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Darker, More Disturbing ’Endeavour’ Returns with a ‘Game’ Effort
August 12, 2017  | By Alex Strachan

Endeavour is back. Dark clouds hang over Oxford as a new season of cerebral murders begins, with Det. Constable Morse (Shaun Evans, [top, and below right] rounding nicely into the role John Thaw made famous as an older version of the Oxford police inspector with a taste for opera and cold beer) determined as ever to prove his doubters wrong.

The mood is established from the first moments of the season opener, “Game,” played out against the strains of Erik Satie’s “Gnossienne No.1.” The body of a young computing engineer is found floating in a canal — the result of foul play.

In the time-honored tradition of Inspector Morse and its immediate sequel, Inspector Lewis, there’s more going on than a single, unexplained death. The year is 1967; the historic university, first established in the 12th century, is playing host to a chess challenge between a British grand master and a visiting chess champion from the Soviet Union. The deceased was a key member of a team of computer engineers and mathematicians hard at work on a ”thinking machine,” an early prototype of a chess computer.

The computer works, too, if a little clunky and slow at times. When it’s finally put to the test, Morse has about as much patience with it as a foreign policy expert might have with a national leader who cares little for neither foreigners nor policy.

Personal complications ensue, as they often do, complicating what already looks to be a complicated case.

It’s two weeks after Det. Inspector Fred Thursday’s (Roger Allam, top, and left) daughter Joan (Sara Vickers) left home without explanation, leaving Thursday and his stricken wife, Win (Caroline O’Neill), wracked with worry. Deep down, Thursday believes his daughter is safe — she always was strong-willed and independent — but he’s worried just the same, and mystified as to why she hasn’t bothered to call home.

Thursday is furious with his protégé Morse. He believes his junior partner stood by idly while his daughter walked out the door. The tension between them is palpable as the new season opens. The mentor is distant and cold toward his junior partner, even as the young Morse frets over the pending results of his sergeant’s exam and worries about winning back Thursday’s confidence. Guilt-ridden and morose, Morse drowns himself in his sorrows, but scotch before noon and Wagner in the evenings can only get a man so far before it catches up to him.

There are more drownings — water is the common theme — and Morse suspects there’s more going on than computer engineers and fitness buffs not knowing how to swim. To say more would spoil an intricately plotted mystery, with numerous red herrings and blind alleys.

What makes Endeavour so intriguing to watch most weeks are not the stories, in any event, complex and tightly wound though they may be.

Rather, it’s the fine acting — Evans, Allam, and O’Neill are particularly good here — and Endeavour’s keen sense of time and place: the late 1960s, in one of the world’s oldest university towns. Endeavour, like Morse before it, uses classical music as a character in its own right, from Satie in the season opener to the French Romantic composer Gabriel Fauré’s nocturnes and requiems. Only Endeavour, though, would add Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” to the mix.

Next week’s even better second episode, “Canticle,” (right) about a Pink Floyd-esque rock band recording their new album at a Roman villa on the outskirts of Oxford, uses everything from Verdi’s “Requiem” and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” to Cream, Jimi Hendrix and the Yardbirds — though, sadly, neither Syd Barrett nor early Pink Floyd.

For all Endeavour’s dark themes — and the new season of Endeavour is very dark, never more so than in the season opener — it is gorgeous to look at, with shafts of light beaming through stained-glass windows into dusty libraries and murky canal waters reflecting milky sunshine back against the medieval spires of Oxford’s colleges.

Endeavour is the kind of cerebral TV mystery that rewards the patient viewer with an eye for detail and a willingness to follow a complex mystery to its conclusion.

“Game” (left) is set inside Oxford’s fictional Lovelace College, but the actual filming location was St. Catherine’s College.

St. Catherine’s motto is the Latin nova et vetera, which loosely translates as “the new and the old” — Endeavour and Morse, if you will.

If that sounds somewhat obtuse and highbrow for your liking, well that’s Endeavour in a nutshell. The mysteries are convoluted, intricate and hard to follow at times, but are fun to watch just the same. The joy is not in beating Morse to the mystery — don’t even try — but in seeing how he unravels the secret in his own way, at his own pace. Any mystery involving college students wrestling with unrequited love, unexplained drownings — “Two drownings in one day,” Morse muses at one point, early in the hour, “unusual, don’t you think?” — and a chess tournament pitting an excitable British grand master against a dour Soviet champion at the height of the Cold War is bound to get messy and complicated after a while.

There are compensations, though. Endeavour can be surprisingly witty and ironic, often when least expected.

“In my country,” the Soviet chess champion tells Morse at one point, “people drown also. Sometimes by accident.”

Check. And mate.

Endeavour returns Sunday, Aug. 20 on PBS Masterpiece Mystery at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings)

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