#186: On Daemons’ Roost (2016) and the Sad Decline of Jonathan Creek

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Aware of my fondness for the programme itself and an impossible crime in general, people keep asking me what I thought of the recent Jonathan Creek Christmas special ‘Daemons’ Roost’.  And I keep having to relive it by telling them.  The only sane response is therefore to write it all down here and direct all future enquiries to this post on my blog (which might at least get me some readers…).  I apologise in advance.  This is not going to be pretty.

Since its first appearance in 1997, Jonathan Creek has been something of a source of wonder to me — long before I even recognised the impossible crime in fiction as a subgenre of thing that had ever existed, this show provided frankly wonderful plots of seeming undoable things who workings and execution were fully demystified within an hour.  The brainchild of David Renwick, himself a magician’s assistant in his younger days, it was a glorious mix of magic, mystification, mood, and m-comedy that was enriched by Renwick’s ability to dream up brilliantly inventive, original solutions.

That Renwick knows his impossible crime fiction can’t really be in doubt — not only does he avoid many of the easy tropes, he blazes new trails into the old ground (a man shoots himself in a locked room despite crippling arthritis making it impossible for him to hold and fire the gun) while littering these new roads with references to the classics — Norman Stangerson in ‘Time Waits for Norman’ gets his surname from Gaston Leroux’s genre milestone The Mystery of the Yellow Room; Doomdorf Castle in the second Christmas special ‘Satan’s Chimney’ is taken from Melville Davisson Post’s story ‘The Doomdorf Mystery’; and did anybody else spot what I think is a reference to The Hollow Man in series 3?  I’m not sure if I’m imagining it…might have to go back and check. Honestly, I’m tempted to just do an episode-by-episode guide with the references I’ve spotted, but I think that might be too nerdy even for me.

Crucially, Renwick started off ensuring that Creek was all about the impossibility: a girl walks into a house from outside but doesn’t appear inside; a man runs through a snow-covered field away from a dead body but leaves no footprints; a woman regrows a full head of hair within hours of having her head shaved; the spirit of a woman’s dead lover leaves answers to questions she hadn’t even asked yet in a bottle buried in the ground beneath her… typically there was a very clear idea what the central mystery was.  The first three series, by and large, are built around a brilliant impossibility, fairly clued for the most part, and throw Jonathan and Maddie into the mix quickly and with a fair dose of humour that works perfectly.

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Pictured: Happier days…

As the series wore on the impossibilities became slightly more abtruse — series four’s ‘The Tailor’s Dummy’ is probably about a man changing race on the spot, but also about a man jumping out of a window; ‘The Chequered Box’ has a weird impossibility which could be resolved in about four seconds but isn’t really an impossibility from the key character’s perspective; and whatever the hell ‘Gorgon’s Wood’ is about I honestly don’t know.  Then we got some scattered specials which hobbled all over the shop: ‘The Grinning Man’ was an impossible disappearance, but ‘The Judas Tree’ was — again — not impossible from the perspective of most characters and only becomes so after the facts are revealed (if you ignore the weird “disappearing house” thing).  And the last special ‘The Savant’s Thumb’ yes had a disappearing body, but also fifteen others kinds of thing including girls dying with circles on their foreheads and a painting coming to life…frankly, anyone who kept all that straight in their head did a better job than me.

Then came series 5, a mere three episodes, including an inverted impossibility — we’re shown how it happens, but the other characters including Jonathan are unaware — and something about a phone number that was so embarrassing I’m surprised they didn’t can the whole thing there and then.  Worst of all, Jonathan’s new sidekick — his wife Polly — is the antithesis of his previous Watsons: she’s reluctant in the extreme for him to get involved in his demystifying any more, and complains at great length about pretty much everything that he does and was and is.  How in the hell you can end up married to someone who is so keen to wipe from existence everything you were before meeting them and tell yourself this is a good thing is beyond me, and a weird narrative choice on Renwick’s part.

And so we come to ‘Daemons’ Roost’, which may well represent the final nail in the coffin of the series (though, of course, the body may creep out and reappear elsewhere somehow…).  SPLOILERS AHEAD, obviously, but it’s not really good enough for you to worry about in my opinion.

