It may sound perverse, if not masochistic, to say that I’ve spent weeks of quarantine watching autopsies. But these procedures have been the ultimate escape: Taking place in a distant, fictional environment, they usually involve an agent of death that isn’t a volatile, out-of-control virus but a volatile, out-of-control human being. (At least a relentless person’s range is limited.)
I refer to the many homicide post-mortems in the addictive BBC thriller “Silent Witness,” which may be the only television drama whose title character is a corpse.
Created by Nigel McCrery, a writer and former police officer, “Silent Witness” is also Britain’s longest-running crime series and one of the most enduring anywhere — at 23 seasons, it surpasses even “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Like that American production, “Silent Witness” features a central female character, has survived multiple cast changes and is not headed for the morgue itself. The BBC has announced at least two more seasons in which this show’s brilliant forensic scientists will toil over the remains of unlucky people.
“Silent Witness” also offers some of the fun of “Law & Order”: spotting future stars in their early careers. I’ve seen Idris Elba as an ambitious young boxer, Benedict Cumberbatch as a callow university student, Jodie Comer as the unfortunate subject of an exorcism and Daisy Ridley as a guilt-ridden teenager. But the most poignant performance is that of Daniel Kaluuya, who, in the 2008 episode “Safe,” plays an adolescent trying desperately to keep his little brother from being lured into working for a remorseless gang. (A warning: Don’t count on happy endings.)
I initially encountered “Silent Witness” in 1996, when A&E began to broadcast the early seasons. Without a cable service that offered BBC America, which ran the show from 2005-7, I lost track of it. Now, however, Seasons 1 to 22 are streaming free on Amazon Prime Video; 23 and 24 are on BritBox, which will eventually have the entire series, as well as coming seasons. Here are three reasons I’m a fan.
Strong Female Characters
In the first season, you meet Sam Ryan (don’t call her Samantha), a pathologist in Cambridge, England. When she was a teenager in Northern Ireland, her father, a Belfast police officer, stormed out of their house after arguing with her and started his car, forgetting to check it first for a saboteur’s bomb. The error proved fatal. Haunted by guilt, Sam devotes her career to investigating the deaths of others. The actress Amanda Burton makes this heroine — dogged, determined and, I’ll admit, self-righteous — wholly believable. Never putting expediency over justice, Sam involves herself deeply in criminal cases, often to the consternation of the detectives who are her professional (and sometimes personal) bedfellows.
By the time Sam leaves, in Season 8, she has become a London professor and head of the fictional Lyell Centre, a pathology institute. At first, I wasn’t sure I liked her replacement, Nikki Alexander (Emilia Fox), a South African forensic pathologist. Younger and blonder than Sam, she assumes a less senior title and shows up in a few midriff-baring outfits that would make even the cadavers blanch. But although “Silent Witness” then becomes more of an ensemble show — the Lyell’s new chief, Leo Dalton (William Gaminara), and the pathologist Harry Cunningham (Tom Ward) get story lines, too — Nikki, ably played by Fox, has ultimately won me over as the series’s emotional and moral center. (And I couldn’t help being entertained by her simmering flirtation with Harry.)
Clarissa Mullery, who joins the Lyell in Season 16, is also unforgettable. A forensic examiner who uses a wheelchair, Clarissa is a fierce advocate for the disabled (as is Liz Carr, who portrays her). With dry wit and ample courage, she does more than work at the lab, going undercover as a patient at a suspicious care facility in the 2019 episode “One Day.” I was sorry to see her exit the series at the end of Season 23.
In that finale, “Silent Witness” also loses the Lyell Centre’s most recent boss, the levelheaded Thomas Chamberlain (Richard Lintern). I would like to see Nikki accept his position and the series finally cast a person of color in a leading role. But whatever happens, I’ll watch.
Fictional suspense helps me flee the real-life variety, and this show’s longtime pattern of episodes that are divided into two one-hour parts has given me the equivalent of a gripping feature film every night. The subjects run the gamut: human trafficking, biological weapons, drug cartels, serial crime, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the occasional perplexing accident. In “The Fall Out” (Season 6), for instance, Sam is called to a horrific highway pileup involving the discovery of a severed arm that doesn’t belong to a crash victim (a development that’s quintessential “Silent Witness”).
But the drama’s writers know that the worst crimes often involve toxic family dynamics. For shocking conclusions, try “The Prodigal” (Season 14), about what seems like an assassin’s attack on an embassy, or “Family” (Season 21), in which several members of a household appear to have been massacred by a gunman.
What I find most compelling, however, are the mysteries incorporating the lead characters’ back stories. Before Sam leaves the series, she uncovers the truth of her father’s murder. When the body of Harry’s college girlfriend arrives at the Lyell, he isn’t allowed to do the autopsy but still discovers how she died. And in “Fraternity” (Series 17), the forensic scientist and amateur boxer Jack Hodgson (David Caves), the debonair Harry’s more testosterone-driven successor, must make a wrenching moral decision involving his own wayward brother.
An Immersion in Medicine
Yes, the mortuary occupants in “Silent Witness” are well beyond help, but the series’s meticulous attention to anatomy and physiology still fascinates me. (Multiple pathologists serve as medical advisers.) I’ve been intrigued to learn how the smallest clues can indicate whether a death is a suicide or a homicide, an accident or not. And as an erstwhile fan of “House,” I was pleased when I guessed the genetic condition affecting a baby in “Trust” (Season 16), an episode in which Leo struggles to prove that the indigent mother is not an abuser.
“Silent Witness,” however, is famously gory. Skip it if you recoil at seeing a pathologist pluck out a stomach and empty its contents into a basin as if she were pouring afternoon tea. But its rewards for the non-squeamish include a reverence for scientific rigor that I find bracing at a time when pandemic-related fears fuel baseless internet rumors. The show champions research and accuracy, even as it acknowledges that experts are fallible.
In the 2019 episode “Betrayal,” Nikki gives impassioned courtroom testimony that resonates especially now: “The opposite of truth is not just a lie. The opposite of truth is chaos.”