I’ve no doubt that the appearance of Jack the Ripper on the streets of Whitechapel deliberately played a hand in the development of forensic sciences. Plenty has been written about that topic alone – by probably hundreds of authors – and it’s a legitimate estimation of how police inspectors had to come to grips with emerging disciplines in order to better understand precisely what the Ripper may’ve been up to, much less figure out how to identify him. Also, I’ve no doubt that the Ripper’s activities most likely threw all investigations of that era under massive scrutiny … for could any of these other affairs be attributed to Jack’s nefarious deeds? Indeed, Whitechapel must’ve operated under the conditions of crisis for several months afterward – if not several years – all the while fearing the killer’s frightening return.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Inspector Reid (the ever reliable Matthew Macfadyen) has a nightmare position: he heads up the notorious H Division tasked with keeping the streets of Whitechapel orderly. That’s never an easy task, considering how many citizens come and go from the East End in pursuit of sex and other devilish deeds. However, with the help of his trusted sergeant Drake (Jerome Flynn) and a displaced American Pinkerton agent named Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), Reid does what he can to keep his professional and personal life from intersecting all-too-often with the lives of criminals under his jurisdiction.
That synopsis out of the way, let me say up front that I found nearly all of this first season of RIPPER STREET a bona fide delight. What starts out appearing to revolve fairly heavily about the possible affairs of a still-lurking Jack the Ripper quickly evolves into a late 19th century police procedural – think of it as ‘CSI: Whitechapel’ – that plumbs the depths of criminal intents as well as presents a vivid account of the emerging mindset of how science would work hand-in-hand with deductive reasoning to benefit the greater society-at-large. Thankfully, the stories don’t rely on the Ripper’s exploits – in fact, only the first and last of these eight episodes tie in centrally with the Ripper mystery – so those critics who’ve dismissed it as some kind of Ripper-fan-fiction are completely out of their minds if not out of their depth.
I’ll give a brief summation of each episode, along with a ranking/rating, for those of you interested in some of the finer points:
“I Need Light” (5 out of 5): The premiere episode puts Reid at odds with another inspector who firmly believes that the Ripper has returned to his ugly work. It’s a terrific first episode that introduces most of the program’s major players, but it only hints at some of the relationships to come.
“In My Protection” (4 of 5): The death of a popular toymaker brings Reid, Drake, and Jackson aware that a street gang is delivering their own form of law & order to the masses.
“The King Came Calling” (4 of 5): A Whitechapel death turns out to be tied to a London resident’s exposure to ergotism as well as another possible fast-acting poison. It’s a difficult episode to stomach as there’s plenty of vomiting.
“The Good of the City” (5 of 5): A reformed epileptic prostitute may prove the unfortunate undoing for a local politician and his much-revered physician in the cautionary tale that greatly explores how crime scene analysis forces detectives to explore differing theories. Outstanding episode.
“The Weight of One Man’s Heart” (3 of 5): Some elaborately staged heists end up being tied to Drake’s past. The villain is WAY too dramatic for my tastes, but the episodes finally gives Drake some excellent material to work with.
“Tournament of Shadows” (3 of 5): Another plot-heavy episode explores a conspiracy to infiltrate the unions in order to make a strike against London by foreign interests. Some interesting ideas get buried under a lot of machination.
“A Man of My Company” (5 of 5): Jackson’s past finally rears its ugly head, forcing him to come clean with those near him or to disappear completely. It’s a smart script, elevated by Rothenberg’s charm, and it sprinkles plenty of developments that get followed up in the next episode.
“What Use Our Work?” (4 of 5): Reid’s personal struggles come full circle – or as close as they may ever get – when Jackson’s accused of being the Ripper and the mystery of his vanished daughter put the police on the tails of a traveling industrialist with a very dark secret.
RIPPER is meaty viewing, not for the faint of heart. At times bloody and grim, it’s probably not something you want to throw in lightly. But don’t be disillusioned as others have: Jack the Ripper’s influence is felt, but it’s rarely a central consideration in most of what’s available here. The Ripper’s days are past – not that long ago – but what he did continues to haunt these unfortunate souls, and that certainly makes for some outstanding drama.
RIPPER STREET is produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Element Pictures, the Irish Film Board, Look Out Point, and Tiger Aspect Productions. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by BBC America. As for the technical specifications, clearly no expense has been spared in bringing the streets of Whitechapel to life in this excellent period piece; there’s some dynamic cinematography at work constantly, and the producers even employ some clever narrative trickery with the use of sound. As for the special features, meh; to my surprise, the RIPPER discs were a bit light, presenting some production shorts surrounding the show, some inside looks at the cast and crew, character profiles, and a curious little short which explores whether or not contemporary forensics could uncover Jack the Ripper’s long-debated secret identity. Nice, but I would’ve liked a commentary or two to explore the filmmaking process in greater depth.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. RIPPER STREET’s inaugural season was an excellent period piece production that portrayed just how the police procedural worked ‘back in the day.’ I’ve had the privilege of reading up on some police methods of the time, so I’m making that initial statement from the vantage point of knowing a thing or two about the subject. Detectives weren’t above beating out a confession, and frustrated citizens were extremely likely to take the law into their own hands. As for the applied forensics explored in these eight episodes, it seemed perhaps a bit advanced, but I couldn’t attest to its accuracy as I’m at a loss. Given Jack the Ripper’s appearance on the scene (historically), I wouldn’t be surprised to learn of these scientific developments. Grim, bloody, and pretty bold, RIPPER STREET is dynamite entertainment featuring characters all waiting to explode.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at BBC America provided me with a DVD copy of RIPPER STREET by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.