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Series / Houdini & Doyle

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Harry Houdini, a skeptical Stage Magician and Escape Artist, and Arthur Conan Doyle, a medical doctor/writer and devout spiritualist, come together to solve crimes and determine whether they are done by natural means or the supernatural.

Houdini & Doyle is a show loosely based on the Real Life strained odd friendship between the two famous historical people. Not to be confused with the 2014 miniseries on Houdini, which also features Doyle. The series was canceled after one season.

This series provides examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: This is not the first time Stephen Mangan has played a detective who believes in things that other people scoffed at.
  • Affectionate Pickpocket: Houdini, being a Stage Magician, has a knack for this and will often lift evidence to help with the investigation.
  • Agent Mulder/Agent Scully: Doyle and Houdini, respectively, as they were in real life. For one episode, The Monsters of the Nethermoor, they switch roles, with Houdini believing that a woman really was abducted by aliens, while Doyle doubts it due to the only witness being an alcoholic prone to hallucinations. Doyle peevishly accuses Houdini of taking the contrary view simply to annoy him, though he's actually sincere. Interestingly, this is how the actual Scully and Mulder worked too: when it came to religious or spiritual mysteries, their roles were reversed, with Scully the believer and Mulder the skeptic.
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  • Alien Abduction: "The Monsters of Nethermoor" revolves around this. It turns out that the "aliens" were the descendants of immigrant miners who fled into caves to avoid being stoned after the mine had dried up.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Bram Stoker Hates Being Touched, is almost pathologically afraid of social situations, and has touches of OCD. He's also got tertiary syphilis and may or not not be an actual vampire.
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: Houdini says to Doyle that even if he saw a distinct, clear apparition of his dead mother before him, he wouldn't accept it was a ghost, but only evidence he'd gone mad. While that would be a possibility, saying it could never be a ghost is what clinches it. On the other hand, he believes in alien life, and that they might come to earth, becoming the believer to Doyle's skeptic on the issue (much to Doyle's annoyance).
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The series opens in 1901, with Adelaide as a constable in the Metropolitan Police Service (Scotland Yard), and she is identified several times as Scotland Yard's first female constable. Women officers were not admitted to the MPS until 1919. Also Doyle and Houdini never solved crimes together of course. In fact, they didn't even meet until 1920.
    • The real Houdini didn't debut his signature "Chinese Water Torture Cell" feat until 1913.
    • Thomas Edison actually did try to invent a machine for communicating with the dead, but it was in the late 1920s shortly before he died.
    • Houdini's mother, Cecilia Steiner Weiss, actually died in 1913, not 1901. It also happened in New York, not London.
    • Instead of being shot by Leon Czolgosc, US President William McKinley is almost killed by another anarchist whom Doyle manages to stop at the last moment though he's shot himself in the process. Perhaps the show has gone into full-blown Alternate History now, since it's at the same location and time the real McKinley was shot.
    • Houdini is portrayed as not believing in God or an afterlife. The real man stated he was a religious Jew, with his skepticism being toward the alleged scientific proof of an afterlife. He believed in it on faith nonetheless.
  • Badass Moustache: Just like in real life, Doyle sports an impressive one.
  • Basement-Dweller: Houdini calls the wannabe vampires this, which is an anachronistic reference in 1901.
  • Bedlam House: "Bedlam" is centered upon the actual Bedlam, Bethlehem Royal Hospital in London. It stands up to expectations.
  • Berserk Button: Racial discrimination is a big one for Houdini, as it reminds him of the prejudice he and his family faced growing up as Jewish-Hungarian immigrants in America. It is a plot point in “The Monsters of Nethermoor”.
  • Bomb-Throwing Anarchists: Adelaide's husband apparently was connected with a violent Polish anarchist group which committed bombings, although she insists it must have been to investigate and take them down. This is eventually confirmed, and he turns out to be still alive. However, he's really one of the anarchists, and tries to assassinate US President William McKinley.
  • Broken Pedestal: Happens several times to the main characters:
    • In “A Dish of Adharma” Adelaide greatly admires acclaimed suffragette Lydia Belworth and strongly supports her in her crusade for female liberation. She is very disappointed when she discovers she not only murdered a man who got her pregnant, but is also willing to kill another innocent woman to stop the truth from getting out. Houdini relates a similar incident that happened to himself, when he discovered all the tricks of a Stage Magician he spent much of his childhood idolizing had no actual skill behind them and relied entirely on playing on people’s gullibility for money, making him in Houdini’s own words “a cheap fraud.”
