‘CSI: Whitechapel’: Ripper Street and the evidential body

By Jessica Hindes (Royal Holloway)

Though I understand the desire to dissect a period drama on the basis of its historical authenticity, I’ve never thought it a particularly profitable approach. Guy Woolnough may be right to criticise Ripper Street for condemning a 14 year old to an implausibly expedited hanging; but cataloguing this kind of historical inaccuracy contributes little to a critical understanding of the show. In this article, therefore, I set such questions aside in order to think more positively about the programme and its construction, exploring the widely-made comparison between Ripper Street and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.[1] Reading this series through the lens of the forensic franchise provides insight not only into Ripper Street‘s treatment of technology, but into the bodies (living and dead) with which the programme is populated; whose divergence from the ‘evidential bodies’ of CSI and its imitators offer a key to the epistemology of the show.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the first in what would become a three-show franchise, began broadcasting in October 2000.[2] Installed ever since in the US ratings top ten, Anthony Zuiker’s show set the tone for twenty-first century forensic crime drama; a variant on the police procedural centred on the criminologist’s lab. In CSI and its spinoffs, teams of forensic investigators conduct minute examinations of crime scenes and corpses in order to build the ‘story’ of a case, identifying the guilty through a combination of trace and DNA evidence, aided by the latest scientific technology. This preoccupation with bodies and the technologies by which they are measured, recorded and identified takes the show, on occasion, to the limits of plausibility; with its ‘increasingly fetished… instruments of scientific detection’[3] often ‘more reminiscent of science fiction than true investigative practice’.[4]

The association between forensic drama and contemporary science makes Ripper Street, set in 1889, an interesting thought experiment. This obvious disjunction is sometimes played for laughs: surgeon Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), inspecting the high-tech ‘deadroom’ which Matthew Macfadyen’s Inspector Reid has installed for him, admiringly comments ‘hot water, too?’ (1.2).[5] However, the ‘hand-lenses’ and microscopes with which the deadroom is also equipped betray a more serious engagement with the theme (1.3); as does the decision to focus the show’s first episode around the merits and dangers of photography. As the popularity of sensation and detective fiction show, questions around identity, surveillance and the police were as central to the Victorians as they are to our own society.

This parallel is further evinced in the two programmes’ similar treatment of the visual technologies they explore. Sofia Bull, in a recent PhD, suggests that CSI provides an important cultural forum for exploration of ‘post-genomic’ sciences: to ‘worry at’ their implications, but ultimately to reassure (15).[6] Rogue ‘criminal doctors’ demonstrate the danger of these identity sciences (89), but this displacement onto individual practitioners conceals wider questions about state authority and disciplining sight. ‘The cultural anxieties tied to the notion of biopower are essentially deflected from forensic science as an institution of policing and reduced to a specific bioethical question about individual misuses of scientific power’ (119).

Ripper Street offers a similar treatment of its own ‘new’ technologies. With the exception of ‘In My Protection’s’ gang leader Carmichael, the series’ villains all exhibit considerable scientific expertise. Creighton dazzles Reid with his moving-picture machine (1.1); Claxton distils his deadly powders in a secret chemical laboratory (1.3); and Bone, the chilly councillor of episode 1.4, waxes lyrical on the marvels of the new electric railway. But as in CSI, Ripper Street’s technological advances ultimately act in the interests of justice. All three antagonists meet their retribution through the very technologies they exploit. Creighton meets his end in a blaze of film; Claxton is forced to ingest his own fatal concoction; and Bone fries on the just-connected track. Like the conscientiously up-to-the-minute Inspector Reid, we learn that we can feel good about these scientific developments; and the increasingly all-seeing police they underpin.

Maude Thwaites' hairThough its investigators are restricted to telegraphs and directories where CSI‘s criminologists use emails and databases, Ripper Street’s treatment of science is in many ways applicable to our time; reassuring us about our own surveillance society through analogy with the more primitive technologies it depicts. Maude Thwaites' clavicleThe show takes greater advantage of its historical setting – albeit in the service of the same ideology – in its treatment of that other generic marker, the body.

