Printer Friendly

Duty of care: crime drama and the medical encounter.

Forensic pathology drama is a prime example of what has been dubbed a recombinant, or hybrid, television genre. As Jane Feuer has argued, compared with the relative stability of cinema, in the more fluid, schedule- and demographically led television industry, programme formats 'have a greater tendency to recombine across genre lines'. (1) At one level, television genres may gradually mutate by absorbing shifts in narrative form or stylistic emphasis in response to audience feedback. (2) Alternatively, as Matthew McAllister demonstrates in his early analysis of the youth/medical drama, Doogie Howser M.D (1989-93), a new format may be developed out of 'splices of two or more previously existing, and successful, types'. (3)

The emergence of forensic pathology drama in the 1990s is based on precisely this splicing together of well-established genres. Various, and increasingly abstruse, specialisms have had their moment in the police procedural spotlight, from forensic anthropology to forensic entomology, but the common thread running through the popular representation of forensic science is the presence of the pathologist, the investigator who brings to the crime investigation narrative the vital ingredient of the medical gaze. In this article, I trace the interplay of crime and medical television drama through a number of hybrid series, before focusing on the specific formula of the forensic pathology drama. This particular variation on the hybridisation of medical and crime fiction depends not simply on a merging of conventions or on a mere juxtaposition of the world of the doctor with that of the crime investigator. It dramatises more profoundly both a fusion of contrasting forms of knowledge and understanding and a struggle between the discourses of care and authority that are enshrined in the two originating generic forms.

Crime and medical drama are the two dominant genres in popular television fiction. Each takes its audience into the heart of a public institution that is close to our sense of the everyday. Yet at the same time both have the mystique of a closed order, with its own professional hierarchies, rituals and codes. Each has the ability to activate contemporary concerns around social order, shifting according to broader cultural conditions between reassurance and crisis. On the affective level, the medical and crime genres fulfil Richard Dyer's function of popular entertainment by providing utopian solutions to a range of absences, tensions or inadequacies in daily social experience. (4) These genres serve also as perfect examples of Roger Silverstone's definition of the mythic dimension of popular culture, whereby chaos is resolved through narrative into order and anxiety into reassurance. (5)

For much of their history, the two genres have been largely understood as discrete and independent of each other, with crime drama, whether in the form of the police procedural, the detective thriller or the day-to-day tales from the police station or precinct, as the more prolific. As Charlotte Brunsdon observed however, it is medical drama that rose to become the 'dynamic genre' of the 1990s, (6) proliferating and subdividing on both sides of the Atlantic into a range of subgenres of varying tone and complexity. In one of these many variations, hospital drama began to look to police drama for its style and narrative form; it was the crime series Hill Street Blues (1981-87), for example, which provided the template for the seminal hospital dramas of the 1980s, St Elsewhere (1982-88) and Casualty (1986-present). Julia Hallam finds evidence of this lineage in the 1990s, in the extent to which 'contact between doctor and the patient/client ... is minimized in favour of rapid action and visual spectacle that is more characteristic of genres such as the police series'. (7) The primary dramatic encounter of medical drama, she argues, 'has left the domesticity of the hospital ward and the sanctity of the operating theatre for the corridors and cubicles of the casualty department, creating an atmosphere of chaos and disorder that seems more in tune with the faster pace of entertainment found in the genre's sibling, the police series'. (8) This movement, however, has not been one-way. Forensic pathology drama in particular is emblematic of a shift in the procedural and action-based narratives of crime investigation towards an intimacy more characteristic of the consulting room and the sanctity, if not of the operating theatre, then of the scientific laboratory.

