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A Taste of Tayside: time for more higher education TV drama

Paul Greatrix has news of an exciting new TV drama based in Dundee at the fictional University of Tayside.
This article is more than 3 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

It’s been a while since we’ve had a new TV drama set in a university environment. Luckily, the BBC has spotted and filled this gap. Traces, a six part series available on iPlayer now, is based in Dundee at the fictional University of Tayside.

Traces sees Emma, a graduate returning to her hometown of Dundee to begin work as a lab technician who signs up for her department’s MOOC covering the principles of forensic science. However, she becomes convinced the fictional murder case in the MOOC has been inspired by the case of her mother, who was found dead in Dundee when Emma was a child and whose killer was never found.

The department at the heart of the story is the fictional Scottish Institute of Forensic Science (although it is named SIFA on all the logos) which is based on the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science at the University of Dundee.

The University reported how the cast and crew of Traces visited the Research Centre as filming for the six-part drama took place in the city.

The invite to the Centre was extended by its Director, Professor Niamh Nic Daéid, who was also a scientific advisor to the show:

Professor Nic Daéid said that assisting high-profile productions was just one way in which the LRCFS was helping to improve the way that forensic science is communicated to the public.
She said, “We are working with the team to show some of the real science behind the forensic science showcased in this exciting new series.”
The Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science was established at the University of Dundee with a £10million award from the Leverhulme Trust. Its mission is to raise standards and promote a realistic understanding of forensic science, while identifying new opportunities to improve its value in the criminal justice system.

It’s certainly a positive pitch for the discipline of forensic science and good to see that the leading academics are all female too.

Not everyone is wholly positive about the series and the Guardian is more than a little critical:

But, on the other hand, there is a tangible uncertainty about the whole affair, as if Traces can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be The Killing or CSI. Certainly, it is much more effective when it leans towards the former. Windsor plays Emma, a young woman who returns to Scotland years after her mother’s murder to take a job as a technician in a forensics laboratory. However, when she logs on to an online forensics course, she realises that the ostensibly fictional case study is based on – you guessed it – her mother’s death. Is it a coincidence? Was there a coverup? Who could possibly be to blame?
Thankfully, the answer to the last question is “literally anyone”, since Traces is one of those shows where every character has a habit of answering questions by pausing for slightly too long, furtively glancing around and then awkwardly changing the subject.
It could be Jennifer Spence’s professor of detective anthropology, because at one point she receives a mysterious postcard from Australia. It could be Emma’s best friend’s mum, because she is full of wild conspiracy theories. It could be Emma’s father, because he rides a motorbike. It could be Martin Compston, because he seems quite nice. This endless array of possible villainy gives Traces an enjoyably panto energy.

It is quite hard to take Traces totally seriously. Especially if you are familiar with higher education. The excitement in the department about their forensic science MOOC would have been appropriate five years ago but now seems quite strange. I did though particularly enjoy how the first questions asked of Emma on arrival on her first morning at work were whether she had completed her online Health and Safety and EDI training courses; she was then told she needed to go to HR first. All very realistic indeed. The outdoor footage at the university is mainly filmed at the University of Bolton I think and many of the street scenes are in the town there too. Not terribly Dundonian on the whole. The university branding also appears as both ’University of Tayside’ and ’Tayside University’ which would very much not be permitted by any corporate marketing department.

Anyway, I’ll still take any drama connected to higher ed, no matter how iffy the premise. It’s also got John Gordon Sinclair in it too (although he is not terribly likeable) which always makes good viewing.

Meanwhile, we are still waiting for filming to start on The Chair, new Netflix TV show starring Sandra Oh as Chair of an English Department in a leading US university. The latest info is pretty skimpy:

The plot of The Chair is kept largely under wraps, but is has been revealed that Ji-Yoon (Oh) is the first woman Chair of the English department at Pembroke University and she faces high expectations. Professor Joan Hambling (Taylor), a witty, no-nonsense English professor working in the department is her close friend and confidant. While this gives very little away, we can be certain that the series will explore the hardships of Ji-Yoon being the first Asian woman to have such a high position in that department as well as provide many comedic moments along the way.

Will they offer a MOOC? Will there be any killings? Who knows but I for one can’t wait to see it.

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