Episode Twenty One, Travels With Martin, and Nanaimo Bars

It’s too simple by far to chalk Frasier and his father Martin’s series-long head-butting up to mere incongruity, I think it’s also in fact their very similar avoidant behaviour coupled with constantly acting upon what they imagine the other’s expectations will be before they’ve even had a chance to materialise. By which I mean – have you ever got mad at someone for something they did in a dream that you had? Well that’s like, Martin and Frasier’s entire deal. And as the sun sets on the inaugural season of Frasier, it makes sense that the writers examine this relationship more closely than ever, in Travels With Martin. 

In an episode boasting an accidental border crossing, a faked accent, and a stuffed bear, it’s a throwaway line at the start and its near-verbatim callback at the end that really stabs me in the clavicle – I’m quite sure its bookend effect is no coincidence.

The moment itself is a real double-bounce: Martin’s inability to talk to Frasier about Martin’s inability to talk to Frasier. In the first instance Martin’s telling Daphne about it, begging her to join him and his son on their RV trip across America while Frasier’s in the other room luring Niles along for the ride so that neither father nor son has to actually be alone together on the trip that neither can admit they don’t want. Note that this happens in Frasier’s apartment – a setting of constant combat between the pair, the place Martin has so often felt unwanted even though it’s ostensibly his home too. It’s also played for laughs: 

Martin: You’ve got to come with us!
Daphne: Why?
Martin: Well, Frasier and I don’t have anything to talk about! I always feel more comfortable when there’s someone else around, or the TV’s blaring.
Daphne: Then why did you suggest it?
Martin: Well, it sounded like a good idea when it came out of my mouth, but the more I think about it… I mean, can you really see me and Frasier together all day and then crawling into our bunks at night, lying head to head… bonding? [shivers] ew!

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By the episode’s conclusion, it’s nighttime, the family is in the Winnebago with Daphne and Niles dozing in the back and Frasier and his father up the front. That’s when Martin says to his son – “You know Frasier, I just can’t help it. When we’re alone together I just don’t know what the hell to say.” It’s not a laugh line, it is in fact rather quietly devastating. And in a new setting – out on the road, away from their usual trappings, in the vehicle that Martin has chosen as the place for his family to reside, that Martin is driving – he’s literally in charge now – and as such feels on more of an even footing with his son. As is so often the case when you’re being avoidant: stating your feelings won’t solve everything, but it really, really helps. The two men, side by side, looking out onto the road instead of facing each other, well, it’s not solved but some headway is made. Frasier concedes that he, too, had his doubts about the trip, and emboldened, they venture some jokes, and then decide to extend their road trip even further.

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I mean c’mon! They’re literally deciding to move forward together across America in the vehicle and in their relationship? The open road is a metaphor for their opening hearts? They’re throwing away the preconceived roadmap of their prejudices? One small trip for a Winnebago, one giant leap for the Crane family? The emotional distance between Martin’s initial line and its callback is figuratively greater than the distance they drove across the land? The? Real? Journey? Was? Their? Friendship? All? Along? Such elegant heavy-handedness!

But wait, I’m not even done, because I perceive a further callback within a callback within a call-in radio show: so, this episode opens at the station where Roz and Frasier are discussing their vacation plans – Frasier at this point has in mind a luxury overseas resort full of self-care and five-star father-ignoring, before he later, in a moment of immediately aghast bluff-calling, agrees to Martin’s Winnebago suggestion.

Roz: Oh, I’m taking my mom to Ireland to stay in the sod house where her mother was born.
Frasier: Why don’t you just write the words “bad son” on my forehead!
Roz: Listen, there is nothing wrong with pampering yourself on your vacation. After all, you do work three hours a day.

(This is Roz’s only appearance but not a word is wasted, and I’m obsessed with Peri Gilpin’s full-bodied, unhurried accent rolling over the words “sod house.”)

By using the words “bad son” Frasier immediately invokes the title of the series pilot, The Good Son, where his relationship with Martin is obviously at its most undeveloped. In this pilot there’s a series of conflicts and miscommunications between the two, and at the end, it’s not solved, but some headway is made, when Martin rings up Frasier’s radio show pretending to be a listener in order to backwards-ly apologise, and admits in this very phone call that he struggles to talk to his son! Surely an intentional re-tread: both times when Martin needs to say something serious to his son about his feelings – not in a showy manner, like his impassioned speech about his chair in Episode 19, or in a funny way, like his dressing-down of Frasier and Roz in Episode 18, but in a quiet way – he purposefully orchestrates it so they’re not actually face to face! Ultimately this callback gives us even more metaphorical progress, like, initially Martin could only express himself over the phone while pretending to be someone else, whereas now they’re both looking straight ahead but they’re at least forming a rapprochement in the same room – it’s not solved, but some headway is made, the “bad son” has come a long way from The Good Son.

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Eyes on the road, Niles

(I have one more serious thing to say before I actually tell you about anything funny that happened and that’s the very disappointing use of Niles videoing Daphne while she’s sleeping in the name of making a family memento (amusing though it is to see a gigantic camcorder in this day and age) not once but twice: I know 1994 was a long time ago but it’s obviously invasive and creepy and it’s frankly bad writing – Niles, even in this very episode, is a moralistic ramrod who loves to play by the rules, he deserves better; the blameless Daphne certainly does. Having the POV camera footage pan from Daphne to a disapproving Frasier at the end credits does not rectify the situation.)