The increasing fluidity of the relationship between these two hitherto discrete genres is underscored by the transmigration of production personnel. As part of the drive to establish a new dynamic for Casualty as a gritty, front-line drama, the BBC appointed producer, Geraint Morris, who had a previous track record in police series such as Softly, Softly (1966-76) and Juliet Bravo (1980-85); Tony McHale, one of the BBC's most prolific popular drama screenwriters, has written episodes for Casualty and its spin-off Holby City (1999-present), for crime dramas The Bill (1984-2010) and Murphy's Law (2001-7), and for such crime/ medicine hybrids as Dangerfield (1995-99), Silent Witness (1996-present) and Waking the Dead (2000-11). More visibly, actors have moved between the genres, the most notable being Amanda Burton, whose progression from country doctor in Peak Practice (1993-2002) to forensic pathologist Sam Ryan in Silent Witness and then senior police officer Clare Blake in The Commander (2003-6) has largely determined the persona she has developed as a particular brand of strong but enigmatic female protagonist. (9)

Jason Jacobs attributes the rise of medical drama in the 1990s, and in particular its central figure of the traumatised body, in part to the medicalisation of everyday life and especially Western society's increasing preoccupation with 'the medicalized self'. (10) The proliferation of health scares, a series of social problems interpreted as medical conditions, and the marketing of lifestyle drugs and fitness regimes to counter them, are just some of the manifestations during that decade of the medicalisation of everyday life and the tendency to 'perceive any "unusual" behaviour as pathological'. (11) With the growth of medical drama, a shift of emphasis has also taken place within police drama itself, leading towards what Brunsdon refers to as the 'medicalisation of crime'. (12) Here the focus moves from the police as the solvers of riddles to the figures of the forensic pathologist and psychologist. Besides the far more enigmatic, shamanistic allure of such figures, the annexation of the clinical gaze brings with it an underlying redefinition of the dramatic locus of crime, moving from the social concern with responsibility and the power of the police themselves toward the spectacularisation of the body and a fascination with the physical site of crime. This fusion of the discourses of crime and medical drama is nowhere more complete than in the genre of forensic pathology drama. Presaged on the one hand by the growing presence in the 1980s of the psychological profiler in police procedurals, notably the pioneering Cracker (1993-96), and on the other by the partnership of scientific and criminal investigation in the sci-fi series, The X-Files (1993-2002), a genre has developed in which the principal methods of investigation are scientific and the key site of investigation the bodily and psychologised self.

If we are searching for an early example of the crossover between police and medical drama, we will find it in the British series, Police Surgeon (1960). This six-part series revolved around the work of Dr. Geoffrey Brent (Ian Hendry), a character later reincarnated as the first partner to John Steed (Patrick Macnee) in The Avengers (1961-69). The job of a police surgeon is wide ranging and, while it may in small part involve the collection of forensic evidence, the main brief is both to provide medical advice and assistance to the police in the execution of their duties and attend to the medical needs of people held in custody, including determining their fitness for interview or detention. Police Surgeon further extended this set of functions to construct a dramatic position whereby the medical figure could mediate between the police and suspect, and thus between the processes of law and order on the one hand and social welfare on the other. This tension was clearly established in the opening episode, in which Brent intervenes on behalf of a repeat offending juvenile delinquent and uses his knowledge of the boy's difficult family background to advocate on his behalf and counsel him towards reform. A pattern was set in which Brent would occasionally come up with vital evidence for the investigation, but most typically encountered the social and domestic conditions behind the case and provided advice and conciliation.

The character of the police surgeon re-emerges in the mid-1990s in the series Dangerfield. As the name suggests, the eponymous hero, Dr. Paul Dangerfield (Nigel Le Vaillant), is a more romanticised figure, both actively involved in the complexities of investigation and carrying a degree of emotional baggage. Recently widowed as the series begins, he also has to negotiate a problematic relationship with his teenage daughter, Alison (Lisa Faulkner).

As these examples demonstrate, the insertion of the doctor into the world of crime investigation, especially as an outsider in a consultancy role, has the potential to dramatise the tension between the competing discourses of authority on the one hand and care on the other. The representation of Dangerfield as an emotionally vulnerable hero compounds this tension by placing the doctor as a 'wounded' figure who is as much the object of care as he is a caring authority. As we shall see, this figure reaches its most complex representation in the morally and emotionally ambivalent world of the forensic pathology drama.

