New boxed sets for two British TV programs — one an acclaimed police drama, the other a recently broadcast science documentary — are on our DVD radar screen this week.
“Prime Suspect: The Complete Collection” (nine discs, Acorn Media, $124.99, not rated) brings together for the first time all nine British police mysteries starring the remarkable Helen Mirren as Deputy Chief Inspector Jane Tennison. Created by Lynda La Plante, “Prime Suspect” was produced by Britain’s Granada Television for the ITV network, and broadcast in the United States on PBS’s “Masterpiece Theatre” and “Mystery.” Each series is about 3 1/2 hours long, with the exception of “Prime Suspect 4,” which included three shorter cases at a total length of about five hours.
“Prime Suspect” began in 1991, and the first five series were made roughly 18 months apart through 1996, when Mirren decided to take a break from playing Tennison. She didn’t resume her role for seven years, returning in 2003 to make “Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness” and, in 2006, “Prime Suspect: The Final Act.” All together, Mirren received six Emmy nominations for her performances in “Prime Suspect,” winning twice.
Watching these miniseries again reminds us what a breakthrough “Prime Suspect” was when it first appeared on television. No TV police series — especially not “Cagney & Lacey,” the first American TV show to seriously focus on female police detectives — had ever made the issue of sexism in the police ranks an essential part of its theme and stories. At the center of just about every case is how Jane Tennison, despite her obvious intelligence and ability, has to continually assert herself in order to be successful in the male-dominated London police department. Even after she’s promoted to the rank of Detective Superintendent (in “Prime Suspect 4”), she never escapes condescension and subversion on the part of some male police officials.
“Prime Suspect” was also concerned with the impact of Tennison’s striving for a successful career on her private life. From her inability to be a good partner to a good man (Tom Wilkinson in the first “Prime Suspect”) to her battles with alcoholism (in “Prime Suspect: The Final Act”), Mirren portrays Tennison as a flawed heroine whose professional accomplishments have come at a serious price.
Although “Prime Suspect” belongs in the “police procedural” genre of films and TV shows that focus on the inner workings of a police force, a related theme is how the London police, still largely male and white, react to and try to work in an increasingly multicultural Britain. Though never mechanistic or predictable, each “Prime Suspect” drama deals in some way with a contemporary issue or social problem, including racial tensions, homosexuality and male prostitution, child abuse, Bosnian refugees, organized crime and more.
It’s a tribute to the freshness of the writing and the ability of the ensemble cast, led by Mirren, that a series that began nearly 20 years ago still seems as urgent and modern as when it first aired. Though one wishes Acorn Media had included in the new boxed set more bonus features than two previously seen behind-the-scenes documentaries, most viewers will be perfectly happy just watching DCI Tennison on the case again.
“Wonders of the Solar System” (three discs, BBC Worldwide, $39.98/$49.98 Blu-ray, not rated) will introduce particle physicist Brian Cox to many American viewers, and my guess is that it will mark the beginning of a long relationship. Known as a “rock star” physicist for his youthful enthusiasm, longish hair and casual dress (not to mention his having been a member of the British rock bands Dare and D:Ream before he received his PhD), Cox shows a rare ability to communicate complex scientific ideas and discoveries in a manner that avoids both over simplicity and mind-numbing difficulty.
Made by the BBC with the same state-of-the-art technology it used in such documentary miniseries as “Planet Earth” and “Life,” “Wonders of the Solar System” is a five-part series which aired on British TV in March and in the United States on the Discovery Science network in August. Cox’s opening narration cogently sets out the purpose of the series:
“We live on a world of wonders. A place of astonishing beauty and complexity. We have vast oceans and incredible weather. Giant mountains and breathtaking landscapes. If you think that this is all there is, that our planet exists in magnificent isolation, then you’re wrong. As a physicist I am fascinated by how the laws of nature that shaped all this also shaped the worlds beyond our home planet. I think we are living through the greatest age of discovery our civilization has known.”
In each of the five episodes, Cox explores a different “wonder” of the solar system alongside some comparable “wonders” on planet Earth. For instance, in the first episode, “Empire of the Sun,” he combines a look at the formation and function of the sun with an examination of such earthly phenomena as a solar eclipse in India, solar energy in Death Valley, California, and solar winds and their creation of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) in the Arctic.
In subsequent episodes, Cox looks at the rings of Saturn and the more than 60 moons that revolve around that planet and contrasts their development and structure with such human endeavors as the development of astronomy and natural occurrences such as tornados in Oklahoma and the formation of glacial icebergs in Iceland; compares the atmosphere of the Earth with that of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, and studies volcanoes on earth and on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons.
Finally, Cox turns to perhaps the largest question humankind has encountered throughout history: “Are we alone in the universe?” He discusses the survival of forms of life on earth in the most difficult conditions imaginable and looks at comparable conditions that may exist (or may have existed in the past) on both Mars and Europa, another moon of Jupiter.
As if all this wasn’t enough, “Wonders of the Solar System” includes two additional features with Cox that are equally compelling. “What on Earth is Wrong with Gravity?” explores one of the key issues confronting those who want to understand the structure of the Universe, while “Do You Know What Time It Is” concerns the many ways humans have calculated and tried to determine time and the limitations of these approaches.
The combination of Cox’s personable and intelligent manner as he explores wonders throughout the Earth and the amazing images sent back to earth from various probes, rovers and telescopes in space make “Wonders of the Solar System” a superior documentary series about the physical world.