This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 10 October 2015.
From Darkness: Sunday, BBC One
Unforgotten: Thursday, STV
You know you're watching a po-faced crime drama when the opening credits are scored to an ethereal ballad sung by a woman who sounds like a haunted Victorian doll. But the problems with From Darkness run deeper than that.
While it isn't bad exactly – no drama starring actors as great as Anne-Marie Duff and Johnny Harris could ever be truly bad – it contains nothing that we haven't seen a million times before. By the end of episode one my generic cop show bingo card was full.
A former police constable, Claire (Duff) left the force 16 years ago when a case she was working on was shut down. She'd drawn a connection between several missing prostitutes, but her superiors wouldn't listen (they never do). Traumatised by the experience, she essentially ran away – she's shown to be a keen runner, in case you missed that subtext – to the Western Isles of Scotland with her husband and daughter.
When the remains of two women are found in what was once the red light district that Claire was investigating, her former boss and lover (Harris) travels from Manchester to draw her back in. Naturally, she resists. But could this be her chance to vanquish her demons and find justice for the women she'd “failed”? Is the killer still at large?
If this all sounds familiar it's because a police chief trying to convince a retired cop to return to the fold to reopen an unsolved case is such an overused trope. It felt particularly tired here as it dominated most of the episode. We knew from the start that Claire would capitulate and start looking into the case, but it took far too long to get her to that point.
Crime dramas can work when taken at a leisurely pace, but only if the story is involving. Despite some solid work from Duff and Harris, From Darkness is just too rote to arouse interest.
Though it began with an almost identical set-up – the discovery of human remains on an abandoned urban site – Unforgotten is a far more effective thriller. Or rather, it has potential. As always with dramas of this nature, it may well turn to ash as it unfolds, but episode one established a strong, intriguing mystery with impressive efficiency.
A cold case investigation was the fulcrum around which several seemingly unrelated scenes revolved. What is the connection between these disparate characters? The vicar, the Alan Sugar-like businessman, the retired book keeper and the community worker, do they all have something to do with the murder of a young black man in 1976? It's like a Byzantine game of Cluedo.
Granted, while playing Cluedo one doesn't tend to, as Unforgotten does, address the argument that society has a responsibility to punish people for their crimes, no matter how long ago they took place. But you take my point.
Our chief detectors are nicely underplayed by Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar, who feel more grounded and believable than most TV sleuths. It's perhaps unwise to gauge the quality of a production based on the strength of its cast, but the presence of actors such as Tom Courtenay, Bernard Hill, Gemma Jones, Trevor Eve and Ruth Sheen suggests that Unforgotten is a cut above.
You wouldn't normally see a roll call as stellar as that outside of a Mike Leigh film. This could be a keeper.