Maude Thwaites' fingertips
Maude Thwaites' hair, clavicle, & fingertips become clues to her identity (1.1 'I Need Light')

CSI is associated with the ‘evidential body’; the victim’s corpse, ‘photographed from multiple angles and then closely examined for trace and biological evidence’, loses its humanity and becomes instead ‘an object of knowledge for the forensic scientists’.[7] There are certainly instances in which Ripper Street deploys this trope. Manby, the toymaker bearing marks of the belt which killed him (1.2); and Roach, the rent-collector whose stab wounds betray his attacker (1.4), both play a role recognisable from CSI. Like Maude Thwaites (1.1), visually dissected into a series of clues [above], or the numbered poisoning victims laid out in the lab (1.3) [below], their bodies become simply so much physical evidence, of a piece with the fibres, footprints and other traces at the scene.

Poisoning victims laid out in the deadroom (1.3 'The King Came Calling')
Poisoning victims laid out in the deadroom (1.3 'The King Came Calling')

For CSI, with its absolute faith in physical clues, making the body into evidence is a means of making it more reliable. ‘People lie,’ Grissom tells a witness in season one. ‘The evidence doesn’t lie.’[8] This is true of the living, as well as the dead: but where CSI turns its suspects into so many DNA samples, Ripper Street’s pre-genomic world demands a more creative approach. Thomas Gower, a child gang member (1.2), and Lucy Eames, a prostitute (1.4), are both betrayed by their own physicality: Gower’s circumcised penis provides a clue to his origins, and Lucy’s pregnant belly to the story of her woes.[9]

Although these bodily signs can be substituted for the blood groups and DNA markers of modern-day forensics, Ripper Street is much more conscious than CSI of the limits of physical evidence. CSI’s most notorious cultural legacy is the ‘CSI effect’. Supposedly, juries familiar with the show have higher expectations for the standard of forensic proof, which makes it more difficult for prosecutors to convict. Although a series of studies have disputed the effect’s existence,[10] the notion’s popularity reflects the absolute quality of the scientific conclusions reached within the show. Investigators are rarely satisfied with circumstantial proof: the emphasis is on finding conclusive evidence that leaves no uncertainty as to what has taken place. This desire illuminates a key omission from the show: ‘CSI skirts the complications of achieving [narrative closure] by only rarely bringing cases to trial.’[11] Criminals are delivered to justice and their conviction assumed: the programme leaves no place for the courtroom’s conflicting legal narratives.

Jackson twists Claxton's broken arm (1.3 'The King Came Calling')
Jackson twists Claxton's broken arm (1.3 'The King Came Calling')

Ripper Street has also stayed largely out of court: even the trial scene which irritated Woolnough in 1.2 is undermined, as Reid later helps the convicted Gower to escape. Elsewhere, however, the show goes further than CSI: rather than leaving cases at the brink of conviction, most of its criminals don’t survive to be tried. Whether at the hands of the police or of a kind of relentless poetic justice, all of the major antagonist figures in the show so far have been dead by the ends of their respective episodes. The circumstance suggests not only a scepticism about the authority of the nineteenth-century law (exhibited in that trial scene as both brutish and unfair), but an association between truth and violence which reflects the bloody pre-history of the show.

CSI regularly turns its bodies into evidence; but Ripper Street tortures its suspects for the truth, exhibiting a preoccupation with the body in pain that works against the anatomist’s dispassionate gaze. Bennett Drake (Jerome Flynn), Reid’s hard-hitting right-hand man, routinely beats up suspects (as well as his more unsavoury witnesses) to extract confessions and information. Jackson, too, is not above a little torture; Reid watches implacably while Claxton squirms as the surgeon manipulates his recently-broken arm (1.3).

Smeaton takes a beating from Sergeant Drake (1.1 'I Need Light')
Smeaton takes a beating from Sergeant Drake (1.1 'I Need Light')

Without full access to the technologies that facilitate CSI’s narrative of clean, scientific certainty, Ripper Street’s nineteenth-century detectives are shown struggling with truths that are often messy and dangerous. Surveillance technologies which are limited, and incomplete, leave a shortfall in knowledge which can be made up only in violence, suffering and pain. Where CSI’s technicians would readily reconstruct the papers Claxton has vindictively burnt (1.3), or conduct a property search to locate Arthur Donaldson’s lair (1.1), for Ripper Street’s less well-equipped investigators the only path to the truth runs through the nervous system of the culprit’s agonised body. As Reid found to his cost in the case of the Ripper himself, the evidence of corpses can only take you so far.

