Trial & Retribution: The Third Collection Review

The Series

One of the few genuine “auteurs” of British television, Lynda La Plante reinvigorated the crime drama in 1991 with Prime Suspect, and in 1997 took the genre to new heights again with Trial & Retribution. Whereas most crime series tend to focus on one aspect of the case – for instance, pathology with Silent Witness, the judicial process with Kavanagh QC, or, as is the case with most shows of this type, the police investigation – the central conceit of Trial & Retribution was that it would follow each case from beginning to end, beginning with the committing of the crime (generally a murder) and concluding with the prosecution (or indeed acquittal) of the guilty (or indeed innocent – on more than one occasion, it is insinuated that the wrong man has been sent down). That’s how it started, at any rate. In practice, it all began to devolve after a few years, even if the ever-present DCSI Mike Walker (David Hayman) has helped give even the weakest episodes something of an air of class. Some people think the moment it all began to go downhill was when the producers decided to sex the show up by replacing Kate Buffery with Victoria Smurfit as the recurring DCI, and I can see where they’re coming from, but personally I believe the rot began to set in with the transition from one-off specials, much like La Plante’s earlier Prime Suspect, to more of a continuing drama series, similar to the format adopted by rival detective series Silent Witness and Waking the Dead.

This 3-disc set, which contains three episodes that originally aired between 2005 and 2007, lets us witness the key period of the de-evolution. The first episode, The Lovers, centres around a young newly married couple on their honeymoon. While shopping in Covent Garden Market, the husband, Mark Harrington (Milo Twomey), simply disappears, and the pleas of his wife, Susan (Miriam Heard), seem to fall on deaf ears as the police appear unwilling to believe there is any foul play involved... until, that is, Susan decides to take matters into her own hands and puts her own life in danger in the process.

Originally aired as a one-off in November 2005, this episode was something of a return to form after the previous year’s clumsy Blue Eiderdown, which relied far too heavily on shock value at the expense of actual plotting. The Lovers does, however, perhaps borrow a little too much for its own good of Tim Krabbé’s novel The Golden Egg and its film adaptation, Spoorloos (or indeed the Hollywood remake, The Vanishing). I can’t claim to be familiar with either the book or its movie versions, but those more knowledgeable than me have claimed that the similarities are quite damning (and La Plante, it must be pointed out, has been accused of plagiarism on at least one other occasion). In addition to this apparent lack of imagination, it also suffers somewhat from the shortening of the running time to a mere 135 minutes (excluding commercials), a process instigated with Blue Eiderdown, which in my opinion was handicapped in no small way from an inadequate length. Previous episodes of Trial & Retribution had all hovered around the 200 minute mark, allowing plenty of time to be devoted to establishing the premise of the case, the police investigation, and ultimately the accused’s trial. (Over the years, things have got even worse, with most recent series featuring episodes that run for approximately 90 minutes once commercial breaks are removed.) Still, it moves along at a brisk clip and, if not particularly adventurous, it at least marks a return to the intricate plotting for which the series had become known.

The next episode, Sins of the Father, is similarly slick, focusing this time on a teenage girl, Emily Harrogate (Carey Mulligan), discovered dead at the bottom of the cellar steps in the family home. A tragic accident or an act of murder? The evidence is inconclusive, and matters are not helped by the fact that Emily’s obsessive-compulsive mother, Diedre (Nadia Cameron-Blakely), performed a thorough clean-up of the whole house prior to the discovery of the body, eliminating potential DNA evidence in the process. Either way, it seems clear that the family has plenty of secrets to hide, with none more secretive than the father, John (Greg Wise). Walker, meanwhile, has problems of his own as his son, Richard (Benedict Smith) becomes increasingly emotionally unstable.

This latter subplot, unfortunately, detracts somewhat from the rather well-told central storyline. While it provides a nice bit of continuity (Richard’s problems stem from a traumatic experience shown a number of years ago in Trial & Retribution XI), it feels somewhat tacked on, despite the script’s attempts to draw parallels between it and the alienation felt by the two Harrogate boys. Ultimately, it also tips the character of Walker beyond the point of irascibility into sheer lunacy, culminating in him turning up drunk to work and bawling out his colleagues, the result of which demeans the man something rotten and hints at the dumbing down of the characterisation that was to take hold before too long. Still, La Plante manages to redeem matters in the final half-hour with the courtroom scenes, which, unusually for a crime drama, actually present us with two entirely plausible explanations as to how Emily died and leave us to make up our own minds as to their accuracy.

Warning: spoilers follow!