    • In “Strigoi” Houdini is initially quite excited to meet Bram Stoker, having been a fan of his works for years and having read everything back to his original theater reviews in Dublin. He is quickly put off by Bram’s anti-social traits and extreme eccentricities; by halfway through the episode he’s convinced he’s the murderer. He’s innocent.
    • Downplayed in “Necromanteion”. Doyle is initially excited to meet Thomas Edison, and admits to have even based a character of his upon him. He’s disappointed to find that Edison not only had never read any of his stories (or nearly anyone’s for that matter), but is an uptight workaholic. Nevertheless he still manages to keep his admiration for Edison’s work ethic and mechanical brilliance.
  • Chekhov's Skill: It’s brought up several times over the first four episodes that Houdini can hold his breath longer than anyone else in the world. This comes in handy in “The Curse of Korzha” when he manages to save a little girl who’s been tied up to drown.
  • Creative Sterility: A recurring plot point throughout the season is that following killing off Sherlock Holmes and finishing his book on the Second Boer War, Doyle is having trouble coming up with anything else to write, and is resistant to writing any more Sherlock Holmes stories despite the massive popular demand for it. Following a Near-Death Experience in the season finale where he actually gets to talk to his creation, he finally accepts the inevitable and starts work on The Hound of the Baskervilles.
  • Condensation Clue: Adelaide finds a message written on glass in a window overlooking a steamed-up laundry in the pilot episode.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • In “The Maggie's Redress” Doyle mentions his new motor car, which can reach speeds of nearly ten miles an hour. In “Spring-Heel'd Jack” he and Houdini take it out for a drive.
    • In “The Maggie’s Redress” Houdini draws attention to Tesla being at the party he’s throwing for his mother’s birthday. In “Necromanteion” it’s brought up that Houdini is a friend of Tesla, which Doyle claims is the reason for his distain of Edison.
  • Deadly Gas: What actually killed the inhabitants of La Pier.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • While not focusing on it too much (going with the overall light tone of the series) the show does often bring up the amount of casual misogyny Adelaide regularly faces. As the first female constable, before meeting Houdini and Doyle she was forced to work in the basement doing nothing but filing all day, and was partnered with them mostly to get them out of Inspector Merring's hair. Nearly every episode, when she introduces herself she is met with a brief moment of disbelief that she really is a police officer with even Houdini initially mistaking her for the tea girl. She likewise will sometimes bring up the problems women face, especially not having the right to vote.
    • Houdini at one points brings up the antisemitism he and his family faced growing up in America, to the point that as a child his father was turned down for trying to buy some vegetables at a store that refused to serve him, and Houdini himself was nearly arrested for protesting about it.
    • “The Monsters of Nethermoor” focuses a lot on the amount of racial bigotry that existed in rural England at the time, with it being revealed that the villagers outright murdered several of the immigrant workers when the mines dried up, driving a whole community of them to spend over thirty years hiding underground. Doyle himself admits in the same episode that as a child he let his family's black servant take the blame for a theft from his cousin that he himself committed, something which he’s deeply ashamed about in the present.
    • While quite forward-thinking men for their time, both Houdini and Doyle find the prospect that Adalaide’s late husband might have been a homosexual unpleasant to think about, and Houdini finds the idea of two men having sex disgusting.
    • While in Canada investigating a case of an entire village suddenly dropping down dead in “The Pall of LaPier”, a plot point is the land originally belonged to First Nations people, who in living memory were driven off their land so that settlers could build a mine, the process of which killed many of them. Likewise the local police sergeant, while seemingly on relatively good terms with the local chief, first attempts to blame the disaster on the First Nations people despite not having a shred of evidence they are in any way connected with it.
  • Demonic Possession: "Bedlam" deals partially with an apparent case of possession. It turns out to be the result of a toxin inducing psychosis.
  • Escape Artist: As in real life, Houdini is a master of this, a skill that serves them well through the series. However, in “The Monsters of Nethermoor”, he admits a lot of his escapes came from in depth preparation, so when tied up by a simple well-made rope and unable to reach the knots, he struggles to find a way out. Doyle simply smashes a nearby bottle and uses the glass to cut them free.
  • Fake Faith Healer: In one episode, the pair investigate a faith healer, and eventually establish that the faith was real, but the healing was not.