Everything here is wrong.  Everything.  The initial mystery seems to be that a young woman’s stepfather has written to her 15 years after sending her away from the family home to explain the death of her mother and two sisters.  He has a stroke between writing to her and her arrival and is unable to speak or move, so will not be able to tell her anything.  She phones Jonathan because he helped her fiance beat a murder charge when hist first wife was poisoned in seemingly impossible circumstances, and she wants Jonathan’s help solving this family mystery.  Then everyone starts talking about a warlock or something who would kill men by propelling them through the air into a fiery furnace while their lovers watched…but this might also just be a fictional thing from a horror movie directed by the stepfather.  Already we’re in a mess, let’s back up a bit.

Back to that impossible poisoning.  Clever, yes, but complete bullshit that the method Jonathan uncovers in anyway proves the husband’s innocence.  It also requires about four things to happen perfectly, and the evidence available afterwards — Jonathan knows about it, because he tells Polly about it (we’ll come back to Polly, she’s not blameless here), so therefore the police do too — only serves to point to the husband more (and, no, I’m not talking about the ‘Anti- Money’ thing, though that was equally bloody stupid; I mean the note left in the book she’s reading…how does someone from outside know which book she’s reading?).  So there’s one terribly-developed idea.

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I’m just sayin’, that is a lot of books to choose from…

Second, due to Polly’s interference, we are 40 minutes into this 90 minute episode before Jonathan hears of this woman’s problems and gets to the scene of the crime (and even then it’s a scarecrow competition that enables this…just don’t even ask).  But even that makes no sense when Warwick Davis’ vicar overhears the answerphone message being left for Jonathan and — despite being introduced as a massive fanboy of his previous investigations — goes along himself without mentioning it to Mr. Creek.  So we get treated to more time with Jonathan throwing away all his stuff from the windmill — y’know, the mementos of the magic career that formed the first 30-odd years of his life — and reminiscing about a dead brother we’ve never heard of before.  And this ‘dead brother’ thread had no relevance to the plot and goes nowhere.

So.  Onto Daemons’ Roost and possibly the stepfather being the mystery or possibly the ancient warlock thing.  The stepfather dies, for no reason, and it turns out he didn’t need to be there at all for the plot to happen.  Jonathan arrives, and it turns out — over half way through by this point — that the mystery is how the men could be made to fly through the air, and we forget about the dead family completely.  Thankfully people have left completely trustworthy accounts from several hundred years ago, so it definitely happened exactly as described.  Polly suddenly becomes helpful and they try to find the chapel where these men were killed.  And then together she and Jonathan burn a man to death.

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Unfortunately, that is not a euphemism

This was the point where I completely lost my shit.  Make all the excuses you like — the man in question obviously wishes to kill Jonathan, is clearly trying to kill him at that moment, and they’re acting in self-defence, whatever.  Jonathan Creek burns a man to death.  And no-one says a thing.  Not a thing.  This is so out of keeping with 20 years of the show, the character himself, and the tone of everything that has come before that it actually makes me feel a little sick.  But, let’s not dwell on this one utter, absolute, slap in the face abomination of a decision.  There have already been plenty of others where that came from.

We then finally remember that this woman’s family died, and it turns out she misheard “hobgoblin” when in fact the word was “haemoglobin”.  So the killer was all genetics all along.  Just as well, because that thread was given zero time, so it being wrapped up because she found the hidden pages of the letter her stepfather wrote her hidden in…a box of some kind, having been put there by…someone?  Not the woman nursing her stepfather, because she didn’t realise the stepdaughter didn’t know, and not the man himself because he had a stroke…so, who?  And why?  Except to provide a lousy reason for this desecration of what was once the most intelligently structured piece of original detective fiction on TV?  Well, thanks for that, mysterious hidey person.

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Whoever you are, I will find you…

And the evidence linking the guilty party to the crime?  A book of matches that wasn’t even found at the crime scene…and given that Warwick Davis admitted he took the matches out of the guys pocket, couldn’t anyone else have equally done the same thing?  Gaaaaaaaaah!!  This whole thing is awful, and has made me hate something that I used to look forward to with so much excitement and anticipation.  Please, somebody, bury this show before any more damage is done to it.  The impossible crime mantle now seems to have been adopted permanently by Death in Paradise, and a mighty fine job they’re doing with it, so can’t we all just move on?  Please stop the BBC crapping on their properties; let some of them enjoy a graceful retirement, and allow viewers to remember something with a fondness it once deserved.

