What Bonekickers Did Wrong

It’s not what you think.

Spoilers follow.

If you’ve talked with me about television recently, the odds are that I’ve told you in some detail about my love of the recent archaeological action-adventure show Bonekickers.

Each episode kicks off with a bit of archaeology, and ends in madness.

For example:

In the first episode, our intrepid heroes find an old coin at the beginning of the episode. By the end of the episode, they are having a swordfight while swinging on ropes thirty feet above the ground of an immense cavern filled with crosses brought from the Holy Land, one of which is the One True Cross, and all of which are on fire.

For example:

In the third episode, our intrepid heroes find an old coin at the beginning of the episode. By the end of the episode they are fleeing to avoid the poison gas drifting down the tunnel behind them – but the tunnel in front is blocked by an explosive minefield made from Roman hand grenades.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I love a good action-adventure show. So I’m perfectly happy with the idea of archaeologists fighting evil. I mean, it worked for Indiana Jones.

Where I think Bonekickers falls down is this: Each episode starts with the ordinary, and leads you into the realm of the bonkers.

Compare and contrast with a James Bond film. Or indeed, an Indiana Jones film. There’s a reason that they always have that huge stunt before the credits: it establishes the sort of world that Bond lives in, and more importantly, it establishes what’s possible in that world.

With Bonekickers, the world begins ordinary, and you’re led into the strangeness.

Now, one of the things that I love about the show is that it does that. Each step on the route from coin to cavern is a small one, with no great leap of faith. And then when you get to the end, you have a big action/adventure. I like that change in pace.

But there’s a problem with doing it like that. You start out thinking you’re watching one show. And you end up watching another.

Let’s take a look at the opening credits.

  • Logo
  • Looking through a cave by torchlight
  • Dusting off a Skull
  • Hieroglyphs
  • Microscope
  • Man with a sword from the past
  • A coin being examined through a magnifying glass
  • An explosion
  • Putting a fragment of something on a microscope slide
  • Lighting a flare and throwing it underwater
  • Looking at something through a microscope
  • Overhead view of a dig site
  • Heroes stand round a table on which is laid out archaeological finds

The first and last shots last about four seconds each, while each of the others lasts for about two seconds.

Let’s break it down.

  • Shots that lead you to expect an action-adventure series (explosion): 2s
  • Shots that lead you to expect an archaeological procedural series (most of the rest): 18s
  • Shots that could go either way (flare, swordsman, cave): 6s

That credits sequence leads you to expect a series that’s about solving the mysteries raised by archaeology. A programme like Bones, or CSI, but with archaeology. And this expectation’s then re-inforced by the fact that the show always starts in the ordinary world with them doing just that.

But the thing is, that’s not what the show’s about. So you can (rightfully, I think) argue that this isn’t the show you signed up for.

I think establishing that world up front, in the credits, or in the first few minutes of the show, would actually have helped Bonekickers become the success that it deserved to be. So the viewer knows what they’re getting when they watch.

Because it’s not about archaeology. It’s about adventure.

And right now, it’s not selling that.

6 responses to “What Bonekickers Did Wrong”

  1. So Bonekickers unintentionally misled all its viewers – except you?

    Harsh things have been said about the show that I think are unwarranted: the writers are good, the actors are good, the producers, everything. But they just weren’t good here: for whatever reason, and who knows why, Bonekickers didn’t work.

    I mean that in the broadest sense: I don’t know, nor do I imagine anyone ever can really guess, what the thing was that went wrong. But that doesn’t mean you can’t see the symptoms.

    The scripts went the route you say but they didn’t bring us with them. The actors mugged their way through and there wasn’t really much else they could do with material that simply didn’t click.

    I do agree about changing genres or appearing to be one thing when you’re another. I don’t like to agree with that because I would hope that genre is only a handy label for listings magazines. But I think of Indiana Jones 4 which went from adventure to science fiction and died because of it. And is it Snow Falling on Cedars that, both novel and film, are fantastic moody, intriguing dramas until about the last third when they switch over to science fiction? I’m sure it was a brave attempt to confound expectation, but it came across as if the makers couldn’t keep the drama going and took a cop-out.

