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John Doyle: Hollywood’s fascination with Jack the Ripper endures

There are dozens of movies and TV series that feature Jack the Ripper. Hundreds of books. It's an ongoing fascination largely because there is no answer to the mystery of who Jack the Ripper was. And the late-Victorian period in which he killed in the slums of London has its own fascination – the gothic arena of the grim, foggy streets of the Whitechapel district is compelling. The Ripper story is one that people use to project fantasies and conspiracy theories.

For some, of course, the story of the serial killer killing prostitutes merely has the enduring appeal of the standard gruesome material – the appalling murder of vulnerable women.

Well, there's a new variation on the Ripper story coming this weekend to network TV – proving, yet again, that the story will never lose its allure. And it's not quite true that this variation is exactly new. It's derived from a good, charming movie from 1979. Yes, charming.

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Time After Time (Sunday, ABC, CTV, 9 p.m.) is derived from Nicholas Meyer's movie, a fantasy which posited that H.G. Wells actually built a working time machine that was used by Jack the Ripper to escape to San Francisco in the 1970s. Wells then used the machine to follow the Ripper and prevent him from continuing to kill again. Along the way, Wells (Malcolm McDowell) meets and falls for a good-natured bank teller (Mary Steenburgen), who then became a target of the Ripper (David Warner), but things work out.

The new series comes from Kevin Williamson (Dawson's Creek, The Vampire Diaries, The Following) and sticks to the template of the movie but also subtly shifts away from it. It's much more contemporary, a bit more gimmicky but, yes, it retains some of the charm, but only some.

We meet writer H.G. Wells (Freddie Stroma) in 1893 and, rather too quickly, Jack the Ripper (Josh Bowman) is in his house and in the time machine and gone. He's gone to Manhattan in 2016, so Wells takes off in pursuit. Of course, Wells is stunned by New York City and drawn to the first woman he meets, a museum curator named Jane (Genesis Rodriguez), who happens to think this lost Englishman is cute.

For a while, the chase after Jack the Ripper takes a back seat to Wells discovering what the world is like in 2016. He weeps when he sees TV coverage of war, terrorist attacks and other atrocities. He had, after all, predicted the world would be more humane and loving.

On the other hand, he's pleased to see that women have jobs, power and influence. It bewilders him at first and there is wry humour in the way he can't believe that Jane is single, employed and lives alone.

When the cat-and-mouse game between Wells and the Ripper begins in earnest, the series wobbles considerably.

In the 1979 film, Wells was older, more cunning and experienced. Here, he's more a daft young Englishman. Freddie Stroma is no Malcolm McDowell and, more important, Bowman is no David Warner.

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There was a genuine menace in Warner's portrayal of the cynical, soulless killer who saw the United States in the 1970s as his perfect playground. This Time After Time doesn't capture that same sense of the sinister and dwells too lightly on the fact that while there has been social progress since 1893, women are still the victims of angry, violent men. As the Ripper character says about Manhattan in 2016, "Here, I'm an amateur." But that theme is thrown away.

As for the charm, Jane is very much the millennial and slightly clueless. While there's chemistry between the two actors, the storyline doesn't feel like a love story.

Two episodes will air on Sunday to establish the series. Kevin Williamson is obviously skilled at hook-heavy, dramatic TV and The Following was a series about grim violence and fanaticism. Here, using the novel by Karl Alexander that inspired the 1979 movie as a starting point, he seems to aim for a lightweight, not lugubrious, approach to a Jack the Ripper let loose in contemporary urban America and chased by a great writer from the 1890s.

It's a missed opportunity. But the show does have a particular fascination – we're still gripped by what some of the publicity for the new series calls, the Ripper "legend." Except, it's not a legend at all. Between August and November of 1888, he committed five brutal murders. And, oddly, that fact has been part of the entertainment industry ever since.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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