While the lone doctor has been absorbed into crime drama, so the police have moved into the hospital setting, where it is the more public or institutional dimension of medicine that is at stake. Two examples of high profile police procedural thrillers demonstrate this development. In Messiah III: The Promise (2004), the third in a series of psychological thrillers featuring police detective DCI Red Metcalf (Ken Stott), the plot concerns the repercussions of a prison riot, set off by staff brutality but exploited by a dangerous ringleader and old rival of Metcalf's. The riot is quelled and the ringleader and other prisoners hospitalised while the case is investigated. From here on, the production is dominated by the hospital setting, where a series of murders is set in train, the culprit eventually identified as young doctor traumatised by the violent treatment of a female hostage during the riot. The medical genre is referenced through the setting and the pervasive iconography of wards, medical technology, patient's charts and emergency treatment. However, this is a dystopian inversion of the hospital as a place of safety. The building to which the prisoners and their guards have been consigned is a condemned NHS wing, decaying and awaiting conversion into private accommodation, and each murder is achieved through a gruesome twist of conventional medical procedure. The identification of the young doctor as the traumatized avenger completes this inversion of the medical utopia.

Lizzie Mickery, the scriptwriter for the Messiah series, spoke of her desire in The Promise to address the question of 'duty of care'. (13) This concern with social policy and welfare links the brutality and corruption of the prison system with the image of a decaying and increasingly privatised health care system, as well as the extreme misuse of medical expertise represented by the young doctor's campaign of revenge. A similar take on the duty of care also permeates the second of Lynda La Plante's series The Commander, tellingly titled Virus (2005). The main storyline concerns a blackmailer who, by hacking into the computers of a London hospital, is able to sabotage vital patient notes and automated life-support systems. The medical genre is assimilated not only through the hospital setting, which again is depicted as a dystopian space, a place of danger, shot through steely blue filters and epitomised by echoing corridors and depersonalised technologies, but through the motive of the blackmailer, Alistair Morrison (Martin Wenner), which derives from the death of his wife and unborn baby in a case of apparent medical negligence. This back-story, paired with the insistence of the murderer's accomplice on exploiting the presumed culpability of the hospital in the death of her nephew (a murder for which she in fact is responsible) mobilises a dominant discourse in public health, emanating from media coverage of cases of alleged medical negligence.

In both Messiah: The Promise and The Commander: Virus, the discourse of care embraces both the representation of a public institution and the protagonist's personal drama. In the ambivalent figure of Metcalf, steely determination and human empathy are encapsulated, as the BBC publicity puts it, in his 'renowned ability to get under the skin and into the minds of deranged killers'. (14) At the same time, Metcalf's private life is marked by a gentle protectiveness, expressed through his relationship with his deaf wife, Susan (Michelle Forbes) and emotional vulnerability, established through the death of his brother in the opening episode. In The Commander, the question of care within personal relationships is articulated through the relationships of three sets of sisters. Thus the principal storyline involves both a campaign of vengeance by Brenda Thornton (Patti Love), the sister of a previous murder victim, for whose death she holds Clare Blake personally responsible, and the seemingly caring but eventually exploitative concern of the murderer's accomplice for her own vulnerable sister, herself the mother of a young man with a learning disability. Meanwhile, Blake is preoccupied by the welfare of her own sister, Sara (Lizzy McInnerny) who, recently released from hospital, is dying of cancer.

Forensic pathology drama as a genre first enters British television in Silent Evidence, a six-episode series broadcast by the BBC in 1962. The central character was police pathologist Dr. Martin Westlake (Basil Sydney) and the Radio Times, promoting the prodigious powers of this new protagonist, announced the series thus:
   A case of murder--and the call goes out for a pathologist, the
   back-room scientist who can often tell more from a shred of skin or
   a single hair under his microscope than a squad of C.I.D. men can
   discover in weeks of patient questioning. (15)