  • Floating Head Syndrome: Doyle ribs Houdini about the promotional posters for his act, which consist of Houdini's head shown very big on a plain background. By episode's end, Houdini's arranged for an even bigger version.
  • Freudian Excuse:
    • Houdini’s disdain for fake paranormal events and passion for disproving them stems from guilt over a trick he performed several years ago that went horribly wrong. He managed to convince a woman he was conversing with her dead husband. However, this inspired her to commit suicide to be with him, leaving behind two children.
    • Doyle’s disdain and near paranoid dislike for alcoholics stems from watching his father’s descent into alcoholism and finally madness.
    • Inspector Merring’s extreme protectiveness towards children stems from his own son pointlessly dying in the Boer War, and his desire to stop any other child’s needless death or any other parent experiencing the anguish of losing them. He even expresses some sympathy towards the antagonist in “The Curse of Korzha”, as he was motivated by the police failing to bring his own son’s killer to justice.
  • Happily Married: Doyle and Mary Louise (or his beloved Touie as he called her) were this, thus making her falling into a coma from tuberculosis all the more hard for him.
  • Hidden Purpose Test: Houdini dares a faith healer to drink what he claims is cyanide. The healer thinks it's a test of whether his powers work, but Houdini (who takes it as a given that they don't) is actually testing whether the suspect believes in those powers.
  • Historical Domain Character: There are a few historic people other than the two titular characters that appear in the show.
    • Bram Stoker in "Strigoi". In real life he is a distant relative of Doyle.
    • Thomas Edison and Theodore Hardeennote  in "Necromanteion".
    • US President William McKinley in "The Pall of LaPier".
  • Historical In-Joke: There are a few nods to things that actually happen in the lives of the men.
    • In "The Monsters of Nevermoor", Houdini accepts being punched in the gut and making preparations for it, but the guy instead punches Houdini in the face, though Houdini does beat the guy up afterwards. In real life Houdini did get punched in the stomach and had chances to brace himself, and him being punched in the stomach unprepared was the cause of his death.
    • In "Strigoi", Houdini gets buried alive and after escaping he comments that he should put it in his act. In real life Houdini did have buried alive stunts but only preformed them 3 times in America, though he did plan a 4th but he died before doing so and the coffin he prepared for it was used to transport his body.
    • Doyle hallucinates a conversation with Sherlock Holmes in the season one finale. Holmes initially appears wearing a deerstalker, but he immediately tosses it aside to speak to his creator, who'd never actually described Holmes as wearing such a thing: it was illustrators and playwrights who indelibly linked the character with such a hat.
  • Hypocrisy Nod: In “The Curse of Korzha”, Houdini discovers the local medium Madame Korzha changed her name to fit the part better and argues this is evidence she is suspicious. Doyle wastes no time reminding him that he also changed his name to further his career.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Houdini express distaste over "just the thought of two men sleeping together" right before he gets into the bed he's sharing with Doyle in a boarding house.
  • Innocently Insensitive: Doyle clearly means well, but when he talks to his daughter about the limitations imposed on girls or to Houdini about the anti-Semitism he faced growing up, his attempts to show that he can relate only demonstrate that he can't and that he lacks any self-awareness of his own privilege.
  • Jerkass: Inspector Horace Merring, while his disdain for Houdini and Doyle helping out (or in his opinion interfering in police work) is somewhat understandable especially with their ability to show his constables up, his misogynistic attitude towards Adelaide and general smugness makes him pretty unlikable.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
    • Houdini, in contrast to Nice Guy Doyle. He’s arrogant, boastful, enjoys trolling his friends and normally gets involved with these cases just to prove there is nothing supernatural happening. However, he has a strong moral center and is genuinely a caring man. Plus, if you can put up with his jokes, he is a pretty great friend.
    • Inspector Merring has his moments. While obstructive, snobbish and misogynistic, he nevertheless is firmly on the side of law and justice. Likewise when dealing with a serious problem he will drop his prejudices and accept outside help. If the case involves children being in danger, he’ll actively welcome it and try to solve the matter personally.
  • Le Parkour: Used by Houdini to demonstrate that, yes, a human being could have made it onto the walled property where one of the "Springheel Jack" attacks took place.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: In "The Monsters of Nethermoor" there is a great deal of prejudice toward Daniel Berry, being a mixed race man married to a white woman, which you'd expect in rural 1901 England. He's accused of murdering her largely based on this (although he was the last person to see her), with the police holding him for his safety, since they're afraid he'd be lynched otherwise. Her uncle actually appears to be the most bigoted of the bunch.
