"From the creator of Prime Suspect" prominently adorns home video packaging of just about everything producer-writer Lynda La Plante does. That game-changing policier starring Helen Mirren has become La Plante's Citizen Kane, a brand-name blessing also inviting negative comparisons and other scrutiny, like Rudy Giuliani's tiresome "I was The Mayor on 9/11" shtick. Few would contest Prime Suspect's well-deserved accolades but in recent years La Plante's weaknesses as a writer-producer steadily become more apparent. Her most recent series, Above Suspicion, is a very feeble reworking of Prime Suspect concepts, at times ludicrous and shamelessly exploitative in ways Prime Suspect never was.
The decline first became apparent during the long run of Trial & Retribution. Not a television series per se, the program began as a four-hour television movie, divided into two parts first broadcast over consecutive nights, on October 19th and 20th, 1997. Trial & Retribution continued in this fashion for the next five years, with just one four-hour, two-part program broadcast annually.
These programs starred David Hayman as Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Mike Walker and Kate Buffery as DI Pat North. (Everyone's rank constantly changes, so for the purposes of this review I'll stick to just one.) These shows shared many of the same qualities as Prime Suspect. Their extreme length allowed for a much greater and subtler character development than, say, typical hour-long police dramas made in America. La Plante was also a stickler for procedural authenticity - she's been to British police shows what Jack Webb was to Dragnet and Adam-12 in the 1950s and '60s - lending crime scene investigations, autopsies, suspect interviews, line-ups, trials, etc., a verisimilitude unsurpassed up to that point.
However, La Plante painted herself into a dramatic corner by making Walker and North lovers, an unlikely dead-end match to begin with and which dragged on painfully and mercilessly through all of their later shows together. Buffery, a superb actress, left and Victoria Smurfit, as DCI Róisín Connor, took over as Trial & Retribution's female lead.
At this point the series was trimmed to two parts running 70 minutes apiece, or approximately 140 minutes per annual show. Then in 2007 the format was changed yet again. Instead of a single two-part television movie, for Series/Season 10 no less than five two-part, 140-minute stories aired, all bunched together, in January-February 2007. For series/season 11, Trial & Retribution's running time was further reduced, to just 90 minutes, divided into two 45-minute halves. That's a big drop from what once was four hours per story. Indeed, the retribution part of Trial & Retribution was pretty much dropped altogether ages ago.
The result is that the very things that made Trial & Retribution unique, the longer running times and methodical pacing, which allowed richer characterizations and more realism, have been pruned to the point where the show isn't all that different from less ambitious, meat & potatoes fare like Taggart. And by trying to tell five self-contained stories per year instead of just one, the quality of the writing has also suffered.
Acorn Media's Trial & Retribution - Set 5 is a very confusingly organized release. Included is most but not all of the 2008 season, or Series 11. All of the early television movies utilized Roman numerals (Trial & Retribution III, Trial & Retribution IV, etc.) and that practice continues here. So, what's included in Set 5 is "Trial & Retribution XV: Rules of the Game," "Trial & Retribution XVI: Kill the King," "Trial & Retribution XVII: Conviction," and "Trial & Retribution XVIII: The Box."
However, for reasons unclear the final episode of Series 11, "Trial & Retribution XIX: Tracks," is not included. Its omission throws the set out of whack dramatically, because DCI Connor makes only a brief appearance at the beginning of XVII and is completely absent from XVIII. (She returns in XIX.)
The four stories are routine when not exploitative. "Kill the King," about the investigation of a pediatric surgeon murdered possibly by a man blaming him for the death of his little daughter, is relentlessly bleak and despairing. Earlier, equally dark Trial & Retributions were offset by insights into human behavior or redeemed in other ways, but not so here. "Conviction," more melodramatic, is equally bleak however, its last act littered with bodies like the climax to Hamlet.
Despite the absence of Smurfit, "The Box" is probably the best of the bunch, perhaps precisely because her absence shifts the focus entirely to Walker, who returns home to Glasgow to attend to his late-stage Alzheimer's-stricken mother. (Even this is unoriginal, however; a 2006 episode of Murphy's Law utilized a similarly-structured script and story.) Also helping some is the performance of Kerry Fox (An Angel at My Table) in this episode, as Mike's temporary partner, a middle-aged detective who refused to put up with Walker's casual sexism. La Plante's intentions aren't clear (Was she hoping to spin Fox's character off into a new series?) but it's a one-shot character that works.
Smurfit and especially Hayman are very good in their roles, but the shorter running times turn them into caricatures: Mike is a workaholic oblivious to niceties and the needs of his co-workers, while Connor compensates for perceived slights with extreme ruthlessness. Where Mike's tough interrogations are always purely strategic and, for him, separate and impersonal, Connor conducts them with an almost sadistic glee. Hapless DS David "Satch" Satchell (Dorian Lough), their right-hand man, suffers badly as a result, to the point where his heavy sighs and eye-rolling becomes comical.
Video & Audio
The four two-part stories are presented across two single-sided, dual-layered discs, with each show presented in an excellent and apparently unaltered 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer. The Dolby Digital stereo, English only and accompanied by optional SDH English subtitles, is state of the art.
It's sad to see Trial & Retribution devolve from way above average bordering on excellent to something truly ordinary and, at times, highly predictable and even unappetizing. Still very watchable much of the time, it's nevertheless a far cry from what it once was. Modestly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.