The figure of the forensic investigator reappeared six years later in the BBC's series The Expert, which ran for four seasons between 1968 and 1971, returning briefly in 1976. Directed by Gerard Glaister, who had previously worked on police thrillers such as Maigret (1960-63), and written by N. J. Crisp, who provided most of the scripts for the medical series, Dr Finlay's Casebook (1962-71), The Expert can be seen as a conscious attempt to merge the two genres. The protagonist was Home Office pathologist Prof. John Hardy, played by Marius Goring, his methodical, sometimes testy, detachment set against the more sympathetic outlook of his wife, Jo (Ann Morrish), a general practitioner, and providing at the centre of the drama a meeting point between the scientific and ethical dimensions of the case under investigation. In an episode entitled 'Flesh and Blood', for example, Hardy is called in by Jo to assist in the case of a man who fears he may not be his son's biological father. (16) When blood tests prove inconclusive, Hardy carries out tests on the mother's blood, only to find that it is she who is not the true parent. It is subsequently discovered that she had stolen the boy from an orphanage to replace her dead infant while her husband was absent on national service.

The scientific discourse that underpins Hardy's expert status and the forensic project itself is foregrounded in a long scene in which he demonstrates to Jo the process of determining an individual's blood group known as agglutination. His explanation is accompanied by shots of samples under the microscope, displayed on a large, electronic screen. The fascination of this brief display is perhaps better appreciated when we remember that The Expert was one of the first BBC2 dramas to be broadcast in colour, providing an early, if restrained, example of the spectacularisation of corporeal evidence that would become a feature of the genre as it developed in the 1990s.

The image of the forensic scientist in these early examples is in stark contrast to the central figures in later developments of the genre. The 68-year-old Basil Sydney played Westlake, and Goring was in his late fifties when he created Hardy, playing the character with a magisterial sense of gravitas. Closely allied to the senior consultant figures of hospital fiction, these investigators expressed an authority that seemed inherently the preserve of the middle-aged male, an image perpetuated by the irascible coroner Quincy (Jack Klugman) in the long-running American series, Quincy M.E. (1976-83) and that persists in the minor pathologist figures of crime series such Prime Suspect. This tradition is unequivocally subverted in the landmark forensic pathology drama, Silent Witness--the title perhaps acknowledging its debt to Silent Evidence--where medico-scientific knowledge and authority are invested in the charismatic figure of the female pathologist, Sam Ryan.

Lying behind both the iconography and narrative premise of much forensic pathology drama is the increasingly high public profile given to bodily evidence, in particular DNA, in the 1990s. The earliest case of a criminal convicted on the basis of genetic fingerprinting was that of the British murderer and rapist, Colin Pitchfork, in 1987 while extensive media coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial in 1994 dwelt on the evidence of droplets of blood that had been subjected to a series of disputed DNA tests. In the United States in particular, DNA evidence testing has played an often controversial role in both the conviction and exoneration of suspects and has entered the public consciousness with the symbolic power to provide what criminologist Sara Knox calls the 'narrative fix' of crime, its power lying in the 'ability to round out the story of a crime, to concretize the guilt of a perpetrator'. (17) That moment of fix is never more clearly emblematised in the iconography of forensic pathology drama than in the image of the DNA 'match', where test results are displayed on a computer screen as two strip graphs, which when overlaid are seen to coincide with perfect precision. Here, as throughout the genre, processes that in actual practice may be protracted, painstaking and pernickety are rendered as intensified moments of dramatic and graphic revelation.

This shift in focus may also be attributable to a public preoccupation with a particular manifestation of crime in the 1990s. High profile cases, such as the murder of Rachel Nickell, killed by a stranger in the presence of her son on Wimbledon Common in 1992, the trial of Dr. Harold Shipman in 1999, allegedly responsible for the murder of 236 patients over 24 years, and the abduction and killing of eight-year old Sarah Payne in 2000, contributed to a new emphasis in the British public consciousness on violent crime as a symptom of contemporary crisis. Much of this moral panic was amplified by emotive tabloid press coverage in the face of more reasoned and statistical evidence that such crimes were not only localised but also no more frequent than before. With the horror of these events also grew a sense of the unfathomability of motive, the only explanation, in the terms of this moral panic, lying in the inherent evil or incontestable 'sickness', of the perpetrator, especially when contrasted with the innocence of the victim, particularly if a beautiful young woman, a trusting pensioner or a child.

