Prime Suspect, debuting in 1991, and Cracker, debuting in 1993, are two of the most iconic British television series of their eras. For the most part it is easier to list their similarities than their differences. Both are exceedingly dark detective series featuring psychologically and emotionally troubled police detectives. Both are award-winning and breakout roles for their lead actors (Helen Mirren and Robbie Coltrane respectively). And both are very, very good.
There are differences, to be sure. Prime Suspect goes for a structure of a single case per season (save one experiment in its fourth season with doing three cases over three episodes), while Cracker goes for a three-story arc over a longer season. Prime Suspect had more US success, getting aired on PBS and picking up Emmy awards, while Cracker got an unsatisfying US remake and less attention over here. (Prime Suspect eventually got its own mediocre American remake as well) More broadly, Prime Suspect is a straight-up police procedural, whereas Cracker focuses on a police psychologist and on that specific aspect of its cases. Prime Suspect thus has a bit more socially realist grit, where Cracker is a bit more over the top.
But for the most part these are two very good series to tackle an issue left hanging from last entry and heavily relevant to next issue, that of the antihero and its prevalence in the 1990s. My momentary focus on the blog, no doubt to soon be quickly replaced by some other fascination, is on the texture of the 1990s and on what Doctor Who should be at this moment in time. Not, for the moment, what it should do to come back to television, but the basic question of what it should be in 1993, given that it has no clear route to a television return and is, at this moment in time, bedding down for a long-term spell as a book series.
Much of this translates into a question of “what were the 1990s.” Which is a surprisingly tricky question. Maybe this is just because I actually remember large swaths of them, unlike the 1980s, where my memories are relatively fragmented, or any previous decade, which I know only through history. But the other post-War decades all have a relatively clear iconography. This iconography is absurdly reductive and heritage themepark, yes, but it’s at least there. Say “the 1970s” and you’re suddenly transplanted to disco, bell bottoms, and the mysterious fascination with the color orange. Say “the 1980s” and you have primitive obsession with the electronic and bad hair. Heck, do a Google image search on “I love the n0s” where n is between 6 and 9. For the 70s and 80s, of course, you’ll get the logos for the delightfully awful VH1 series of those names (VH1 – purveyors of the finest terrible television to watch at 3am on American cable). For the 60s, which VH1 never covered, you’ll still get homebrew logos that are instantly recognizable as “the 1960s,” albeit the scarequoted version of that more than the actual one.
But “I love the 90s?” You’ll get the VH1 logos, sure, but there’s nothing like the instant dating of the aesthetic. Google “80s night” for about 350,000 hits. Try “90s night” and you’ll get 75k. The 1990s, unlike the three, and really four decades immediately prior, simply don’t register as a coherent system of nostalgia. The number of consensus touchstones is minimal. Musically you’ve got little more than the wave of alternative rock at the start of the decade. In film and television you’ve got a few more. But there’s no iconic and easy to encapsulate image of the 1990s.
Much of this comes down to the fact that the 1990s were a relatively strange mixture of prosperity and disillusionment. There were relatively few huge political, economic, or military crises in the US and UK. Everything seemed pretty OK as such things go. The economy had a bit of a wibble early on, but was mostly solid for the rest of the decade. But despite this the popular culture was terribly dark. The alternative “grunge” movement at least coincided with the recession in the early part of the decade, but on the whole the popular culture of the era was unusually bleak for a time when things were, on the whole, pretty good for most people.
Nowhere is this more visible than the prevalence of the antihero. You couldn’t move in the 1990s without hitting narratives stocked with antiheroes. In comics you had the explosion of Image Comics and their gun/skull/spike-laden superheroes. On television you had the launch of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which actively tried to take a somewhat grimmer and darker approach to Star Trek (albeit still within the broadly optimistic flavor of Star Trek). The early 90s were the period where Sega began putting a serious dent into Nintendo’s dominance of the video game market in part by marketing Sonic the Hedgehog as a cooler “punk” alternative to the staid Mario. Everyone was going with grimmer, nastier heroes.
And Prime Suspect and Cracker are notable because they’re very good executions of this paradigm. I mean, I could have done Spawn and Sonic the Hedgehog for this entry and amused myself, but that’s cheap. Prime Suspect and Cracker are extremely serious and extremely good shows, and show what the antihero concept can be like when competently executed.
The first thing to note about the two shows is that they are extremely actor-driven. Both work in part because they have absolutely phenomenal actors who are doing career-defining work in them. Without actors of the caliber of Coltrane and Mirren both series would simply fall apart. Part of this comes down to some of the long-standing differences in approach between British and American drama. We talked a bit about this way back in the I Claudius/Space: 1999 entry, British acting is focused much more on using the character’s traits to communicate information to the audience as opposed to a notion of “authenticity.” And this affects the way that dramas are written and watched. There’s a tendency in British drama to reveal huge amounts of information through action instead of dialogue in a way that’s just not done as often in American drama. And this, somewhat notoriously, makes British drama hard to watch for American audiences because there often aren’t a lot of events in the plot in order to leave room for long scenes in which a character reveals themselves through actions.