    I disagree that Bonekickers went from real to unreal, from believable to unbelievable. The characters weren’t credible at the start: their concerns felt contrived or at the least cliched and I didn’t get a sense of their drive to do this work. Since the pilot was about the cross of Christ, I wondered what they’d have to find to make me interested.

    I didn’t have a problem with them always finding the most incredible artefacts, I expected that from the format. I was impressed that the writers found enough of them to fill a series, but it was an impressed from afar kind of feeling as I only ever read the billings after that first episode.

    I also felt that the out was poor in the pilot. You’ve taken us to the burning cross of Christ, through some really ropey leaps, and then you end with a shrug. The crucifix definitively, provably found and then destroyed, everyone’s life in danger and several people dying, then shrug and “By Jehovah’s Kitten, I need a pint”. I may be paraphrasing there.

    I think it’s one problem to fail to build something up well, to fail to bring us to the point the drama needs us. That’s a killer problem and you can’t recover from it. But to then abandon the attempt, to have these characters schlep down the pub like they were just back from a ramble, it diminishes what they’ve found, what they’ve lost, what they’ve been through.

    The characters in that pilot episode ended not giving much of a monkey’s about who had died, about what was found or what was lost. They weren’t credible at the start because they were two-dimensional ciphers but they ended appearing to not want to be credible.

    So if the characters don’t care what they do, why should we?

    It felt like the show didn’t click and, more, that it didn’t click a long time ago: that the makers knew it was misfiring. It felt like an actor punching home an emotion he or she didn’t really feel.

    I’d like to see some lighter action fare than we do, because drama is a richly varied form and that’s often not served well enough by television. But if there’s a Bonekickers 2, I’ll let someone else watch it before I do.

    Possibly not you, but.


  2. Linked here through a blog roll on ‘Deleted Scenes’ –

    Great analysis by both parties on Bonekickers.

    I was incredibly disappointed by it. My background is archaeology and musesum work and whilst I wasn’t expecting accuracy (though with Mark Horton in tow there should have been, at least, a stab at it) I wasn’t expecting this!

    I think the idea of taking a single object and then weaving a story around is is fantastic but they just went off on such a tangent and then didn’t really seem to give a monkey’s at the end. As you say, William, the shrug at the end after they’ve incinerated the True Cross was just wrong. Archaeologists are some of the most passionate people I know – they live and breath it – it consummes them.

    Personally, I’d have preferred to see a single story conveyed over two or three episodes which would have allowed all the characters to be explored and the background to be used correctly.


  3. It was formulaic and predictable. The characters were stereotypes (not archetypes), and you could predict the entire trajectory of the series-wide story from the first episode.

    The dialogue was appalling, which meant that you could see the fear of the next line in their eyes.

    Apart from that, it was OK.

  4. Good analysis. And it didn’t manage to deliver on either counts: good archaeological mystery or good action-adventure.

    Scintillating performances from a great cast delivering great dialogue might have covered over the cracks; sadly, this from Ian’s comment is spot-on:

    The dialogue was appalling, which meant that you could see the fear of the next line in their eyes.

    I still watched it to the end of the season, though. Which I didn’t with Ashes to Ashes.

  5. Hi Piers
    really enjoyed your thoughts- and William Gallagher’s too.
    I’m not going to join in the popular pasttime of Bonekicker- kicking; argely because the co-creators of it are very talented chaps and any shortcomings ithad have already been gone into in detail.
    What I would add is that the show couldn’t wseem to establish a consistent tone.
    While some aspects leaned towards a CSI/Bones type show others suggested an ‘Indianna Jones in Bath’ adevnture for a Saturday night family audience.
    The former suggests gore and disturbing scenes while the latter implied traps, riddles and all manner of lighter, fun stuff. The only problem for me was in combining the two.
    Maybe if it returned as a saturday/sunday night caper with less in the way of muslim decapitation…?

    I also felt the characters didn’t quiet earn our affections.
    Prof Parton’s cheery, beery sexism suggested ‘Gene Hunt with a Phd’ , but despite being played by the wonderful Hugh Bonneville, I remained immune to his charms. Unlike Gene, we never got to really see enough of his positive traits. (It’s Gene’s wit, bravery and integrity-coupled with the gloriously Un-PC stuff-that made him a cult hero).

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