Review: Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries 1×1 (Australia: Seven)

A backlash against Miss Fisher

Ms Fisher's Modern Murder Mysteries

In Australia: Thursdays, Seven
In the UK: Not yet acquired, but’ll probably end up on Alibi, Netflix or both

Susan Faludi’s Backlash postulated a ‘sort of two steps forward, one step back’ feminist advancement in society. Feminists would achieve successes and push the envelope of what was acceptable in society – and society would then push back in some way. Everything would move a bit further along in the end, but not through slow and steady advancement.

Oddly, as we learned way back in the depths of the time when TMINE contemplated coming up with an actual list of its best ever TV characters, the 1960s TV show The Avengers provided a nice little example with the slow descent from Cathy Gale to Tara King. Originally, The Avengers had been about two men – surgeon and compassionate amateur sleuth David Keel (Ian Hendry) and ruthless professional spy John Steed (Patrick Macnee).

But when Hendry left to seek his fortune in the movies, the writers had to find a replacement. They trialled three characters, including another doctor Martin King (Jon Rollason) and nightclub singer Venus Smith (Julie Stevens), but it was anthropologist Dr Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), her ‘kinky boots’ and her very real judo, who proved to be the standout hit that turned The Avengers from a successful show into a phenomenon.

Of course, eventually it was Blackman’s turn to leave and become Pussy Galore on the Bond movie Goldfinger, so the writers looked for a new replacement. One that could still do all that fighting, albeit faux kung fu rather than judo. But one who was a bit less strident. A bit less abrasive and confrontational. One with a bit more fashion sense. One with – dare one say it? – ‘man appeal’. Hmm. M Appeal. That sounds handy.

And thus Mrs ‘Emma Peel’ (Diana Rigg) was born. Ultimately, Bond movies beckoned for Rigg, too, with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and she in turn was replaced by Tara King (Linda Thorson), a young secret agent trainee besotted with Steed and thus even less confrontational and whose fighting style was a little less scary, a bit more feminine, a little bit more hair-pully. The descent was complete.

And so was the show’s. Because ultimately, what had made it popular was female strength and King didn’t really have it, thanks to the male writers’ own backlash against what they had created. Thorson? Never got a Bond movie.

Ms Fisher and Steed
Ms Fisher and Steed

Ms Fisher’s Backlash

Why do I mention all this in a review of Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, a spin-off from massively popular Australia crime drama Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, in which a sophisticated, smart woman solved crimes using her brain and skills.

No reason. Not all. Apart from the fact it’s set in the 1960s and has its heroine paired with someone with the name ‘J Steed’. Why? Did you think I was maybe suggesting something? Actually, you might be right…

Ms Fisher

Not in Seventh heaven

This series of four telemovies sees Seven favourite Hakewill (Wanted) playing Peregrine Fisher, the niece of the original Miss Fisher, who has gone missing while off in New Guinea. The League of Gentlemen’s apparent sister club down under, ‘The Adventuresses’ Club of the Antipodes’ (a head-nod to the Miss Fisher fan club), executes Miss Fisher’s will, bestowing her fortune, her trademark pistol, her clothes, her very 60s house, her Bond-esque car and her apparently huge selection of Bond-esque gadgets to the niece she never even knew about.

But before Ms Fisher can become a member of the club itself, she must first prove her extraordinary worth. Handily, model ‘Barbie Jones’ has just been murdered in public. Can Ms Fisher turn her hand to her aunt’s true calling, help her fellow adventuresses and win over local police detective, James Steed (Deadline Gallipoli‘s Joel Jackson)?

Ms Fisher

60s tribute act

Tonally, Ms Fisher and Miss Fisher are as different as Seven and ABC are, with Ms Fisher the Tara King to Miss Fisher’s Cathy Gale. While there’s a certain charm to Hakewill and her character, this is very much ‘working class girl getting to live the high life through her moxie’, rather than the more upper crust, skilled, Miss Fisher’s society investigations. There’s very little detection, beyond an ability to spot unmatched stockings and shoes; there is, however, a surfeit of silly disguises, slapstick and general comedy.

If you’re a fan of the style of Miss Fisher, this isn’t even a pale imitation – it’s a completely different beast that lacks most of the original’s assets, and one that might put you off straight away from the moment Hakewill ends up accidentally swinging on chandeliers. That makes this an odd tie-in – with none of the characters, a different time period and none of the same style, why make this a Miss Fisher descendant at all?

But Ms Fisher’s adventurousness coupled with her lack skills means this is far more of an ensemble show than Miss Fisher was. While Ms Fisher lacks the accomplishment of Miss Fisher, the rest of the adventuresses can help out with their knowledge of science and there is that pairing with Steed. There is also a touch more of The Girl From UNCLE here than The Avengers, with Ms Fisher sporting all manner of feminine weapons and trickery, such as a makeup mirror that reveals a magnifying glass and a lipstick that doubles as a knife.

Indeed, this is also clearly a show that loves the 60s in broad brush strokes, if not detail. There’s a love of the fashions, clothings and styles of the time, and while there are hints of period detail everywhere, it isn’t Mad Men in its punctiliousness for sure, with characters trotting out lines such as “I think you have a stalker” – a word that wouldn’t enter the lexicon for another 30 years. Indeed, so much of a knowing tribute to the 60s is it, that it wouldn’t feel too out of place next to a rerun of Danger 5. That’s probably not a good thing for something that’s not supposed to be pastiche, is it?

Modern mystery

Still, while Miss Fisher came more or less fully formed into the world as a detective, this is explicitly more of an origin story and this Ms Fisher can still do some investigating, shoot bullseyes and make deductions. In time, she could become a lot better.

All the same, despite all the trappings of the age and a certain joie de vivre, Ms Fisher does not enthral. There’s little chemistry between the leads, Hakewill lacks charisma, and the supporting cast lack depth. While its message of female friendship is worthwhile, it’s weakly executed and nothing you won’t have heard before. The mystery itself was a bit soporific and spread out too thin over an entire TV movie. I didn’t feel persuaded there was a point to this or that it would exist without its more famous antecedent. If forced to stand on its own two feet, I doubt anyone would have thought Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries a good idea for a new detective drama. It’s here because of the better, pioneering original, but to be less quirky, more accessible, and less strident. And probably to have more ‘M appeal’ while it’s at it.

Just as Tara King was nobody’s favourite Avengers girl, I doubt this will be anyone’s favourite part of the Miss Fisher universe. Best hold out till the movie, I reckon.