Both Coltrane and Mirren are left to do exactly this for long stretches of their respective shows. It’s worth comparing to a modern day show like House, which also deals with a brilliant antihero protagonist, but that relies on scene after scene of other people talking about what House is like in order to communicate about him because god forbid we actually learn about the character just through watching Hugh Laurie’s acting. Whereas Prime Suspect and Cracker are just as much about how flawed and broken their protagonists are, but spend relatively little time on people talking about how flawed and broken the protagonists are. Cracker is a bit more blatant, but that’s largely down to the sort of flaws in the character: Fitz, Coltrane’s character, is loud and bombastic. But Prime Suspect gives Jane Tennison mostly private, internal flaws, most notably an alcohol problem in the later seasons, leaving Mirren to do a lot of the storytelling work through her character choices.
But even aside from this tendency in British drama the antihero requires a strong actor simply because the antihero is, by its nature, a very dense role. What I mean by this is simply that the antihero is typically a character who simply has more traits that need to be revealed to the audience. Writing one requires not only a full set of heroic signifiers and traits, but a whole second level of flaws and foibles. And when this is expected to be executed in a dramatic medium it needs a good actor.
More to the point, it needs a different sort of good actor than a straightforward hero. In Doctor Who terms, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker are better straightforward heroic actors than, say, Patrick Troughton. But they’d be disastrous in the antiheroic role. And although he’s not directly involved in making Doctor Who as of 1993, Sylvester McCoy’s tenure on television did pave the way for this as he worked to find ways to combine his deep-lying skills at being an entertainer (skills that are immediately apparent if you ever see him at a con) with the more dramatic and mysterious aspects of the character that he and the writers were developing. That basic split introduced in McCoy laid the foundation to make the New Adventures version of the Seventh Doctor into more of an antihero.
The other thing that’s very apparent looking at Prime Suspect and Cracker is that the move to an antihero-based form of storytelling requires a different sort of subject matter. Both Prime Suspect and Cracker spend a tremendous amount of time focusing on how psychologically harrowing the crimes themselves are. The idea being that dealing with things as dark as Tennison and Fitz have to deal with makes you into a broken and scarred person. Again, there are obvious reflections in the New Adventures – the Doctor and Ace aren’t the only things darker about the novels than the television series. The villains and worlds they land in are darker and more horrific as well.
This too relates, I would argue, to the nature of the 1990s, and in ways I already talked a bit about on Monday. At least part of it stems from the idea of a world built to handle a long-term conflict in which, suddenly, there was no conflict. One of the major images of post-Cold War action-adventure material is the image of the now-unnecessary weapon that is still active. The most basic of these is the nuclear weapon (the perpetual fear of decommissioned Russian missiles ending up in the wrong hands), but there’s also a very common one of the spy without a war. This starts to tie in to the previously mentioned fascination in conspiracy theories of the time, but there’s more to it.
The end of the Cold War was a deferred apocalypse. The outcome “and then one side basically imploded suddenly” was not on the menu. The Cold War was supposed to end in a nuclear inferno that killed everyone. It wasn’t supposed to just have the air go out of it. And a deferred eschaton has unusual power. Culturally, we spent decades expecting that we were all going to die. The reprieve didn’t suddenly make everybody less pessimistic. It just turned that pessimism inward.
And so began a big wave of deconstructing (used in its least rigorous sense) our heroes. So the heroes of the Cold War become useful monsters whose use has run out. Police detectives become people who have gazed into the abyss for too long. Evil becomes the cruel underbelly of ourselves – a gnawing and persistent nastiness lurking about the margins of who we are. We spent the 90s afraid of the unmentionable thing in the darkness, and our heroes were the people twisted enough to go into that darkness. And faced with heroes like that, our fascination became less “how will they save the day” and more “what sorts of people are they?”
Prime Suspect and Cracker were big, acclaimed, high profile versions of this – looks at the world that suggest that it’s irredeemably and horrifically broken and scary. This is what highbrow British television was doing in 1993. It’s what crappy American superhero comics were doing in 1993. And so, unsurprisingly, it’s also what Doctor Who was doing in 1993. But equally, Doctor Who has never simply followed the trends around it. It’s always put its own odd spins on it. Doctor Who degenerating into generic grim antiheroes facing terrible things would be insufferable. Thus far the turn has been muted – the Doctor’s antiheroic shift has mostly been used for the purpose of shedding interesting new lights on the nature of the character and the series’ legacy, and Ace’s antiheroic shift is only one very mediocre book old. But now that it’s clear that this is the status quo for the New Adventures it’s increasingly and imminently necessary to show that there’s something Doctor Who can do with antiheroes that is unique to it. Which brings us to Friday.