When the Nickell case was reopened in 2006, following the emergence of new DNA evidence, the journalist Duncan Campbell summed up its impact somewhat differently. 'The callous circumstances of the killing, the beauty of the victim and the subsequent tangled failure to find the murderer have ensured it remains lodged in the public psyche as an unresolved tragedy.' (18) The immediate appeal of forensic pathology drama lies in the way it homes in on precisely these three determinants. Rather than the wider social context which gives rise to an act of violence, it will be the immediate and dramatically loaded circumstances that are the subject of attention, for it is here, at the physical site of the crime that material evidence will be found: and it is the discovery of physical evidence that provides the principal narrative hook. Secondly, there will frequently be an emphasis on the body of the victim not only as the bearer of that evidence--the 'silent witness'--but, to borrow Jessica Snyder Sachs' conceit of the 'storied corpse', (19) as the figurative bearer of a narrative. As in Campbell's account, it is a body frequently figured as female and beautiful. For death and femininity, as Elizabeth Bronfen reminds us, 'are culturally positioned as the two central enigmas of western discourse.... They serve as privileged tropes for the existence yet ineffability of truth and, as these two values are condensed at the site of the feminine corpse, this figure serves as a superlative instance of proof for the existence of truth as well as for a specific interpretation.' (20) Finally, as titles such as Silent Evidence, Silent Witness and Waking the Dead indicate, forensic pathology drama ascribes to medical science a mystical ability not only to interpret but also to reanimate and, in so doing, rectify Campbell's 'tangled failure' to find solutions where previous investigation has met only with frustration. This power extends to the utopian solution also offered by the forensic investigation of reconstucting the past and in so doing of resolving the tragedy or the sickness at the heart of those events. Thus, it is not uncommon for investigations in forensic pathology dramas to present the resolution of a case as a spiritual healing, either in the closing of the gap between past and present or in the laying to rest of the personal or familial trauma surrounding the incident. The 'narrative fix' that Knox locates in the scientific method of the DNA test, thus assumes a therapeutic dimension in the world of the living. As novelist Patricia Cornwell, recently remarked in relation to her creation Kay Scarpetta, the forensic pathologist who stands behind the development of the television genre from 1990, 'Even when you can't undo something, because you can't undo a death, she somehow makes things better ... maybe she prevents the next death or she does something for the living that makes [life] a little more liveable in terms of the tragedy they've been through.' (21)

The various convergences of forensic pathology drama that I have identified here coalesce in the BBC drama series Waking the Dead. Starting with a two part-pilot episode in September 2000, the series ran for nine seasons, ending in April 2011. With top audiences of between 8.6 and 9.2 million, it was one of the BBC's most successful programmes of the decade, its reach into the United States marked by an International Emmy Award in 2004. It is one of several police procedural dramas, including Cold Squad (1998-2005) in Canada and Cold Case (2003-10) in the United States, which focus on the phenomenon of the 'cold case', the unsolved crime reopened for investigation in the light of new evidence or testimony. A key dramatic trope is the construction of the cold case unit as a group operating outside the official remit of the police force and thus characterised as constantly sailing close to the wind, unorthodox in its methods and regarded with suspicion at best, hostility at worst, by the authorities. In the BBC's other cold case series, New Tricks (2003-present), the unit comprises three retired 'old school' cops (played by Alun Armstrong, James Bolam and Denis Waterman) and an ambitious female officer Det. Supt. Sandra Pullman (Amanda Redman), forced into the unenviable position of leading the unit after a career blunder. The comic tone is provided by the unreconstructed, shambolic worldview of the three male figures and the narrative drive by their ability to apply otherwise outdated techniques and knowledge of earlier cases to the investigation in hand. In contrast, the unit in Waking the Dead is constructed as a dynamic, if flawed, elite, similarly living on borrowed time but armed with modern techniques--mainly scientific processes and, above all, DNA profiling--that were not available when the crime was first investigated. The unit's dramatis personae was structured consistently throughout the series--two senior, semi-parental, figures in the leading detective, Det. Supt. Peter Boyd (Trevor Eve) and the psychologist, Dr. Grace Foley (Sue Johnston); two younger detectives, Detective Sergeant (later Inspector) Spencer Jordan (Wil Johnson) and Detective Sergeant Amelia 'Mel 'Silver (Claire Goose), replaced after her death by Detective Sergeant Stella Goodman (Felicite Du Jeu). Boyd's grief at the loss of Mel and his hostility toward the arrival of Goodman provided a momentary destabilisation of the unit but it was the arrival of Det. Supt. Sarah Cavendish (Eva Birthistle), as a transfer from Counter Terrorism and an officer 'with a past', initially assigned covertly to monitor Boyd, that provided a premonition of the unit's demise.

