I’ve been critical about a couple of recent Due South episodes but I have nothing to criticise about this one. It’s one of the few, perhaps only, episodes that I remember watching when it was first shown, and although I have slightly less than half the entire run to watch, I’m going to say right now that this one is the best Due South episode of them all: both best and favourite. It had everything. And it had everything in perfect balance, with the serious story tremendous in its deadliness, and the absurdity turned up to eleven but never overwhelming or undermining the story. It even came up with an ending that was both stirring and wonderfully silly, in line with Chekhovian stricture. In short, it was good. Damned good.
There was no sign of this in the open. We were in snowy Manitoba, all white and red, the latter being the uniforms of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, specifically their Musical Ride. This was a thirty-six strong detachment of riders and mounts whose command of their beasts and whose precision was a ground-based equivalent of the Red Arrows’ synchronised flying. We saw not much more than a few seconds of the actual Musical Ride in operation, enough to show us the high quality, indeed awe-inspiring display of which they were capable.
And it appeared that the Musical Ride, under the command of Inspector Meg Thatcher, assisted by Constable Benton Fraser, was being transported south to Chicago to impress the Americans, a journey that was being filmed. In amongst the somewhat identikit Mountie crowd there was also veteran Sergeant Buck Frobisher, better known to you and I as Leslie Nielsen, former best friend of Bob Fraser, Bennie’s late father. Whose ghost was, naturally, also on the scene, as who wouldn’t be.
It was light stuff but you couldn’t see how this was to be parlayed into a story, until the last shot before the credits, of a man in the station office bound and gagged.
The plot soon emerged. The ‘film crew’, headed by White Supremicist demolitions expert Randall K Bolt (Kenneth Welsh on fine form, though not up to his performance as Windom Earle in Twin Peaks), were a terrorist group who intended to attack the ‘unlawful’ American Government by taking the train, filling it with explosives and setting up a headlong collision with a train carrying spent fuel roads, causing a massive nuclear disaster. The mounties and the Musical Ride were a nice visual for them providing that vivid personal touch, the death of innocents (and the mounties) that the audience so often focus upon.
But the episode’s first touch of genius, instantly pitching the level of elevated surreality it was to effortlessly maintain came when Inspector Thatcher, rightly concerned at the regimented way the mounties in the carriage sat to attention, silently – she described them as ‘a bunch of stiffs’ – ordered Fraser to get them doing something for the camera. She ordered him to get them to sing. And Fraser, turning into Paul Gross briefly, borrowed a guitar and started singing, in a more than decent voice, a Canadian country song that sounded traditional but which in fact was co-composed by him, with a rousing chorus that had the mounties bursting into full-throated song. Until Bolt had them gassed into unconsciousness in mid-chorus, all except Buck Frobisher.
So there we had it. A trainload of mounties and horses, crammed with explosives, bound for one unbelievable smash, and to try to prevent all this, one altogether too-perfect Constable, one female and strict inspector, aware of both her responsibility as officer in command, and of her growing attraction to said Constable, and one half-decrepit daft old bugger, who picked this moment to start seeing and having conversations with the ghost of his late partner that were even funnier than the ones between Bennie and his Dad.
What of Ray Vecchio in all of this? What of Diefenbaker? They play a minor role. Ray’s not left out. He’s chosen by Bolt to be the conduit that carries the ransom money that’s actually a smokescreen ($10,000,000 buys a hell of a lot of smoke and I’m sure Bolt would find some use for it afterwards). This is used to get him and the wolf onto the train – by jumping onto it off a bridge – to play a small part in saving the day. But really very small.
