Blightyvision: “Bonekickers”

Created by Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah
Starring Hugh BonnevilleJulie Graham and Adrian Lester

The list of writers and creators whose names alone can get me to watch a show is very short indeed.  “Doctor Who” has encouraged fandom to be more writer-conscious to some degree, at least, but even for my part that tends to encourage either “Ooh, I rather like them” or “Oh, right, he wrote all the episodes that used the same spacesuit over and over.”

With that in mind, chuck anything in front of me written by either or both of the boys behind Monastic Productions and I’ll watch it.  They brought us the mindscrew that was “Life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes,” so they’ve got a nice touch of audience-manipulating madness to them.  A friend of mine, knowing this affinity, sent me the entirety of “Bonekickers” in a recent care package, with the proviso that I should watch it as “a bit of fun.”  Other than that, I knew absolutely nothing coming into it.

“Bonekickers” aired in the summer of 2008, shortly after the first series of “Ashes,” and ran for all of six episodes.  The focus of the series is a small four-person team of archaeologists, based out of the fictional Wessex University and headed up by Professor Gregory “Dolly” Parton (Bonneville).  Each episode is focused on a single different artifact or dig site, occasionally religious in nature, but tending not to go the full Indiana Jones route of paranormal phenomena and face-melting.  Rather, any over-the-top reactions to their finds come from interested individuals and their own interpretations of the team’s treasures’ worth.

For a week-to-week investigative series such as this, the team is surprisingly — and pleasantly — small.  Generally my gauge for how well a TV ensemble cast is handled is how quickly you can learn and remember everyone’s names via screen interaction alone.  It doesn’t take long to familiarize yourself with Dolly, Gillian (Julie Graham, recently a “Sarah Jane Adventures” baddie), Ben (Lester, of “Hustle”) , and Viv (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, recognizable as Martha Jones’s sister in “Doctor Who”).  They’re decently-formed characters for the brief space of time you get to know them, and while they have pasts of their own, they’re not spun out as much as they could be.  Though that’s a blessing in disguise for a truncated series.

From a scriptwriting standpoint, you can definitely see the “Mars”-esque elements, especially when it comes to Dolly.  He may not be the deepest character in the show, but he’s certainly the most fun, and feels like the writers’ outlet for the all the offensive jokes they’d like to be able to get away with.  He’s nothing like a port of Gene Hunt, though; more than anything, he’s like that one professor you’d go drinking with after exams are over, and you let him get away with saying just about anything because he’s awesome and you got straight A’s in his class and he might well be drunk already anyway.

The thing is, “Bonekickers” almost pulls an “Outsiders,” in that its underlying plot thread is rushed out at the very end and seems to blindside you more than surprise you.  It’s an interesting one, and one that makes sense, but it needed more than one episode of preparation.  While there were signs in previous episodes of what was addressed at the end, there were no moments of “Oh, hey, so that’s what that meant!”  You know that there is something rotten going on — there’s a running subplot of Gillian’s mother having been driven mad by her own research — and the levels of conspiracy theory are very cool.  But the revelation that there’s something we should have been wondering about comes so late in the game that even the overall coolness of the concept sort of whizzes by, like a friend telling you just a bit too late that you’ve driven by something really awesome.

The thing is, I actually enjoyed it, in a sort of casual Saturday-afternoon way.  Had I not been warned to look at it that way, the names attached would have had me expecting a lot more than I got, and I would have been disappointed for sure.  The Beeb did offer a second series, but the writers decided against it themselves.  Would a second one have opened things up a bit more?  Possibly — it felt like a big bundle of potential that came and went before you could decide how much potential it had.  Will I watch it again?  Sure.  Maybe on one of those casual Saturday afternoons.

“Bonekickers” is available on DVD in a box set, and includes a piece of the True Cross.  Okay, that’s probably a lie.