Here’s hoping Sherlock stands up, eh?

~

In the interests of balance, I should point out that Puzzle Doctor greatly enjoyed this, while TomCat was a bit more circumspect.  This makes me the cold porridge once again; I need to be careful, I might start getting a reputation…

42 thoughts on “#186: On Daemons’ Roost (2016) and the Sad Decline of Jonathan Creek

  1. To clarify it, I enjoyed it but it’s not without its flaws, especially the burning.

    But if you’re going to pick apart the poisoning in such detail, I look forward to your defence of the impossibility in The Ten Teacups… I’ve read a number of mystery solutions with more plotholes that the poisoning, a number of Carr’s spring to mind. Anyway, the crucial error for me there is why is the book that she’s halfway through reading on the bookshelf, rather than the bedside table?

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    • See, my thinking there was that he put it on the shelf so that she would pull it out and set the death-trap in motion…but maybe that doesn’t work, either!

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  2. Hiya JJ – I started watching this on its debut, so 20 years now, and liked it quite a bit. Yes, it is a bit scrappy as all the recent episodes have been with tons of subplots, but the show was always a bit like this with each episode having subplots involving Klaus and the companion as well as the main impossible crime to be solved. I don’t think the disposal of the killer was a big deal at all – the attitude to death has always been very black. What it did reinforce is what the show has always been about for me, Jonathan and the companion first and their interaction with each other through an “impossible” situation second. This may be an age thing JJ (I was in my late 20s when it started, middle-aged now) but to me this was almost wholly about the tension in the Creek marriage and about how they compromise to make it work – she joined in with solving but her life is put at risk, so he destroys the threat because she and the marriage is so important and he sadly says goodbye to his magic past to get rid of possible future jeopardy. If you watch the show with that in mind rather than the solution of the mysteries as your priority, then the whole thing plays much better. Well, it does for me! Hope the Sherlock is closer to you heart’s desire chum 😀

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    • I can totally see your point, but it sounds a bit like those fan theories people have concocted to make the Star Wars prequels bearable 🙂 I’m also not sure that “Get rid of all your stuff and we’ll do the thing you want to do when a vengeful knife-wielding man comes seeking bloody revenge on you” is the kind of mid-term marriage planning one can typically do…!

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  3. There’s nothing more angry-making than a franchise you’ve loved going south. I haven’t seen a lot of Jonathan Creek – recently it’s only been shown sporadically over here and only the earliest seasons – but I thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve watched. Such a shame if such a great show slowly goes downhill.

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    • Yup, feels like 20 years down the pan when this is all they can be bothered to produce — and I’m far from convinced that it’s the best they can do, which makes it worse. It just feels like too many compromises and too little time to make it any good. Frankly, I can’t see why they borhered, unless there’s quick money to be screwed out of it from overseas sales and DVDs…

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  4. I have already had my say about this special, but I agree with you that the series should probably be buried and left in peace. We would be fooling ourselves if we keep waiting for an episode or special that reaches the same height as The Black Canary. However, I would not be surprised if the series limbed on for one or two further specials.

    On a side note, I really should give Death in Paradise a shot. Does every episode feature an impossible crime?

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    • ‘Death in Paradise’ is definitely worth a shot; I enjoyed the novels too. I don’t think every episode is necessarily an ‘impossible’ crime, but there would be a fair number in each season.

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    • If I remember correctly, the first two series (with Ben Miller) feature the occasional impossibility; when Kris Marshal takes over (in series 3) I have a feeling they’re all impossibile crimes after his first episode…certainly the most recent series was, I’m about 96% sure.

      It’s a lot of fun — forumlaic, yes, and not always fairly clewed, but some of the solutions are very clever, and you can tell everyone is having a blast making it (which, being on some beautiful island in the sun, you can’t imagine must be too difficult to fake…).

      The novels are bloody awful, though. Thorogood is a very good TV writer, but needs a good editor to help him plot and characterise on the page.

