|Could do with more facial hair, mind...|
I've been looking forward to Ripper Street for some time, so had to watch the first episode last night. What surprised me was the reaction it got on Twitter afterwards, in particular the accusations that it was violent, and women were the victims. It's a late night crime-drama, and on late enough at night that violence was to be expected, set in the months after the Jack the Ripper killings. Even if every episode isn't spun off the Ripper, it stood to reason that the first episode probably would be, which meant it was going to include prostitutes. There's no point having a drama called Ripper Street and having the first episode be about baby farming, robbery in railway carriages or other Victorian crimes.
As it happens, I'm not a fan of the sort of story where the only way to tell 'good' male characters from 'bad' male characters is their treatment of women and children, nor where violence towards them is used to play on the viewers' emotions; women and children do not exist to provide moral definition to men, nor to be subject to awful treatment for the entertainment of TV viewers. That's why I'm not a massive fan of Westerns, and why I don't watch Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. I'd certainly never read one of those ghastly 'misery memoirs'. But I can see the point of using vulnerable women as part of this first episode, given the time and setting for the series.
I was rather more bothered by the fact that the plot revolved around the making of snuff movies. While celluloid film was available by 1889, film as an artistic medium was still very much in the experimental stage. Smutty films weren't being produced in the time the episode was set. The villain had no identity to speak of; he was posh, and for some reason he decided to kill women on film for fun. There was no psychological depth to the villain, and so no real story. I suppose this is where I do agree with some of the criticism: without his own plot, purpose or personality, the villain is essentially there to provide a series of female corpses for the viewer, and by slipping film into the storyline, rather than the more historically-accurate still photography, the programme-makers could then show the 'action' as part of the episode, appealing to the prurience of their audience.
However, I didn't hate the first episode. I didn't like the characterless villain (although none of the leads were especially well written either), and I wish the BBC had taken an approach more like they did with The Hour, drawing one plot out and exploring things in depth. When a telly company tries to cram a story into a single hour, the result usually is a series of signifiers and sensational images rather than rounded characters and a developed plot. But there is potential in there. I found the visual side of things especially strong. Thwaites' declaration that he'd lost all his money, which is why his wife was selling herself, didn't come as a surprise after seeing their house, where discoloured oblongs on the (painted, not papered) wall suggested the removal of pictures, and the whole place was lacking in the usual middle-class Victorian frou-frou. We see Inspector Reid with his shirt off, and he's been badly burned in the past, but nothing is said of it; clearly there's a backstory there. I'm not giving up on Ripper Street just yet, but I do hope they steer away from whizz-bang sensationalism and putting too many 21st century values into the minds of 19th century characters.