a pro-footballer on the decline due to his bad behavior in even hotter water once a sex tape surfaces - and the would-be blackmailer winds up dead! "Coup de Grace" opens with Nikki being called into re-examine the evidence of an older case, wherein an ex-soldier was convicted of killing his gay lover as well as another young (gay) man. When Nikki's new findings release the bipolar man (Michael Socha, England's not-as-handsome answer to Jake Gyllenhaal), the same styles of murders begin once again. Tobias Menzies (England's better-looking and not-as-annoying version of Ryan Reynolds) co-stars as a lawyer with the hots for a very confused and perturbed Dr. Alexander.

Nikki and Jack take a trip up to Scotland and find themselves not only "In a Lonely Place", but piecing together a puzzle of women who were hunted down by an unknown serial killer in a local forest. Strippers, Scottish rednecks, and corrupt cops only add to the fun. "Undertone" delivers not only the case of a recently pregnant young woman found in a suitcase submerged in the water, but a familiar face from the first season as well in the presence of guest star Ruth Gemmell (in a different role). Lastly, in "Fraternity", a previously unmentioned sibling of Jack becomes the chief suspect in the murder of a young girl who is found in an open grave during a burial. Owen McDonnell is the lost sibling in question, and rapper Ashley Walters guest stars as a police detective obsessed with sexual assault in this finale.

Both seasons of Silent Witness are offered up in their original aspect ratios (1.33:1 for Season One, 1.77:1 for Season Seventeen) with a sole English 2.0 stereo audio option and removable English (SDH) subtitles (which could have used a little more proofreading) for each release (likewise, the menus could have also used a little variety, as a guest star from an episode on Disc One of Season Seventeen appears on the main menu of each subsequent disc). Every episode of the series was originally aired as a two-parter, spread over two consecutive nights. Here they are presented in their edited-together feature-length form (spread out over two discs for the first season and three for the other), just in case anyone wonders why a bizarre random credit might pop up in the middle of an episode.

There are no special features present on either set save for some promos for other BBC series, but don't let that discourage you: if you like your procedurals to not only sport blood and bare breasts, but to include actual good acting too, you won't want to keep silent about Silent Witness.

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