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    • I agree that Death In Paradise is well worth a watch particularly series 1+2 penned by Thorogood, which have some great impossible set ups. Since series 3 where there has been a selection of different writers working on the series it has lost it’s tensions and it’s touch, but there are still some nice impossible problems, as with the last episode of the most recent series 5 ‘Flames of Love’ which I thought was satisfying.

      The first episode in the series itself in fact is classic a locked room ploy.

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      • I’m a bit sketchy on the earlier episodes, as I didn’t really get into it untiul about halfway through series 2; I’ve caught the odd one here and there, but I’m sure there are some I’ve definitely missed — the very first one, for instance…yeah, about 95% sure I’ve never seen that 🙂

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  5. I liked the very early Jonathan Creek, with Caroline Quentin. After that I started to lose interest rapidly. I hated Carla and the whole thing became rather tedious.

    You can always rely on the BBC to ruin things.

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    • Carla was something of a pain, yeah, but at least we can appreciate retrospectively how she never actively tried to prevent his involvement in the plots (which, the show being what it is, has to happen…). And there were at least two blinding episodes featuring her (‘Angle Hair’ and ‘The Seer of the Sands’) plus the very, very good second special ‘Satan’s Chimney’. And Ade Edmondson was on hand regularly to be awesome as he always is. Looks like something of a second Golden Age now, dunnit?!

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  6. Some really great points pulled out here, and yes the missing papers in the box (from nowhere?) and the no consequences death of the House of Monkeys murderer where definite head scratchers – at least just lock him in there without burning him alive!

    (SPOILER)

    I thought the poisoning trick was neat, and then the fact that it wasn’t the solution did oddly justify the fact that it was too tricky to really work. But then again the question I guess would be why didn’t Creek see that in the first place?

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    • The poisoning trick was very clever; in sheer cleverness (though, naturally, not actual workings) it reminded me of Keigo Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint, which I see you’ve recently enjoyed. Are we seeing a renaissance in impossible poisoing tales? Okay, no, probably not, but a man can dream…

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      • Haha, yes one can but hope. I like the reference to ‘Salvation’ it is very similar in feel (clever but would it really work), and I really wasn’t sure about Higashino’s solution at first, but as I mentioned in my review it has grown on me. Interestingly he has a new english translation coming out next month titled ‘The Name of the Game is Kidnapping’, should be worth a look, another translation of an early novel, 2008 I think.

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        • I need to read Suspect X before I commit any further on Higashino. I enjoyed Salvation, and the trick was just close enough to the bounds of possibility to accept (and bloody clever when you come to pick it apart), but the second half of that book had so little plot in it as to be almost interminable. if that’s going to be a regular feature of his work then we’re not gonna get on!

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          • Suspect X is worth a go too, read it last month and can see why its so popular. Its definitely an inverted mystery but has some fair play elements too. Would be interested to see what you thought of the plotting there!

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            • All in good time… It’s in my TBR somewhere, and U’ll definitely get to it in the next few months; will be interesting to compare notes when done.

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    • Saw that — some frankly scandalous choices… When the pain of Daemons’ Roost has faded, I might consider a Top 5, but at the moment it’s all a but too raw to contemplate the show back when it was freakin’ awesome nearly all time time…

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  7. Pingback: #191: Five to Try – My Favourite Jonathan Creek Episodes | The Invisible Event

  8. I am amazed in such a long (and completely correct) blastation of the episode, you failed to mention the god awful “phoney” thing which resulted in one of the only times in my life I have physically cringed whilst watching the telly. But yeah, this episode was beyond terrible and the burning the man alive thing was unforgivable.
    Also, I may be here some time now I’ve discovered the amount of Jonathan Creek posts you have on this site. Expect more comments on posts you wrote years ago to follow.

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    • Ha, I’m pretty sure you’ve found the only two posts I’ve done on Jonathan Creek — sorry, dude, you’re all out now. And until they produce more, which I both do and don’t hope happens, I don’t know if I’ve got anything more to write about it…

      Dan keeps suggesting we do a podcast episode on it, and I’m sure we will at some point, but every discussion I could have about it now will be forever tinged with sadness at how startlingly it nose-dived at (what we’re taking as) the end. One wants to admire Renwick’s desire to keep hold of his characters and the property by being the only one to write it — and some of the solutions are simply among the finest mass market exploration of the impossible crime yet seen — but, man, know when you’re done. I mean, that one with the inverted impossibility when they’re doing the musical version of The Mystery of the Yellow Room…like, what the hell was that? And the one that followed it, with the lottery numbers on the wall…ugh, no, no, no, how did that get made?!

