The Plough Department of the Song Dynasty (2019) Early Impressions (Episodes 1-12)

For one reason or another no mainland Chinese drama since The Imperial Coroner has been able to pass the 4-episode litmus test for me. I was hoping the latest offering in the Dr Qin franchise could do it and to some extent it has although not without serious reservations on my part. While the lead actor Zhang Yujian is a good fit for the titular role he is saddled with a ragged script that tries too hard with a trope-ridden romance that does nothing to enhance it. However, my newfound enthusiasm for Zhang Yujian as an actor led me to rediscover an older series, one that I had considered watching while it was airing except with all kinds of things going on at the time, I had set it aside for a later date and forgotten about it.

The curious title comes from the British naming of the Great Bear or the Big Dipper — the formation of seven stars in the constellation of Ursa Major. Rather than having agricultural implications as I was initially led to believe, the naming of this fictional government department has its roots in astronomy. Members of this elite unit crime fighters are named after stars because each have an extraordinary skill set unique to them. They are essentially superheroes along the lines of The Avengers or The Justice League. In fact, I immediately made comparisons with Mike Mignola’s Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence that’s been made famous by the Hellboy stories.

That said I would hasten to add that this part wuxia, part court intrigue, part fantasy, part detective, part steampunk tale isn’t at all a darkly serious application of the superhero genre but a fun mishmash of historical anachronisms and good-natured satirization of the wuxia genre. It works… for the most part. The hip-hop opening theme should be a clue as to what to expect. What's less effective is the standard formulaic romance between the team’s youngest, most immature members which sees them bickering needlessly while their elders look on finger wagging, trying to keep a straight face mediating matters between them. Tai Sui (Xu Ke) and Yaoguang (Dai Luwa) have their uses and generally pull their weight when called upon to do so. Moreover, Tai Sui, a recent recruit, is the d’Artagnan in a Three Musketeers sub-plot entangled with a villainess that happens to be called De Miao, a skilled illusionist like he is. In fact, they both trained under the same master until she inevitably turned traitor.

The Plough Bureau is led by Dong Min, a physician of the highest level and Yiguang a garrulous shapeshifting trickster. Zhang Yujian is Wenqu who is not only a Sherlock Holmes but has a sonic ability of earth-shattering proportions. Kaiyang, the mechanical engineering expert amongst them rounds up the youthful quartet.

The story largely revolves around the Plough Bureau’s attempt to uncover a conspiracy against the throne from known and unknown elements and the unveiling of the puppet master pulling the strings behind the scenes. It’s a large scale meticulous plot that involves those closest to the sitting monarch who straddles precariously between the competing factions. The lines are drawn early and clearly but the emperor is torn between his own need to prove himself a worthy ruler in a time of internal unrest and to restrain the forces within his own cabinet that could be his undoing. He is a man plagued with insecurities about his own position and the long shadow of the past cast over his reign.

Overall this is light, entertaining fare certainly not meant to be any kind of historical treatise of the period. Each episode is about 30 minutes so it require less of a commitment than the 36-episode format might suggest. The individual mysteries, all tied in some fashion to the bigger story, are not designed to be particularly taxing on the brain and the action scenes (so far) are what one might expect in a half decent wuxia series. The performances are generally adequate to the task although there are no real standouts at this point. All in all it hasn’t been a bad way to waste away several although when the bickering gets a bit much, I find the FF tool mighty handy.