Because in the midst of all this deadly serious danger, things start to go very weird indeed between the Inspector – who has changed into her formal uniform and looks absolutely bloody phwoarrr! – and the Constable. Thatcher takes her responsibility very seriously, and commendably too. She refuses to hide behind her femininity, and she is indeed good at her job, courageous, athletic, committed, phwoarrr (sorry). When Bennie chases one of the terrorists onto the roof of the train for the classic movie fight, she follows, intervening to knock the terrorist off. Unfortunately, he’s holding on to Bennie at the same time…
This produces a flush of repressed emotion that Thatcher deflects as being her responsibility for the death of one of her immediate staff but don’t worry, Fraser’s not dead, he’s following the train on one of those crank carts, catching up on it even though there’s only one of him, in another of those lovingly presented, gloriously knowing cliches, complete with lassoing the caboose, to get back on board.
We’ve already had a wonderful sequence where Bolt has had Bennie and Meg (let’s not be formal here in view of the circumstances) handcuffed uniform to uniform, their arms wrapped around each other, all cosy-like, handcuffed behind each others’ backs. There are people who would pay for that kind of intimacy and, despite the embarrassment on both of their faces, you don’t get the sense that either are that desperate to get out. Anyway, playing on her femininity for once, Meg lures their guard near enough to disable him with a knee to the bollocks, after which there’s this brilliant sequence of nuzzling and pressing and intertwining to enable Fraser to extract a hairpin from her hair, drop it down her cleavage and have to retrieve it, use both their mouths to straighten it out and finally use it to pick the lock on his handcuffs. It’s hilarious and Gross and Scott’s facial expressions through all this are wonderfully subtle.
Now though they’re trying to stop the train. Fraser has just introduced the pragmatic step the authorities are bound to take, namely bombing the train to avert the larger disaster, and sacrificing the hostages. Meg recoils in horror at the mere thought. Intending to praise her as a superior officer, Bennie almost casually says she would do the same in their shoes. This horrifies Meg as a woman, that he could think her capable of such a heartless step. They’re running along the roof of the train, in full uniform which makes it even funnier, and she stops to confront him over whether or not she has a heart. One assurance leads to another until it leads to what we’ve been expecting, which is a kiss. A long kiss. A passionate kiss. A don’t-notice-when-a-low-bridge-shears-off-the-top-of-your-hat kiss. Until Buck Frobisher appears, disturbing the pair, and sparing their blushes by ‘reading’ the clinch as a ‘strategy session’. The writing in this is exceptional, and it’s by Paul Gross himself as well.
On we go with the plot. Unfortunately, Meg gets captured and the other two stymied. Bolt cuts the connection to the caboose leaving it, him, her and his two colleagues – whom he promptly shoots – to slow down as the train races on. Enter Ray and Diefenbaker. The collision is imminent until Buck shoots the points lever that runs the train off into a safety stretch. The bomb’s gimmicked to go off if the train slows below 50mph so Fraser uses an electric fan to con it into thinking it’s not slowed down (don’t ask me how, the episode didn’t explain how, would you bog things down at a moment like this with an implausible explanation?)
And then comes the glorious ending. At his Dad’s suggestion, Fraser is about to go rescue his superior officer and serious recent liplocker on horseback. As he’s saddling up, Buck gently chides him that he didn’t think he was going alone? And here they come, the Musical Ride, strutting their stuff in the best fashion, to surround the villain and rescue the fair damsel (though not before she clouts the villain one and knocks him off his ‘steed’).
Meg rides back on Bennie’s horse, her arms clasped round his waist. Referring back to that moment that dare not speak its name, she instructs him that that can never happen again. Except in the exact same circumstances. Bennie, precise as always, checks that this means on the roof of a moving train whilst in deadly danger. Inspector Thatcher agrees. Except in those circumstances.
I know I’ve said this many times before but it bears saying again. This was a wonderful spoof episode and it was so precisely because it was played straight. There was no condescending to the audience, no winking to them about this being all a bit silly, we’re in on the gag. Play it for real, at every minute. The contrast will do it for you every time. This was handled perfectly in this episode, the very best of the lot, whose every little piece was judged to perfection. Even that song. Is it on YouTube?