      Okay, so it turns out I could do a lot of talking about how shite this show ended up being, but I’d much prefer to relish its glory days. The BBC have Death in Paradise now — er, I guess we’ll see how that’s going in january, right? — and we’ll have to wait for a) this to be rebooted or b) someone to take up the option on the John Dickson Carr novels that was so very casually mentioned on Facebook a while back. Whenever you’re ready guys, I’ve even found a Gideon Fell for you…

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  9. It is so depressing how rapidly shit the show became. It came to something when the last episode of series 5 could vaguely be seen as a highlight. Polly is one of the worst characters ever created, has zero personality and single handidly sucks the show of any of its original motive. There was just a horrible sense of cynicism about the whole thing once she came on the scene and I can’t help but feel that it was purely Renwick’s voice on how he felt about having to do more Creek. Pass the reigns over man, there are people that actually want the show to continue in a better vein.
    The moving to the village thing was apparently inspired by his own experiences. His village sounds like a low mark on Trip Advisor.

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    • Even before then…was it The Savant’s Thumb (with Rik Mayall in the motorised wheelchair)? The core idea of the disappearing body was marvellous, but there’s so much bumpf around it, so devoid of the clarity of Jack in the Box or Danse Macabre. It’s almost like Renwick overnight became convinced that he had to jangle some keys in front of your face every three minutes or you’d get bored.

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      • Oh that episode pissed me off. WHO, in any universe anywhere, when confronted with the sight of their husband dead behind a door puts their phone against the keyhole to take a picture?? Rick Mayall was only there to try and tie up that pointless little plot about government lookalikes or some such rubbish. Wasted opportunity.

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        • Government lookalikes? You have remembered far more of this than I managed. There something about taking acid and being attacked by a picture (?) but that’s about the best I can do. Better forgotten, I feel 😄

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        • Even worse, when confronted with the sight of your father who has just been decapitated in a terrible accident with a chainsaw, what kind of individual stuffs his head in a plastic bag, and in an instant comes up with a plan to torture her mother with a seemingly unsolvable mystery, and for what reason exactly?
          All of the episodes of Jonathan Creek have called for a leap in believability in plots, but human beings have still got to act like human beings. Most, if not all of the episodes and specials have centered around mysteries involving murderous plots and a certain amount of premeditation, the lethal floor in Mother Redcap, the descending ceiling in Satan’s Chimney and the nightmare room in The Grinning Man.
          This was an accident, you would be in a state of shock, call the emergency services, don’t stuff his head i a plastic bag and put it on a fake body.
          As for Rik Mayall, he was obviously asked to reprise his character who appeared in The Black Canary for no other reason than the assumption that a popular character will be a winner with fans of the show.

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          • Yeah, Gideon Pryke at least gave us that “other detective tackles the case” thing in ‘Black Canary’ — and did so magnificently, circumventing almost all the pitfalls and cliches of that gambit — but in ‘Savant’s Thumb’ it’s pure stunt casting. And the wheelchair was just…what the hell was that?

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    • Yeah, get the feeling that’s been done somewhat. Not that plenty of other book reviews I’m working through haven’t — I dont want to give the impression that I’m some sort of Free Thinker with my book blog — but every man and his dog has pulled Creek to pieces by now. For this especially, anything else I have to add will require a little more…framing than that.

      And now I sound pretentious.