The recipe for this week’s episode is Nanaimo Bars, a particularly Canadian confection of chocolatey base, custardy filling and chocolatey topping, in honour of the funniest part of the episode. The family stops in at a local tourist attraction spot and has their photo taken with a large stuffed bear, during the photographer’s countdown it’s revealed to Daphne’s horror that they crossed the border to Canada while she was sleeping: she doesn’t have her green card processed yet and she’s not supposed to leave America. This in turn leads to a great scene with the border guard as they’re trying to get back into their own country: the only thing Daphne can say convincingly in an American accent is “sure” and the Crane brothers are typically skittish at the prospect of lying to authorities. The whole thing looks set to blow up as the border guard gets more and more suspicious when Martin – ever the wisest person in a room full of doctors – distracts the border guard by pretending that what was getting them all het up was the presence of his dog Eddie, whose veterinary certificate they forgot. Showing the guard photos of Eddie’s American provenance in his wallet allows for his old police badge to also be on display, and the guard is sufficiently mollified, leading to this delightful rapid-fire dialogue, a real home run to all the silliness:

Guard: Are you a policeman?
Martin: Retired. Thirty years on the Seattle police force. Me of all people should know better, huh?
Frasier: Absolutely.
Niles: Definitely.
Daphne: [still with accent] Sure.

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I won’t lie, I found the Nanaimo bars challengingly sweet, but I suspect this might be partially because of my making the recipe vegan – the inclusion of real butter would definitely add a more rounded balance to the flavour, but such are the choices we make. Nevertheless I found myself returning time and time again to the freezer for another slice – and I do recommend freezing it, the temperature seems to temper the sugar-rush – and I admire the resolutely committed fulsomeness of the Nanaimo Bar concept – it’s hardcore stuff. If you don’t have an aversion to dairy for whatever reason then I would honestly suggest just looking up a more traditional recipe online though (which is, I freely admit, very unlikely to suggest Oreos for the base but they are vegan and useful for such pursuits.) It is what it is. 

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Nanaimo Bars

  • 250g dark chocolate
  • 2 packets of Oreos
  • 4 tablespoons custard powder
  • 2 tablespoons non-dairy butter
  • 3-4 tablespoons almond milk or similar
  • 1 1/2 cups icing sugar
  • a pinch of salt

Crush the Oreos, either in a food processor, or as I did, by bashing them repeatedly in the unopened packaging with a rolling pin. Melt 100g of the dark chocolate and stir in the crushed Oreo pieces, and then press this into the base of a brownie tin lined with baking paper. Pop it in the freezer, rinse out the bowl, and then beat togehter the butter, custard powder, icing sugar, milk and salt till it forms a thick, golden mixture. Spread this evenly over the Oreo base, and return it to the freezer for fifteen minutes. Finally, melt the remaining 150g chocolate and pour/spread it evenly over the top of the custard. Return to the freezer, and slice once set. It’s worth noting that the chocolate tends to crack and fall off the smaller pieces so you may want to score the surface before its set entirely if you care about how it looks at the end. Store in an airtight container in the freezer. 

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Favoured line:  John Mahoney is incredible at being solemn – his careful pronunciation of “Gally-pay-gos Islands?” when Frasier offers Martin fancy tourist brochures is amazing, as is his follow up of “Where iguanas, sea-lions and giant tortoises live in eternal harmony.” [pause] Is it important they get along?” I also love Niles’ wholehearted “good golly, I’m inspired. I’m going to put on a baseball cap” when Frasier suggests they abandon their roadmap, and finally Daphne’s wonderful doubling-down on her Englishness when she prepares to convince the border guard that she’s American: “bloody right! It beats having me bum bounced back across the pond! Let’s give it a bash.” 

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Niles and the baseball cap: the episode’s REAL odd couple

Em-Maris-Ment of Riches: She’s back! Or, typically, not – but the ever-resourceful Niles manages to finagle a back massage from Daphne out of the situation, and we get two lovely slices of escalated humour out of it. Firstly, he’s all “I always throw out my back when I try to lift Maris’s luggage” which is funny enough in itself because we know how extravagant Maris is, but it gets better: “Maris won’t trust strangers with her makeup case, ever since a ham-handed porter dropped it and broke three vials of rare Swiss lamb placenta. On the upside, the calfskin lining of her case was never more soft and supple.” He immediately does it again, telling us that Maris is “making her annual pilgrimage to the holy land” which sounds amusing enough as it is but then Martin is like “I thought she was going to Dallas to visit her sister” and Niles hilariously and swiftly counter-clarifies, “that is her holy land. It’s the site of the first Nieman-Marcus.” 

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(my safe word is “Zinfandel”)

Finally: this is on the record as being one of the sadly late John Mahoney’s favourite episodes, which makes sense given how much great stuff his character Martin had to work with in it. I certainly enjoyed writing about it. The first time. And then I accidentally deleted the entire blog post. And had to re-write it from scratch. So if my metaphors sound a little frantic, it’s because SO AM I. 


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