TV UK, 5 November
Murder Prevention: the Metropolitan Police go sci-fi.
Wednesday’s final episode of The Power of Nightmares ended with an analysis of how the ‘precautionary principle’ has come to dominate government policy on terror. As sometime spiked contributor Bill Durodié disdainfully summarised it, not having evidence for something is no reason not to act as if you did.
The idea is taking off in other policy areas too. One of the more eyebrow-raising examples is explored in Channel 5’s new British-produced cop show, Murder Prevention (Saturday nights), in which a special squad of detectives seeks to catch killers before they kill. Squaring the precautionary principle with the criminal justice system is a delicate operation, however, and as well as predicting murders, the cops have to come up with compelling ‘evidence’ to back up their predictions.
Unlike Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, the squad doesn’t have psychics on hand. Worryingly, far from being science fiction, Murder Prevention is based on the work of a real unit in the Metropolitan Police. Instead of psychics, they have to rely on old-fashioned copper’s sense (when a murderer gets out of prison, he’s more likely to be the one to watch than a little old lady who works in a charity shop) combined with new-fangled psychological profiling, which (it is hoped) puts the whole thing on a more scientific footing.
Of course, keeping an eye on people is bad enough, but trying to convict people for something they haven’t done is pretty outrageous. As in Minority Report, there is political pressure on the Murder Prevention squad to make the initiative work, in this case by securing a conviction against a would-be child killer in order to win over the public. The squad is up against a defence lawyer who is equally politically motivated, and it will be interesting to see how this dynamic develops.
BBC3 also has a new British-produced cop show, Conviction, starting on Sunday, and this also plays on the politically loaded nature of child murder, with a team of Manchester detectives struggling in their various ways to deal with the pressures of the case. The drama has been heavily trailered on the main BBC channels, focusing on the shocking behaviour of one of the younger detectives, but there is more to it than that. The opening episodes give the impression of an institution at a crossroads, with conflicting ideas about what the police are for.
These ideas are personified rather crudely in the various characters: the old-fashioned, slightly thick copper, the bright young woman, the thoughtful loner etc, but this is a flaw common to new dramas, as the writers try to establish their characters in the audience’s minds. Murder Prevention has its young whippersnapper with a fancy degree, its laidback Irishman with a Seventies hairdo (ahem), and its ruthlessly ambitious boss. Once both dramas settle down, the clichés are likely to develop into more subtle character dynamics.
As the Americans have shown, the cop show is a genre with surprising potential for dramatic depth and political nuance. The mechanics of policing are perhaps more central to British politics than they are in the USA, and Murder Prevention in particular promises to exploit this interest (The Cops, made by the same production company, was the best British cop show of recent years, despite focusing on uniforms rather than detectives).
It is to be hoped that both shows will be given time to mature beyond their glitzy openings, and to explore the current transformation of policing in some depth. To that end, it is also to be hoped that Conviction will be put on a proper channel before too long.
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