The fifth member of the team was the forensic pathologist, a role filled by a succession of female characters, Frankie Wharton (Holly Aird), Dr. Felix Gibson (Esther Hall)--according to the drama's website a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery, a BSc, a PhD and a member of the Royal College of Pathologists--and, from 2007, Dr. Eve Lockhart (Tara Fitzgerald), an expert in DNA, toxicology and pre- and post-mortem injuries.

The fascination with the figure of the female forensic pathologist is exemplified in the results of a survey of fans on the BBC's Waking the Dead website. Asked which of the five principal character's jobs they would most like, half the respondents (49.4 per cent) voted for that of the pathologist (at that point Frankie), with 21 per cent voting for Grace's job of criminal psychologist and 16 per cent for that of the squad leader, Boyd. In an interview, posted later on the same website, Esther Hall remarked that her own conversations with female forensic scientists had revealed the influence of series such as Silent Witness and Waking the Dead in attracting women to a traditionally male-oriented profession. The dramatic attraction of the pathologist's role in particular would appear to lie in her professional expertise and specialist knowledge, providing a cultural capital that places her above the more ostensibly powerful figure of Boyd. Both she and the psychologist Grace not only represent two sorts of scientific authority to which the principal investigator turns for insight and understanding, they also occupy a position above the flow of the investigation itself, often cooler and more detached than the impassioned, and occasionally frenetic, Boyd. These female members of the team tend thus to be represented as skilled, knowledgeable, deductive and rational, compared with the more instinctive male protagonists, in direct contradiction of the conventional emphasis frequently placed on a woman's supposedly innately intuitive and emotional mind-set. A scene in Silent Witness also testifies to this particular sort of empowerment. In the episode 'Blood, Sweat and Tears' (1997), Sam Ryan attends a charity boxing match and in a dinner-table conversation with a retired police officer expresses her distaste for the sport. The policeman attributes her reaction to female hyper-sensitivity, whereupon Ryan replies that what matters is her knowledge of the effect repeated blows are having on the boxer's brain, a process she graphically demonstrates by slopping her soup from one side of the bowl to the other. In the traditionally masculine world of the crime investigation, medical knowledge thus acts as a conduit for the expression of female empowerment through education and knowledge in a way that is denied a figure such as Prime Suspect's Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren), who, rooted in the police force rather than operating on its periphery, has to fall back on modes of behaviour that identify her with that male culture.

The medical gaze brings not only knowledge and authority but also the capacity, in Cornwell's words, to 'make things better'. As Waking the Dead developed into long running series, the investigative process increasingly became metaphorically invested with the power to heal and its storylines became repeatedly identified with the issues of welfare characterise by Mickery's 'duty of care'. A recurrent motif began to emerge in the image of the lost or abused child, usually at the hands of misguided or corrupted adult authority--sexually abused boys in a care home ('Breaking Glass', Series 3), the disappearance of twins ('Fugue States', Series 4), a family killed by their mentally ill mother ('Shadowplay', Series 4). The theme would peak in series six with plots based around the death of a teenage boy ('Wren Boys'), an unofficially adopted child ('The Fall'), a regime of cruelty in a children's home ('Mask of Sanity') and the effects of a psychiatrist's experimental withdrawal of medication from his patients and use of role play to revisit childhood trauma ('Double Bind').