  • Master of Unlocking: As an escape artist Houdini can near effortlessly pick just about any type of lock, with nothing more than a hairpin and often less; he quite effortlessly can escape handcuffs. This trait is used practically once an episode.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Frequently, there's a wrinkle to the Mystery of the Week that isn't easily explained.
    • In “A Dish of Adharma”, Houdini is quite happy that the seeming case of reincarnation was explained by the boy gaining the journal of the murdered man and becoming obsessed with him as he was secretly his father. Doyle however is quick to point out this doesn’t explain how the boy knew where the man's body was buried, or how he gained a mark on his forehead in the exact same place his father was shot.
    • During the episode with the faith healer, Houdini suffers from symptoms that get worse every time he denounces God. After the healer loses his faith after learning that his sister had been attacking his hecklers, Houdini collapses and wakes up recovered. Also, Doyle's wife, who had awoken after the faith healer visited (despite Harry's insistence that it was the result of a seemingly failed experimental treatment), falls asleep again.
    • "Spring-Heeled Jack": not all the attacks were perpetrated by the suspect who's arrested, with the last shot being of a possible second "Jack" watching the characters from a rooftop.
    • In "The Curse of the Korzha", the medium turned out to have deduced the location of the first kidnapped girl through observations, and gone to the police so she could get to her, but how she knew both that Doyle's wife was still alive (in addition to her nickname) and where to find the information on Stratton's real identity is unexplained.
    • "Bedlam": How did Doyle's hallucination of his father know about the liquor hidden in the piano?
    • We never see how the self-professed vampire lady got into and out of Doyle's home, nor how she broke Stoker out of jail. We also don't receive a solid explanation for how Stoker got out of the hotel. Stoker is also implied to himself be a vampire.
    • Though a lot of what occurs with the Necro-phone is chalked up to either a deliberate hoax by the killer or the power of suggestion combined with coincidence, some of it, like Harry hearing his mother and the massive psychokinetic episode that occurs right before the device is destroyed, is more ambiguous.
    • In the season finale, Doyle, hit by a bullet, hallucinates Sherlock Holmes having a conversation with him, even giving him meaningful advice. Or was it more than just a trick of the mind? The aforementioned woman, who had even been appearing in dreams, also shows up next to Harry on the ship back to England, the episode ending right after.
  • Momma's Boy: Not played negatively, but Houdini is very close and caring towards his mother. He admits to Adelaide in the first episode that he finds the main benefit of his acquired wealth is it means he gets to give her everything she had lacked throughout her life and then some (this was true for the real Houdini as well, who doted on his mother).
  • Never Suicide: Adelaide refuses to believe that her late husband killed himself, believing he was murdered instead. He turns out to be still alive, having faked his own death.
  • Non-Idle Rich: As a famous escape artist and Stage Magician, Houdini has plenty of money by this point. Doyle himself is reasonably well off, due to being a famous author and a former doctor. Both of them dedicate a lot their time to investigating crimes.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Doyle came from Edinburgh, Scotland and Houdini grew up speaking German, though in America from the age of four years. Both the actors playing them put on normal English and American accents, respectively.
  • Not Me This Time: The reporter who hired the gymnast to scare people and get publicity for his Spring-Heeled Jack stories claims that he got the idea after the first death attributed to the demon. Houdini sometimes has to deny he'd staged supernatural-seeming events, having previously engineered a few to show Doyle and Adelaide that they can be faked.
  • OOC Is Serious Business:
    • The normally disdainful and obstructive Inspector Merring welcoming outside help to assist the police force (a psychic no less), and him actively trying to solve the case himself rather than delegating it? A sign there is a child-killing madman on the loose.
    • Despite being a firm skeptic and possessing contempt for the idea of an afterlife, Houdini breaks down into praying in Hebrew after finally accepting his beloved mother’s death.
  • Parents as People: Doyle is by any standards a loving, caring and supportive father towards his children Mary and Kingsley. However, following their mother falling into a coma, and his occasional inability to deal with his own problems, he does sometimes have trouble being there for them. It is a plot point in “A Dish of Adharma” and “Bedlam”.
  • Pint-Sized Powerhouse: Houdini, as in real life, is a short, small man. However, due to the sheer physical strain that his escapes require, he is physically quite strong, as demonstrated in “The Monsters of Nethermoor”, where he wipes the floor with a much bigger man after being challenged to a fist fight.
