Endeavor (2012-present) has mighty big shoes to fill. The very idea of a prequel series to the great Inspector Morse, the 1987-2000 collection of television movies starring John Thaw rank among the most intelligent and fascinating detective dramas ever done. Endeavour also seemed unnecessary considering actor Kevin Whately began reprising his character for Lewis (2006-present), the fine series about Morse's one-time detective sergeant, now an inspector himself nearing retirement age, likewise set in Oxford and featuring other characters left behind after the death of the Inspector Morse character in 2000 (and Thaw's own death barely two years later).
Endeavour traces the early career of novelist Colin Dexter's solitary, lonely intellectual, who'd won a scholarship to study at Oxford but who mysteriously threw it all away over a failed love affair and joined the force instead. A large part of the appeal of Inspector Morse was the mystery surrounding his past. Unlocking and making plain what had only been hinted at before seemed like a bad idea, and while, if one squints, Endeavour star Shaun Evans and the teleplays of Russell Lewis occasionally draw almost ghostly-like connections between this early Morse and both the older one, and of actor John Thaw himself, I still had mixed feelings about the Endeavour pilot.
But, I'm happy to report, Endeavour is slowly finding its voice and by the end of series one (four 92-minute +/- episodes) I was much more optimistic about its long-term prospects.
The 2012 pilot movie was previously released to Blu-ray. This set includes that first film plus the four new movie-length episodes constituting series one. Pointlessly, PBS cuts many of its British imports for broadcast, even shows like this that they themselves co-produce. The cut versions of some of these shows have turned up on DVD and Blu-ray, but PBS seems to have realized what a disastrously foolish mistake that was and, as in this case, make a point of noting that the episodes herein are the "full UK-length edition[s]."
As before, Endeavour finds Detective Constable Morse at the beginning of his career, in 1965 Oxford. His familiarity with the university and his intellect, including a passion for crossword puzzles and opera serve him well on the five cases included here, but do not at all endear him to his fellow officers, who mostly resent his presence.
However, Detective Inspector Fred Thursday (Roger Allam, who is excellent), a career detective, recognizes Morse's talents, taking him under his wing, despite the protestations of Thursday's stubbornly self-serving superior, Chief Superintendent Bright (Anton Lesser).
I wasn't thrilled with the pilot but the series one episodes are as a whole quite solid, filled with interesting little touches that should please Inspector Morse fans. Actor James Bradshaw, for instance, plays acerbic coroner Dr. Max DeBryn, the same character played by Peter Woodthorpe in the first two seasons of Inspector Morse. And, in Endeavour, Morse frequently aides an ambitious young police constable named Jim Strange (Sean Rigby), unaware that decades later Strange would become Morse's impatient, forever complaining Chief Superintendent, played by the late James Grout.
Further, John Thaw's daughter Abigail has joined the Endeavour cast as Dorothea Frazil, editor of the Oxford Mail, who takes a professional interest in Morse's unusual detective. There's a family resemblance (she has her father's piercing eyes, though hers are dark while his were blue) making it a bit strange when she and Shaun Evans, playing Morse, share scenes. Inspector Morse composer Barrington Pheloung returns as the series' composer, and it's nice to hear a similar use of classical music and the haunting Morse theme for the opening and closing titles, respectively.
Where Endeavour really starts humming is in Morse's relationship with Thursday, a family man who, in one episode, makes a point of "leaving it," meaning work, "at the front door." This, as fans of the original series will recall, is something the older Morse was never really able to achieve. Conversely, when Thursday explains the reason he so adamantly leaves work at the door, because, in the consuming, emotionally- and psychologically-scarring business of police work, his family is the one thing he won't let that touch. Recognizing Morse's solitary nature and growing interest in opera, Thursday suggests Morse use that as a means of tuning out the overwhelming, even advising him to literally turn up the volume until he can shut it out. In fact, the older Morse of the Thaw years frequently does exactly that, blasting music on his stereo system.
While the mysteries themselves are rather derivative, with one show here, "Fugue," virtually an opera version of the 1973 Vincent Price film Theatre of Blood, it's also so well produced (that particular episode is impressively suspenseful and even scary) that its familiarity is inoffensive. The series mirrors George Gently's interests in mid-1960s England, its history (at an antiwar protest, Morse corrects the spelling of one protester's signboard) and rapidly changing popular culture. Writer Russell Lewis also enjoys referencing other films, literature, music, and later Morse stories in amusing ways. I was taken, watching "Rocket," by the parallels Russell makes between this deadly serious mystery story and the plot and characters of I'm All Right Jack (1959), one of the all-time great British comedies.
Video & Audio
The Blu-ray for Endeavour: Series 1 is up to contemporary high-def standards, and unlike the previously released pilot, is 1080p rather than 1080i. And like Lewis it renders its Oxford locations so gorgeously one is almost compelled to pack one's bags and catch the next flight to England. The region A disc offers optional SDH English subtitles while the strong audio formatted for 2.0 stereo. No Extra Features per se, but the pilot episode is included as one, and it's a nice addition for those who don't already have it.
Like the Beatles song of its era, Endeavour is "getting better all the time." It's still not at the level of Morse or even quite Lewis, but I eagerly look forward to the next series. In the meantime, this comes Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.