Waking the Dead also became more and more ambitious in its penetration into events set against specific historical moments, a process typically evoked by means of graphic flashbacks. In the opening story of series four, for example, 'In Sight of the Lord', a trail of revenge killings is traced back to relationships within a group of soldiers at the end of the Second World War and the rape of a young woman. The final resolution, in which the woman's lover, a young clergyman at the time, kills the remaining members of the group, has overtones of tragic retribution and spiritual redemption, but also alludes to the exorcism of the ghosts of history itself. Forensic technology and knowledge are thus invested not only with the ability to solve the unsolvable crime, but with a further level of quasi-mystical power, embodied in the series title, to revisit and even redefine, the past. This articulation between the medico-social themes of healing and care and the process of historical recovery and reconciliation is most apparent in the final episode of series six, 'Yahrzeit', where an investigation into Second World War crimes uncovers associations with the Nazi 'Lebensborn' programme, developed to perpetuate the Aryan bloodline, and medical experimentation on children by a fictional associate of the Nazi physician Josef Mengele. A family's tangled history is gradually resolved, with a final twist in the revelation to a surviving Nazi that she has unwittingly killed her own sister.

The discourse of care not only looks out to the circumstances of the crime. It also turns inward to encompass the lives and relationships of the cold case team themselves. Thus, in an episode concerning a Second World War conscientious objector, 'In the Sight of the Lord', Boyd submits the team to an 'exercise in sensitisation', following their casual treatment of a cadaver as 'just another case', a discursive iteration of the images familiar in Silent Witness as Ryan handles her cadavers with demonstrative tenderness and respect. At another point in the same episode, he extends the frame of reference in a short debate with Grace on the desire of successive generations for change and social progress. 'We still care don't we?' he asks, half rhetorically. Conversely, as Waking the Dead progressed, it was Boyd himself who was to be increasingly pathologised as the subject of clinical concern; 'I think I've found your caring and sharing side,' Frankie jokes ironically in an unwitting reference to Boyd's troubled hinterland ('False Flag'). Defined initially in the mould of a flawed maverick, by a combination of moral determination and sometimes bullying impetuosity, and with a back-story involving the disappearance and eventual death of his teenage son, Luke (George Rainsford), Boyd's temperament becomes an increasingly problematic fatal flaw. Facing a disciplinary charge in series four, he submits to psychological profiling by his colleague Grace, and during series six a clash between the two impels her to confront him with her diagnosis that he is in denial of his grief, isolated and, above all, 'ill'. The medical gaze of forensic pathology, then, is finally turned upon the team's lead investigator, and, in a reversal of the familiar stereotype of crime drama, a feminised apparatus of professional knowledge and wisdom is turned on a masculine subjectivity marked by an unsettling tension between authoritarian rectitude and emotional fragility.

Despite its primarily commercial imperative, genre hybridity has the capacity to provide a meaningful sense of dislocation in the audience experience. As Robin Nelson aruges, the positioning of a character such as Sam Ryan in Silent Witness at the intersection of different generic influences 'makes for some interesting collisions which deny an easy viewing position'. (22) Forensic pathology drama as a particular genre, however, articulates a wider duality of which gendered characterisation is only a part. Michel Foucault argues in The Birth of the Clinic that the rise of physical examination, assisted by new technologies, from the eighteenth century on, contributed to the idea of medicine as an institution of power (23). Deborah Lupton summarises this discourse as 'the human body constituted by the medico-scientific gaze', in which the body is objectified as a site of investigation, subjected to examination and forced to yield up its secrets. The medical encounter thus becomes 'a supreme example of surveillance'. (24) Seen in these terms, the clinical gaze of the forensic expert becomes part of the mechanism by which power is exerted in society, not only rendering the human body as an object to be examined rather than as a human subject, but also synonymous with the myth of the ultimate power of the physician to see, sometimes quite literally, into the heart of a criminological conundrum and, in so doing, diagnose and resolve it.