  • Placebo Effect: Faith healings turn out to be caused by this, as many people claim is really the case (at least for most).
  • Psychic Surgery: Houdini fakes this on a man, convincing him he's been "cured" of his stomach pain.
  • Reincarnation: The subject of the second episode where a boy claims to be the reincarnation of a man who was murdered trying to take revenge on the woman who killed him. It turns out the boy was the man's illegitimate son and the woman was his biological mother who thought he died in childbirth.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: Doyle knows a variety of important people, including the Home Secretary, and is not above calling upon them if he needs something like a warrant to help with an investigation.
  • Serial Killer: Subverted. In “The Curse of Korzha” it appears there is a lunatic on the loose, who has already drowned one boy and attempts to drown several other children. However, it turns out the attempted killer of the second and third children was in fact the father of the first victim, who was trying to kill more children so that the police would bring back attention to finding who killed his son.
  • Skepticism Failure: Houdini is always against a paranormal or supernatural explanation of any phenomena he and Doyle encounter (the notable exception being for aliens) but is wrong more than half the time. Doyle is far more willing to admit when he's wrong and there is a mundane answer in contrast.
  • Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter!: Houdini dares the faith healer in "In Manus Dei" to have God smite him.
  • Spring-Heeled Jack: "Spring-Heel'd Jack" sees Houdini and Doyle on the trail of the entity. Fitting closely with the legend, it is depicted as a tall dark creature in a black cloak, with burning red eyes, capable of incredible feats of agility and able to breath blue flames. Starting with a businessman falling to his death, after encountering the entity outside his top floor window, London is soon thrown into a grip of terror when multiple attacks by the phantom occur, including another death. Doyle's research comes to the conclusion that Spring-heeled Jack is an omen warning of an upcoming tragedy, as sightings over the last century all occurred right before disease outbreaks and wars. Their investigation eventually discovers that the attacks were in fact caused by an unscrupulous journalist reporting on the story, having hired a Russian acrobat to impersonate the monster using circus tricks to mimic its seemingly supernatural abilities to give him a story to grip the London public (and the second death being an accident). However, after being caught, he reveals he only started the con after the first death, having never even heard the legend before then, with ending showing something moving across the rooftop of a building, implying the existence of the real Spring-heeled Jack.
  • Starting a New Life: After her husband is presumed dead, Penelope Graves leaves behind her old name and identity to start a new one at Scotland Yard as Adelaide Stratton.
  • Super Doc: Despite no longer practicing, Doyle is still a doctor, and proves to be incredibly knowledgeable in a variety of fields of medicine, including an accurate knowledge of the symptoms of obscure diseases, toxicology, forensics and can perform autopsies, though he is reluctant to do them and doesn’t believe himself to be qualified.
  • They Fight Crime!: A skeptical entertainer and a doctor-turned-bestselling author join forces to solve mysteries!
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: Doyle spends most of "Bedlam" in the grips of ergot-induced hallucinations. One of these, ironically, is him believing that he's in an insane asylum. It also partly involves his father's mental illness, which Doyle has very painful memories about.
  • Two Guys and a Girl: Houdini and Doyle with Constable Adelaide Stratton.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Doyle and Houdini actually were friends, although they had a falling-out over spiritualism. They never solved crimes together, but Doyle investigated a few cases and exonerated wrongly convicted prisoners. Houdini went on a debunking campaign against mediums, while Doyle retained his spiritualist faith to the end (this also ended their friendship).
  • Very Special Episode: "The Monsters of Nethermoor" appears to be focused on the evils of bigotry in 1901 England, with Houdini sympathetic toward a mixed race man who's the subject of racism due to his own past experience of antisemitism, which an elderly Jewish woman also talks about with him, and Doyle's old shame over a black maid being blamed for stealing something he did. It turns out that the kidnappers in the episode are descendants of immigrant miners who hid underground to escape angry mobs stoning them, driving it home further.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Houdini and Doyle to a tee. They spend most of their time snarking at the other, even in life and death situations, and will never miss an opportunity to make one at the other’s expense. However, they do enjoy each other’s company and hold a great deal of respect for the other. When one is in danger, the other will lose it. It’s well demonstrated in the first episode: after an entire episode of claiming that he will use the copy of Doyle’s most recent book that he’ll win as part of their bet to steady his piano, at the end we see Houdini carefully putting the book on a private shelf dedicated only to Doyle’s works.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Doyle has some rather strong issues regarding his father and his work as a writer.

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