The respectable tradition of literate, off-screen-violence murder mysteries proves it still has life in its creaky British bones in the new series “Endeavour.” This three-disc set presents five feature-length episodes of the prequel series set in the mid 1960’s and exploring the early days of Inspector Endeavour Morse on the Oxford Police force.
Based on the novels by Colin Dexter and starring the commanding John Thaw, the original “Morse” series ran for 12 seasons and inspired a fan base strong enough to warrant this second spin-off (along with the “Inspector Lewis” series). Those already hooked on “Morse” are well-served here, and new viewers will find much to enjoy as well. Those expecting radical re-thinks of the “Morse” legacy or clever surprises in the mystery series framework had best look elsewhere. This is solid, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin work by all involved, limited in action and fireworks but created with a consistent mood and attentive period detail.
Content to play variations on a theme, “Endeavour” works best as it plays subtle notes on the standard mystery formula, with the predictable variety of guest characters in each episode, red herrings, inscrutable clues, and the eventual solution and confrontation. There is a healthy respect for audience intelligence (always a good sign) and a fair balance between the mystery elements and character building.
The scripts by show “deviser” Russell Lewis are satisfyingly twisty though a bit on the parched side, and take good advantage of both the academic town setting of Oxford and the surrounding countryside. Some may find its studious attitude a bit stuffy at times, and the episode “Fugue” dwells on an unconvincing serial killer plot that would not be out of place in a direct-to-video thriller (something starring Christian Slater maybe?).
Proof again that casting is half the battle, Shaun Evans makes an ideal young Morse, doing the heavy lifting when the starch threatens to overwhelm. With his guarded expressions and aura of a secret history, Evans plays a nice mixture of idealism, intelligence, and the beginnings of that certain prickly nature that fans of John Thaw and the original “inspector Morse” series will recognize. His Morse is still naive enough to make rookie mistakes, and his smarts don’t quite mask an appealing vulnerability.
Morse’s mentor, Inspector Fred Thursday, is well-played by Brit TV veteran Roger Allam, whose steady, unshowy manner and deep rumble of a voice add a layer of authority to even the weakest of lines. (Interestingly, Allam actually made a guest appearance on an episode of “Inspector Morse” in 1997.) I liked the performance by Anton Lesser as the irritable Superintendent Bright, giving a nice edge to an otherwise rote straight arrow. John Thaw’s daughter, Abigail Thaw, plays a recurring role as a newspaper editor.
As in the recently ended “Inspector Lewis,” there are lots of morsels rewarding long-time fans of the detective. Author Colin Dexter makes a cameo (another “Morse” trademark) in the pub scene during the pilot. You discover where Morse picked up his love for Jaguar automobiles and English ale, and how he comes to meet Constable Strange (later to be his Superintendent in the “Morse” series). There is a nicely handled moment at the end of the pilot where Endeavour has a vision of the man he is to be, and listen carefully for the music that plays at the end of that scene and over the credits.
The three-disc set of “Endeavour: Series 1” included four 90-minute episodes and the 98-minute pilot film. It’s presented in widescreen format, (IMDB lists it as a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Amazon lists it as 1.66:1, and I’m not clued in enough to tell the difference, so figure it out and let me know). Picture quality is good, if a bit fuzzy on the edges on rare occasions. There is an English SDH subtitle option available.
The audio track is Dolby Stereo and is quite adequate for both the whispered secret conversations and the rare shouting and running about.
“Endeavour: Series One” is an unsurprising but well-crafted continuation of the “Inspector Morse” legacy, with compelling work by Shaun Evans in the lead role as the young Morse in his early days as a detective.