The allure of Jack the Ripper is so ingrained in the public consciousness it’s difficult to go wrong revisiting the story, from innumerable movies to “The Night Stalker.” Plunging into those fog-enshrouded streets comes “Whitechapel,” a slick U.K. production in which somebody begins replicating the 120-year-old murders in modern-day London, leaving a newbie detective (“The 39 Steps’?” Rupert Penry-Jones) tasked, as a colleague says, with “solving the unsolvable.” Like most Ripper stories, the payoff isn’t equal to the buildup, but whoever dunnit, the first three hours provide another fine opportunity to let ‘er rip.
Investigating the murders provides an instant source of tension between Penry-Jones’ newly arrived, politically connected Det. Inspector Joseph Chandler and his gruff charges, led by world-weary second in command DS Miles (Phil Davis), who snaps at the new boss, “All your courses might look good on paper, but they count for nothing here.”
Still, Chandler not only identifies the killer’s pattern but seeks the aid of a “Ripperologist,” Edward Buchan (Steve Pemberton), who makes his living leading guided tours of Ripper landmarks. Yet can that knowledge crack the case, along with modern innovations like CTV cameras that make it more difficult for the killer to remain concealed?
Writers Ben Court and Caroline Ip (“Primeval”) have considerable fun updating the familiar elements, debunking aspects of Ripper lore while introducing new wrinkles — like an intrusive electronic media complicating the investigation. The dynamic between Penry-Jones and Davis’ Neanderthal cops more than anything approximates the original “Life on Mars,” and Pemberton’s historian is a hoot to have around.
On the down side, “Whitechapel” employs gore and spooky, flash-cut editing in ways that feel a trifle overdone. In addition, the limited series doesn’t just deal with the Ripper, but segues in the second half of its six-episode run into a string of crimes mirroring damage inflicted by Britain’s notorious 1960s-era Kray twins (the subject of a 1990 movie). Beyond that arc being more obscure to Yank viewers, the underlying idea of a detective squad repeatedly facing such copycats strains the suspension of disbelief to near its breaking point.
Then again, the luxury of British drama and its short-order approach is the freedom not to overextend a concept past its expiration date. Viewed that way, “Whitechapel” can be enjoyed for what it is — an excuse to take another bloody stroll down memory lane, while tacking on yet another cinematic addition to the house that Jack built.