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  10. I agree with a lot of your comments re Daemons Roost. Its all about opinions and, everyone has their favourites, for me The Grinning Man was my personal favourite,Jonathan Creeks all time high.Yes, I know, how does the nightmare rooms watery death trap keep going for decades, with little or no maintenance? How did the character behind it, design and build it in the first place, and aren’t there easier ways of getting rid of some on you don’t like? When the daughter, and here son discovered the secret, why did they think, yes, that will come in handy some day if we want to get rid of some one we don’t particularly like, and if some complete innocent falls victim, well never mind, at least it will prove it still works. Of course, you can pull any episode apart, any TV show or film for that matter.
    The Back Canary figures quite highly in the list of Jonathan Creek top 10, but you can pull this episode apart if you want. For instance, when the daughter of the sister who has assumed the identity of her twin turns up, she realises in an instant, but the husband and daughter of the twin who had died don’t suspect a thing, for years. Of course, in that episode, we had the dynamic of Maddie and Jonathan, in The Grinning Man, Joey Ross(brilliantly played by Sheridan Smith), is like a breath of fresh air.
    Then, in The Clue of the Savants Thumb, we are introduced to Polly. Not only do we find that Jonathan is married, but he has ditched the windmill and is no longer a creative consultant to a magician and is now working in an office. Polly says that when they met ” He was living in a windmill, and working for a magician, so a reboot was needed there”. What was Renwick thinking? In an instant, he took away everything that was special about the character in the first place. I can understand him wanting to move on from the magic career angle and his relationship with Adam Klaus, but why do it in such a baffling way. Why on earth would anyone marry someone who hates everything about you and what you are?
    The world of magic was his passion, his life, why does he look back on it with such regret, especially as he draws on his experiences in the past to solve future mystery’s? There is no chemistry between Davis and Alexander, when they are in bed for instance, they just give each other a peck on the cheek, Davis doesn’t look like he believes in the relationship, so why should we?
    I am in total agreement about the burning to death of the baddie. Why was this necessary? We had already seen how the burning pit worked, and saw the remains of the murdering husband, there was no need for this scene. When Jonathan pulls the lever that opens the trapdoor,Tyree falls into the pit. He has no hope of climbing out, and is knocked out, why doesn’t Jonathan simply pull the lever and shut the trapdoor, job done? The mystery is solved, and Tyree is about to be locked up again, foiled yet again.
    Instead, whilst Tyree is slowly recovering, Jonathan and Polly stand hugging each other right on the edge of the trapdoor/pit, like you do, its just so pointless.
    All in all Daemons Roost was an improvement on the appalling Clue of the Savant Thumb, and the even worse series 5, but it was certainly spoiled by the burning to death of a man for no reason.

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    • The difficulty with so many of the core changes to Jonathan Creek is that they seem to’ve come about through purely external factors: budget. That’s the issue, I guess, with visual media, as it becomes constricted by factors that aren’t so problematic on the page — actors age or die or decide they don’t want to come back, locations are knocked down or change hands and cease to be available, etc, and then this has to be factored into a universe that hasn’t needed to contend with it before.

      Whatever faults one finds in the various episodes — and I agree that even the best of them have flaws — it’s a shame that the biggest change was wrought by such pettifoggery as this, and that it ripped out so much at the core of what was already a wonderful creation that relied so heavily on those elements that were removed. Also Renwick’s plots became laughable (that inverted one that’s a pisstake of Sherlock, what the hell was going on there?), but that’s a separate issue altogether, and I feel I’ve already bled that vein of complain pretty dry.

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  11. I am sure that budgetary considerations have an impact on any show, however they surely cant explain the sad decline of the show, as pointed out. I remember Renwick complaining that the cost of filming the windmill had become prohibitive, but there must be plenty of episodes in which the interior of the windmill are not included, and episodes i which the windmill doesn’t appear at all, The Judas Tree, would not feature in most JC fans top 5 episodes, the windmill did not appear in that story, would its inclusion have raised the quality? i agree that the show relied heavily on the magic elements, and the character of Adam Klaus. Was Stuart Milligan unwilling or unable to continue with that role? If that was the case, or if Renwick wanted a change of direction, he surely could have come up with something better than the complete change of direction with the shock of finding out that Jonathan has left his job behind, left the windmill, and is now married to a woman who wants to change everything that made his character so popular in the first place. When the character of Polly appeared in the Savants Thumb, she only appeared for about five minutes at the start, and about three minutes at the end. Why introduce a character who only makes a token appearance, and why make her so hostile to everything that Jonathan was and is? I know that the character of Carla could be a pain, but i would rather have her any day than Polly. Polly did start to warm to the role in Daemons Roost, if she had been more likeable in the first place, perhaps we would not be so critical.

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    • Was Stuart Milligan unwilling or unable to continue with that role?

      After the no-doubt highly professionally-fulfilling “3D pornography” subplot of ‘The Grinning Man’? Why wouldn’t he want to be involved in the show after that?

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