Although Ripper Street‘s cases reach the resolution which viewers of TV forensic shows expect, they’re predicated on a failure (the Ripper’s escape) which importantly informs the programme’s worldview. However, the historical distance at which the show is set means that the result is complementary, rather than challenging, to CSI’s approach. The contrast between CSI‘s comfortable, clinical investigations and the writhing, screaming bodies of Ripper Street’s co-opted witnesses represents the contrast between primitive and superior surveillance technologies: though justice is ultimately served in both cases, in Ripper Street there’s a great deal more suffering along the way. Whether or not we’re comfortable with this pro-surveillance message, Ripper Street‘s transposition of the notion to its nineteenth-century context demonstrates a confident sense of genre and provides the viewer with a useful interpretative lens of her own.

[1] Matthew Macfadyen, quoted in an interview. Philiana Ng, ‘”Ripper Street”: Matthew Macfadyen previews BBC America’s mystery drama’, Hollywood Reporter (19 Jan 2013) <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/ripper-street-matthew-macfadyen-bbc-413935> [accessed 22 Jan 2013]. See for example Morgan Jeffrey, “Ripper Street” episode three “The King Came Calling” review’, Digital Spy, (13 Jan 2013) <http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/tv/s213/ripper-street/recaps/a449704/ripper-street-episode-three-the-king-came-calling-review.html> [accessed 22 Jan 2013]; and Sam Wollaston, ‘Ripper Street; Neil Armstrong – First Man on the Moon; The Hotel’, The Guardian (30 Dec 2012) <http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2012/dec/30/ripper-street-tv-review> [accessed 22 Jan 2013].

[2] The original (conventionally shortened to CSI) is set in Las Vegas; the two spinoffs are CSI: Miami (September 2002 – April 2012) and CSI:NY (September 2004 -).

[3] Joyce Palmer, ‘Tracing Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Forensic Detective Fiction’, South Central Review 18.3 (2001), p.55.

[4] Tom R. Tyler, ‘Viewing CSI and the Threshold of Guilt: Managing Truth and Justice in Reality and Fiction’, The Yale Law Journal 115.5 (2006), p.1052. The show’s excesses are exemplified in the notorious Enhance Button, which allows technicians to capture pin-sharp images from grainy CCTV reflections in windows, car doors and even victims’ eyeballs <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3uoM5kfZIQ0>.

[5] At the time of writing, four episodes of Ripper Street have been shown in the UK: ‘I Need Light’ (1.1); ‘In My Protection’ (1.2); ‘The King Came Calling’ (1.3); and ‘The Good of this City’ (1.4). I refer to the shows by title and episode number interchangeably.

[6] Sofia Bull, A Post-genomic Forensic Crime Drama: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation as Cultural Forum on Science (doctoral thesis, Stockholm University, 2012) <http://www.academia.edu/2178446/PhD_thesis_A_Post-genomic_Forensic_Crime_Drama_CSI_Crime_Scene_Investigation_as_Cultural_Forum_on_Science> [accessed 22 Jan 2013] (page references given in the text). Bull distinguishes between CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and the other programmes in the franchise, suggesting that they present different scientific views; my comments, likewise, refer to the original show.

[7] David P. Pierson, ‘Evidential Bodies: The Forensic and Abject Gazes in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation‘, Journal of Communication Inquiry 34.2 (2010), p.187.

[8] ‘Crate’n’Burial’, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation episode 1.3.

[9] Going further still, ‘In My Protection’ shows Jackson ‘forensic-ing’ himself, analysing his clothes for clues about the misadventures of a half-forgotten night. CSI provides a direct parallel to this scene in the episode ‘Built to Kill (part two)’ [7.2], which sees criminologist Catherine Willows conduct a rape test on her own body after awaking in a hotel room with no memory of arriving there.

[10] For example, Tyler (2006), cited above.

[11] Ibid., p.1074.

Jessica Hindes is currently in the third year of her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London, working on G.W.M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London sequence (1844-56). When she’s not reading sensational penny serials, she guides at Highgate Cemetery and spends much too much time watching procedural crime drama.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *