'Murdoch Mysteries' takes the Klondike

Canadian actor Yannick Bisson, shown in this undated handout photo, plays detective William Murdoch in the television series "Murdoch Mysteries." THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - CityTV

DAWSON CITY, Yn - You don't need to be a detective to know it is a long way from Toronto to Dawson City. Over 4,000 kilometres, in fact.

A select group of cast and crew from the period detective drama "Murdoch Mysteries" made the trek to the remote northern town last summer. The result, "Murdoch of the Klondike," will kick off the fifth season Wednesday at 10 p.m. on City.

Executive producer and showrunner Peter Mitchell had the idea to blend fact and fiction by having Murdoch, played by Yannick Bisson, travel to Dawson as he embarks on a little soul searching.

Bisson took full advantage of the great outdoors, packing his dirt bike and racing down nearby mountain roads in a day off before the shoot.

The town boomed with the gold rush of the late 18th century, swelling to 40,000 people by 1898. (It struggles to keep its population above 1,300 today.) Dawson was so progressive it had electric lights before Montreal and Toronto. Hotels and saloons sprang up, as did Canada's oldest casino, "Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall." Many of those establishments still stand, surrounded by boardwalks and dirt roads, providing the perfect backdrop for a series set in that same Klondike era.

For the two-day shoot, crews climbed ladders to hide modern street lights behind clumps of fake foliage. Other than that, there is little need to "dress" the set. There still seems to be brightly painted saloons and Klondike-era hotels with swinging doors on every corner. There is no evidence of bank machines, parking meters or modern chain stores or fast food restaurants. If ever there was a standing town build to look like a "Murdoch Mysteries" outdoors set, Dawson City is the place.

The production is a boon to the community, with many locals rushed into action as extras.

One woman who works as a Can-Can dancer at Diamond Tooth Gerties is one of four locals proudly posing as town prostitutes. Other locals arrive at a holding centre-slash-lunch room set up at St. Mary's Church, where several ladies prepare home-cooked craft services grub. Clothes are handed out as extras get dudded up in period gear to play miners and prospectors.

Those extras later sit while makeup artists Deb Dernnan and Jenny Buck paint yellow and brown tobacco stains on their teeth, a process Bisson happily gets to skip. Real dirt from Dawson's muddy streets are streaked onto pant legs to make the miners look like miners.

It was actually hard for the producers to find extras. There is virtually zero unemployment in this picturesque mining town as gold climbs closer to two thousand dollars an ounce.

Those that do show up for wardrobe fittings and makeup talk about meeting Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, who were all in Dawson a year earlier to shoot the comedy "The Big Year."

"The stars love it here," says Gord MacRae, an extra whose day job is regional superintendent of Yukon Parks, "because we leave them completely to themselves."

One of the other advantages of shooting in Dawson City in August is the long days. Outdoor scenes were still being shot at 11 p.m., with daylight extended late into the night in this northern town.

The producers made full use of the local scenery, with scenes shot on Dawson's muddy streets as well as high up on "The Dome," one of Dawson's "gold-in-them-thar-hills" mountain tops which offers one of the most breathtaking views in all of Canada.

It was there where scenes were shot between Bisson's Murdoch and guest star Aaron Ashmore as Jack London, the American author who made Dawson his home during the peak of the gold rush. Jill Halfpenny also guests as Elizabeth, Murdoch's main Yukon distraction.

The episode kicks off a fifth and final season of "Murdoch" on City. Mitchell and the writers weave other turn-of-the-century truths into this season, with "Who Killed the Electric Carriage?" among the upcoming storylines. An episode featuring prime minister Stephen Harper in a minor role as a desk sergeant drew 700,000 viewers on City last season.

Rogers-owned City, now more keen on comedy development, opted not to pick "Murdoch" for a sixth season. CBC, however, thinks there’s more gold in them thar hills and ordered 13 more episodes. Their sixth season will pick up in September just as City’s summer run leaves off.

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Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.