In the various narrative contexts of forensic pathology drama explored in this essay, however, and in particular through the interdisciplinary composition of the dramatis personae in dramas such as Waking the Dead, this authoritarian discourse encounters another side of the investigative process, in Frankie Wharton's words, its 'caring and sharing side'. Under this medico-social gaze, getting to the 'heart' of the crime is not only an empirical process but also an affective and self-reflexive one. The treatment of the criminal act as an unresolved tragedy and the diagnosis of its repercussions on the traumatised body and psyche, all framed by a discourse of care that subversively folds the agent of authority back into a network of pathological symptoms and crises, provide a key to the unsettling ambiguities which surround our concern not only with violent crime but with the fragile fabric of social welfare in the 1990s and beyond.


(1) Jane Feuer, 'Genre Study and Television,' in Robert C. Allen, ed, Channels Of Discourse Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism, Routledge, 1992, p. 158.

(2) Graeme Turner, 'Genre, Hybridity and Mutation,' in Glen Creeber ed, The Television Genre Book, Routledge, 2000, p. 6.

(3) Matthew P. McAllister, 'Recombinant Television Genres and Doogie Howser, M.D. 'Journal Of Popular Film And Television, 20, 3, 1992, 61.

(4) Richard Dyer, Only Entertainment, Routledge, 2002, pp. 25-26.

(5) Roger Silverstone, The Message Of Television: Myth And Narrative In Contemporary Culture, Heinemann, 1981, p. 70.

(6) Charlotte Brunsdon, 'Structure of Anxiety: Recent British Television Crime Fiction,' Screen, 39, 3, 1998, 242.

(7) Julia Hallam, 'Gender and Professionalism in TV's Medical Dramas,' in Julia Hallam and Nickianne Moody, eds, Medical Fictions, Liverpool John Moore University and the Association for Research in Popular Fictions, 1998, p. 26.

(8) Ibid., pp. 35-5.

(9) Burton's later role as Kara Fisher, the tough love head teacher in Waterloo Road (2006-present), provides a further character hybridisation in which the converging traits of authority and care are carried into new generic territory.

(10) Jason Jacobs, Body Trauma TV: The New Hospital Dramas, bfi Publishing, 2003.

(11) Ibid., p.44.

(12) Brunsdon, 'Structure of Anxiety', 242.

(13) Lizzie Mickery, Interview, BBC Messiah III Website,, accessed 8 January 2008.

(14) Publicity for Messiah III, BBC Northern Ireland, 2004,, accessed 8 January 2008.

(15) 'Silent Evidence, Basil Sydney in Shadow of the Past,' Radio Times, 2 August 1962, 24.

(16) 'Flesh and Blood' was transmitted on 19 September 1969. It is held in the British Film Institute National Archive and accessed at

(17) Sara Knox, 'God's Signature On The Death Warrant: DNA, The Death Penalty and the Idea of the Criminal,' Research Seminar, Roehampton University, 6 October 2004.

(18) Duncan Campbell, 'Police Quiz New Suspect in Wimbledon Common Murder Case,' Guardian, 22 June, 2006, 7.

(19) Jessica Snyder Sachs, Corpse: Nature, Forensics And The Struggle To Pinpoint Time Of Death, Basic Books, 2002, p. 6.

(20) Elizabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic, Manchester University Press, 1992, p. 255.

(21) Interview with Rev. Richard Coles, Saturday Live, BBC Radio 4, 26 November 2011.

(22) Robin Nelson, 'Performing (Wo)manoeuvres: The Progress of Gendering in TV Drama,' in Bruce Carson and Margaret Llewellyn-Jones, eds, Frames And Fictions On Television: The Politics of Identity Within Drama, Intellect, 2000, p. 73.

(23) Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, translated from the French by A. M. Sheridan Smith, Tavistock Publications, 1973.

(24) Deborah Lupton, Medicine and Culture: Illness, Disease and the Body in Western Societies, Sage, 1994, p. 23.
COPYRIGHT 2012 Sage Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Ridgman, Jeremy
Publication:Critical Studies in Television
Date:Mar 22, 2012
Previous Article:Editorial.
Next Article:Masterpiece theatre and British drama imports on US television: discourses of tension.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters