Professor T review: A fine addition to the detective genre with sometimes shaky conclusions
A superb cast leads this new Britbox series.
By: Brian McIver
It’s a long way from the fictional sunshine of Saint-Marie.
But 10 years after he first started investigating Deaths in Paradise, Ben Miller is back on the hunt for killers and violent offenders in a new ITV detective series launching on BritBox.
The usually comic actor takes on what seems like his straightest role yet, as titular academic, Professor T, aka enigmatic criminology lecturer Jasper Tempest.
Based on an imported Belgian format, the series arrives on the ever-expanding UK streaming service with high hopes and expectations - which are mainly met, if the first batch of episodes are anything to go by.
The pilot opens with a literal bang as a horrific crime takes place amidst a really impressive sequence filled with fireworks, fancy dress and the kind of twists, thrills and red herrings which wouldn’t be out of place in a horror/ thriller film.
With that tone set for the crimes, it then shifts as the character-driven police procedural quickly enters the quirky world of the Professor himself, an OCD suffering, reclusive and closed-off lecturer disdainful of most people – particularly his students. Obsessed with surgical gloves, hand-washing and sanitiser, he’s like a cross between Inspector Morse and Niles Crane.
Tempest is riddled with traumas and mental health challenges related to a horrific childhood trauma that rears its head in echoes from current cases, an old house and swingset, and welcome cameos from the brilliant Frances De La Tour as his mum.
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As much as he looks down on his students, Tempest’s lessons and lectures at Cambridge University set the tone for the stories and episodes, and Miller’s screen presence works perfectly for these scenes of restrained grandstanding.
The other main driver of the series is the detective who brings Tempest out of the classroom and into live cases as a consultant.
His former star pupil turned DI Lisa Donckers, played in the Professor T cast with scene stealing charm by Emma Naomi, is the beating heart of the series. She’s not just a brilliant cop. She’s full of fun, charm, strength and we’re offered all kinds of hints about her own personal life issues to deal with. Naomi, last seen alongside Miller in Bridgerton, is a sensational talent.
Donckers initially recruits the renowned professor to join in their hunt for a serial rapist, whose attacks connect to her own school days and who appears to be active once again - meaning they need all the help they can get.
Her team, which includes a grieving dad boss, a seeming Jack the Lad type and a boss who shares a complicated history with Tempest, is well drawn and has great potential, especially when it comes to clashing of old police heads versus the blunt academic who’s brilliance at forensics is only matched by his ineptitude at social skills.
After working well with them on that case, the prof is invited to join the team to help solve a twisty series of deaths, and the stage is set for a continuing relationship.
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Miller and Naomi are both on top form – as is De La Tour when we see her. The relationship between the former teacher and pupil is the best thing about Professor T, and it's a series full of blending and contrasting worlds and styles.
It’s a science and forensic-heavy police procedural, but it’s also a psychological drama with recurring themes on the impact of violence and trauma. It’s about serious crimes, but is filled with quirky characters and charming humour.
Tempest’s childhood flashbacks are sometimes of sheer horror, contrasting with moments of fantasy as the struggling professor’s hallucinations literally dance across the room. For the most part, those juxtapositions work, but they can occasionally jar.
It’s definitely the characters’ psychological journeys that are most interesting as the series develops. With a ‘case of the week’ format instead of the Line of Duty/Mare of Easttown style of investigating one big event, the different crimes offer variation and intrigue.
While the bigger story arc of the series instead follows Tempest’s struggles to cope with his traumas, and Donckers as she faces her own personal life and family background issues. With those being the focus, there is the risk that the crimes themselves, which move the story and provide the action, could be under-served at times.
There are great set ups, with incidents, suspects and victims all well-crafted, and the action, from that breathtaking opening shocker to a prolonged hostage encounter later in the series, is gripping and moves at good pace. Sometimes the conclusions to the crimes can feel secondary to the driving personal stories.
But when the balance works, such as with the siege story from the third episode, it’s a really strong combination - and makes for a fine addition to the detective genre.
Professor T launches on Britbox from June 3rd. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight.