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Whitechapel S01E01; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

whitechapel

Originally aired in the U.K. February 2, 2009
Written by Ben Court and Caroline Ip
Directed by S.J. Clarkson

Starring Rupert Penry-Jones, Phil Davis, Steve Pemberton, and Alex Jennings

My rating: ★★★ stars

Jack’s back.

The body of a woman is found, gutted, throat slit, in Whitechapel. Could it have something to do with Jack the Ripper?

Of course, it does—no matter that it’s 2009, and the real Jack the Ripper, whoever he was, must have been dead for a century or so. The only thing people associate with Whitechapel (probably even the people who live there) is Jack the Ripper. The only question is how long it will take the detective characters in the series to pick up on what the audience already knows. The answer—quickly, so the audience doesn’t think they’re idiots, but not so quickly that the show can’t milk the possibility of a Ripper connection for all the conflict it can get from the incredulity of some of the characters.

The conflict between the characters, particularly between DI Joseph Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones) and DS Ray Miles (Phil Davis)*, drives the first hour of the series. Chandler is the golden boy of the administration, on the fast track to rise in the Metropolitan Police Service, but an outsider in Whitechapel. He’s sent by his superiors to solve what appears to be a simple murder with the idea that it will be a boon for his career. Miles and the other detectives at Whitechapel know exactly why Chandler is there, and they don’t like it one bit. There’s an immediate contrast in style. Chandler is polished, well-educated, and well-groomed; he doesn’t fit in with the casual, street-educated, and, frankly, schlubby detectives of Whitechapel. There’s also a strong physical contrast between the two main detectives: the tall, slim, and effete Chandler vs. the short, soft, gruff, unkempt Miles.

Our first introduction to Chandler does not predispose us to like him. We see him at a formal dinner for the Police Service, glad-handing, talking in empty jargon, “We need bold initiatives, in partnership with the communities, to ensure good practice within a solid management framework. Ultimately, this is about the effective delivery of sanctions to the stakeholders.” This scene is effectively intercut with a scene of police on the ground in Whitechapel, providing crowd control at a fire—management speak vs. real police work.

When Chandler shows up at the crime scene in a tuxedo, he doesn’t endear himself to his new subordinate detectives in Whitechapel. Ultimately, however, it is their relentless opposition to him, the scenes we’re shown of his frustration and self-doubt, and his ultimate endurance of their insubordination that endears him to the viewers.

His counterpart, DS Ray Miles, is similarly unlikeable in the beginning. He’s jaded and prejudiced in his view of the crime. His “seen-it-all” attitude leads to sloppy work. That he pegs the reason Chandler is there right from the beginning and that we can understand his frustration at being made the subordinate of younger, less experienced outsider, doesn’t excuse how nasty he is. But there is another side to Miles. We see it with the tender way he deals with the officer who discovers the body. We also see it with the genuine sadness he feels over the death.

If the show errs, it’s hitting the audience over the head with the contrast between Chandler and the rest. We understand the contrast and the resulting conflict in less than five minutes, but the show continues to press the point for most of the episode.

The third major character of the series is introduced about 20 minutes in. Edward Buchan (Steve Pemberton), a professional ripperologist, is the first to recognize the connection to the historical crime. There’s an inherent irony to his introduction. The detectives see him as a crank—as Miles says, “Every time there’s a stabbing in Whitechapel, they [ripperologists] come crawling out of the woodwork”—but the audience knows that Buchan is right because the appearance of a Jack the Ripper copycat is the premise of the series. We learn more about Buchan as the series progresses, but he too has a distinctive style, speaking in the florid prose of a tour guide or a documentary narrator (both of which, we learn, he has been).

Chandler comes to recognize the validity of Buchan’s copycat theory and has to sell it both to his subordinates and to his superiors. With Miles and the rest of the gang at Whitechapel, even when they don’t agree with him, Chandler can order them to do what he wants, but, with his superiors, he has a more difficult time. He meets with his mentor, Commander Anderson (Alex Jennings, whom I’ll always think of as Prince Charles in The Queen) and finds that this case is putting his once promising career in jeopardy. The Commander thinks Chandler is mistaken about the connection to Jack the Ripper and refuses to support him. Chandler asks, “And if another woman dies?” Anderson responds, “Then we never had this conversation.” In other words, Anderson will throw Chandler under the metaphorical bus. He looks foolish with Anderson if he’s wrong, but, far from getting any props for being right, he’ll be blamed for allowing another death.

With the few detectives Chandler can muster, reluctant as they are, Chandler attempts to stake out the street where the next Jack the Ripper crime took place, but they are unable to prevent the crime. Miles and the others, however, do admit that Chandler was right, but he gets no respect for that. Miles bitterly leaves him with, “Congratulations, you were right. So all you got to do now is solve the unsolvable and catch the most famous serial killer who ever lived. Good luck.” As this is the end of the episode, we’re left feeling a little miffed at Miles. As we come to know Miles more, we can guess that his gruffness here is probably a defense mechanism, because he was wrong, because Chandler, whom he so disdains, has proven the better detective.

The look of the show is excellent, juxtaposing shots of modern London, with canted shots of lurking shadowy figures, gory crime scenes, and general squalor. The dialogue points out that Whitechapel is no longer the slum it was at the end of the 19th century, but the images show us the horror beneath the veneer. They give us the sense that, though the landscape has changed, Whitechapel will always be haunted by the specter of the Ripper.

 

A LITTLE THING THAT BOTHERS ME

In the opening credits and on the bulletin boards at the police station, the show displays the postmortem photographs of the actual Jack the Ripper victims. I feel that it’s disrespectful to show pictures of real women, their dignity stripped away, in an entertainment program.

 

*A quick rundown on British police ranks: 1) DI stands for Detective Inspector, the most senior officer who is involved in day-to-day investigations; 2) DS stands for Detective Sergeant, the rank immediately below inspector but above 3) DC, which stands for Detective Constable. Chandler and Miles are the only senior officers at the Whitechapel station. All the rest are DCs.

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