The final episode in the set, Closure, was the first to be produced for the new format (although Sins of the Father was actually held back so it could air as the season premiere), and it suffers from a myriad of problems, not least of which is a staggeringly lazy plot hung around an utterly implausible premise. Basically, a teenage schoolgirl is raped and murdered, and the team have exhausted all their potential leads. When Walker unearths a number of unsolved cases with striking similarities, they must face up to the possibility that they are dealing with a serial killer. Enamoured by Max Stanford (Michael Brandon), a renowned American criminal profiler currently lecturing in the UK, Roisin ropes him in to help out with the case... but is he who he says he is?

Michael Brandon, who appears to have been making British television his stomping ground of late (he showed up in an episode of Casualty just over a year ago as well, playing the boyfriend of former Trial & Retribution star Kate Buffery, no less), is not a bad actor, and I still think he gets an unfairly bad rap for his performance as the protagonist in Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet, but he is not particularly well served by the material here. To put it bluntly, La Plante hangs the entire mystery on a case of identity theft so absurd that, when the killer is revealed, the natural reaction is to burst out laughing. And yes, the killer is Stanford, or at least the man claiming to be Stanford. I honestly don’t feel the slightest twinge of guilt at giving this away in my review, because it’s so awful that, somehow, knowing what’s coming makes this bitter pill a lot easier to swallow.

It’s with this episode that we discover that Roisin is not just cold, abrasive and snotty: she’s also a world class moron. Not only does she seemingly not bother to properly check the credentials of the man she hires to help with the investigation, she also fails to notice that the other murder cases on file all correspond to the times and locations of Stanford’s previous lectures in England. A fellow officer is even good enough to spell this out to her, and still she doesn’t take the hint. Instead, she’s too busy getting steaming drunk and responding to the obviously dodgy Stanford’s advances – a defect which, unfortunately, will land her in hot water time and again in future episodes.

Closure is not bad as such. It’s entertaining and engaging enough, but it’s also the first Trial & Retribution to feel completely interchangeable with any other halfway competent cop show. I attribute a lot of this to the fact that it’s the first episode not to conclude with a court case – something which would become all too common within a couple of years. On this occasion, there’s a perfectly good reason for this: Stanford is clearly insane, and would never be considered fit to stand trial. Despite being factually accurate, however, it’s still disappointing for a show that built its reputation as much on its delicately crafted courtroom scenes as on the daily grind of the detection process.

In summary, this third Trial & Retribution box set provides us with three episodes that are each, to differing degrees, flawed, but each engaging in their own way. The first two episodes, despite their shortcomings, ultimately make for solid television, with only the third episode threatening to collapse completely due to its shortcomings. It helps, I suspect, that all three episodes were personally penned by Lynda La Plante. This would change all too soon, with La Plante gradually reallocating these duties to various writers-for-hire, but here at least she seems to have been fully invested in the material, which gives the drama both the polish and the truthfulness that lifts her work above that of many other crime writers.

The Discs

Taking over the DVD distribution duties of the series from Contender, and also dropping the number of episodes per volume from four to three, Acorn Media presents each of the three two-part episodes on its own dual-layer disc, retaining their original 1.78:1 aspect ratio (anamorphic, of course) and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. The quality is basically acceptable as far as TV broadcast material goes, but isn’t going to win any awards. There is an inherent softness to the material, along with some noticeable haloing around edges. On the audio front, spit channel effects are on occasion used to good effect during the series’ trademark split-screen sequences, but overall the sound, while clear, is understandably flat and unremarkable. There are no subtitles whatsoever – a very poor state of affairs.

In terms of extras, the major pull comes on the first disc in the form of a 46-minute behind-the-scenes piece. Originally aired on ITV1 in 2006, it actually turns out to be pleasingly informative and reasonably in-depth (once you get over the narrator’s somewhat irritating enunciation, that is). As what is essentially a piece produced to promote the then-current series, it unsurprisingly gives short shrift to a lot of the earlier material, skimming over the removal of Kate Buffery’s character, for example, and instead concentrating on newer material. Along the way, various talking heads discuss the accuracy of the show, the creation of the gruesome make-up effects, the pioneering use of split-screen, and of course the various villains that have featured over the years and the actors who played them (Rhys Ifans and Richard E. Grant, the latter of whom is interviewed quite extensively, are the focus of particular attention). The documentary concludes with a spotlight on David Hayman’s humanitarian work. All in all, this piece was a pleasant surprise and well worth the time it took to watch.

Other extras are limited to a Lynda La Plante biography, cast filmographies, and a modest gallery of reasonably high quality production stills for each episode.

7 out of 10
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7 out of 10
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out of 10

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