PASADENA, Calif. -- Television executives love a known commodity, which makes it nearly impossible to keep a brand name character down, even when he's dead.
So it's not surprising to see PBS's "Masterpiece Mystery!" bring back the late, great Inspector Morse, played for more than a decade in 33 episodes by actor John Thaw, who died in 2002.
But this new Morse is not a remake; it's a prequel that goes by the character's first name: "Endeavour" (9 tonight, WQED-TV).
Essentially a pilot episode for a new series of Inspector Morse mystery movies set in the 1960s as the character embarks on his career as a crime-solver, "Endeavour" introduces the young Morse, played by actor Shaun Evans ("Whitechapel"), who faints in the autopsy room and loves crossword puzzles and opera -- even in his youth.
Novelist Colin Dexter, who created the Inspector Morse character, came up with the backstory for Morse, and Russell Lewis, creator of the "Morse" spinoff "Inspector Lewis," wrote "Endeavour," which offers some explanations for the character's quirks.
Morse and his Oxford police colleagues investigate when a 15-year-old girl goes missing. Morse teams up with veteran Inspector Thursday (Roger Allam, "The Queen") and meets pathologist Dr. Max DeBryn (James Bradshaw, "Brideshead Revisited").
"You won't make much of a detective if you're not prepared to look death in the eye," DeBryn tells a queasy Morse.
Abigail Thaw, actress daughter of the late John Thaw, has a cameo appearance as a newspaper editor who aids Morse in what becomes a murder investigation. It's a sweet scene that's a nod to the history of the characters and the performers.
"Have we met?" the editor asks young Morse, who doesn't recall the woman.
"Another life, then," she replies.
At a PBS press conference in January, Ms. Thaw acknowledged there might be some viewer skepticism about revisiting the Morse character without her father's participation, but she compared it to stage revivals of classic shows.
"It's something that I often thought about as well: "Why are they going back to that product?' But some people were saying that it's something that you do a lot in theater. You always reinvent something or a character or a production," she said. "Something that works, you try it out again. You rework it. You bring other people in because it's known and it's loved and there's more to fathom. It's not saying there's no opportunity for something new. It's saying this is a very loved product. We can do this newer, fresher, and still have something that was obviously very much loved."
For his part, Mr. Evans said he was excited by the challenge of playing a young Morse.
"When I read the books, I thought here you've got a character who has reached his midlife: He's never married, seems quite unhappy in the choices that he's made in his life and in his general interactions with people," Mr. Evans recalled. "And so for me, I thought, 'God, that's interesting. I wonder how we can get him at the beginning of that.'"
To prepare, Mr. Evans read the Morse books to get an idea of the character before watching any of the films. He didn't set out to mimic Mr. Thaw's performance.
"I think that enough time has elapsed in order for us to do something fresh, whilst you also have to give a nod to what's gone before and please those audience members," he said. "It's important to do something which you can hold your own head up high and say, 'Yeah, this is my personal piece of work.' In order for me to have copied a walk or a talk or certain mannerisms, I wouldn't have felt like I would have done it justice. I was very clear about that at the beginning as well with the executive producers and the writers, to say, 'Look, if that's what you want, then you'll get someone better than me to do it.' And so, yeah, fortunately we were all on the same page about it."
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.