Code of a Killer: Ep. 1

“Loyal service means telling hard truths.”

Game of Thrones

Code of a Killer is ITV’s most recent Showcase Drama, which seems mostly to be a platform for the slightly classier Murder Mystery. A two-parter (though each part is a fairly whopping and not entirely justified 90 minutes long), it’s somewhat loosely based on the story of the first murderer to be convicted using DNA evidence.

Despite an uncharacteristically muted but undoubtedly compelling performance by John Simm (he who used to be the Master, before the Master became Missy) as DNA Scientist Alec Jeffreys, the first part of Code of a Killer takes an unconscionable length of time to get going. Which is a kind way of saying that nothing actually happens – bar Alec’s eureka moment – until about fifteen minutes before the end. We are told a girl named Lynda has been murdered. The police loiter about for a few years. Then someone else gets murdered, and the police continue to loiter about until, in a twist that surprises absolutely no-one, they arrest the wrong person.

That is all that happens. For one and a half hours.

Actually, if it hadn’t been for the DNA storyline, I might have stopped watching, because it’s here that the interesting stuff really lies. (I’m aware that I might well be on my own here, though.) It’s not often that a fictional TV programme, let alone a Murder Mystery, actually engages with science – real science, I mean, not the polarity-reversing positronic technobabble of Doctor Who and Star Trek – and Code of a Killer does it, as far as it goes, quite well. Alec has to explain the concept of DNA sequencing several times to scientifically clueless folk (including a bunch of first-year undergraduates who wander into Alec’s lab, which feels unlikely), and it’s details like that, along with vignettes like the paternity test which wins an immigration court case, which work to ground his search for the right enzyme (the right enzyme!) in the viewer’s reality. The episode also manages to convey the mundane repetition of scientific endeavour rather well – although this is somewhat undermined by the whole eureka thing, as if DNA had suddenly been “solved” once and for all. But science doesn’t really lend itself to narrative that well, so I’ll give it a pass.

So, yeah. John Simm is pretty watchable here, and SCIENCE. Unfortunately, the structure of the episode completely robs it of any tension. Like, we know that at some point the two interwoven strands – SCIENCE and Murder Mystery – are going to combine, and that inevitably anything that happens in the investigation before that point is useless. So making us wait almost 90 minutes for that confluence makes no sense. What’s the point of caring when we know everything’s going to be undone? And when, incidentally, we know pretty much exactly what’s going to happen, since it also happens in pretty much every Murder Mystery ever? (There’s a whole post to be written here about the irony of a real-life case failing because of the conventions of fiction, but to be frank it’s a quarter to eleven and I’ve been reading Middle English all day. Another day, perhaps.)

Will I watch the second half? Maybe. It depends what crops up on iPlayer and how much time I have to spare between revision (probably not much). The best I can say about Code of a Killer is that it’s not all bad. Which means it’s not good enough.

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