Thursday, April 23, 2015

Two Classic Shows, Two Unusual Takes on Jack the Ripper

Numerous TV series and films have offered imaginative twists on the mysterious murderer that terrorized the Whitechapel district of London in the late 1880s. Two of my favorite big screen versions are the time travel fantasy Time After Time (1979), which pits H.G. Wells against the Ripper and A Study in Terror (1965), which has Sherlock Holmes facing off against Jack (a premise borrowed by the later Murder By Decree). Two of the most intriguing small-screen Ripper tales appeared as episodes of Thriller and the original Star Trek. Interestingly, Robert Bloch--best known for writing the novel that became Psycho--had a hand in both TV series.

John Williams in Thriller.
The Thriller episode "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" starred John Williams (a Hitchcock semi-regular) as an expert engaged by the Washington, D.C. police to help apprehend a modern day Ripper-like murderer. As the gruesome killings mount, a fantastic theory emerges: Is the murderer actually Jack the Ripper himself, who has used black magic rituals to defy ageing? It’s a clever premise and the big twist at the end works pretty well (even though you’ll guess it). Although Bloch wrote several episodes of Thriller, this teleplay was written was Barré Lyndon and based on a Bloch short story. Published in 1947, the story “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” originally appeared in Weird Tales. It was the first of several literary works in which Robert Bloch incorporated Jack the Ripper.

This episode also features several Hitchcockian connections. First, it was directed by Ray Milland, who played the killer in Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. The police inspector in that film? That would be John Williams. Decades earlier, Hitchcock also tackled Jack the Ripper with his 1927 silent film The Lodger, which was adapted from a short story and play by Marie Belloc Lowndes. And, for one final connection, the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole” boasts some Ripper overtones with its plot about a strangler running amok in a very foggy London.

John Fiedler in Star Trek.
Star Trek seems like an unlikely destination for Jack the Ripper, which is precisely what makes “Wolf in the Fold” a compelling season two episode. While on shore leave on the planet Argelius II, a bewildered Scotty is  found—bloody knife in hand—standing over the corpse of a nightclub dancer. He has no recollection of what happened, but the evidence is damning and chief administrator Hengist (John Fiedler) seems convinced that Scotty is guilty.

For many years, I listed this as one of my favorite Star Trek episodes. I viewed it recently, though, and while still good, it hasn’t aged as well as others. Still, Fiedler is very good (he’s perhaps best remembered as Piglet in Disney Winnie the Pooh movies and TV shows). This time around, Bloch wrote an original teleplay and borrowed the central premise of “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.” There are some nice touches, too, such as the foggy streets on Argelius substituting for London and Kirk’s use of the ship’s computer in revealing the murderer’s identity.

Television continues to sporadically visit the Jack the Ripper murders, with season one of the 2009-2013 British TV series Whitechapel focusing on a copycat  killer.


  1. While he'd use Jack again, Bloch was less thrilled that his own creation, Norman Bates, became a cultural touchstone. While being billed as Robert "Psycho" Bloch, he railed against such a figure becoming heroized, foreseening what would happen with Freddie Kruger, Leatherface, Michael Myers, Jason.

  2. One bit in "Wolf in the Fold" that makes me shake my head is that despite the computer recording of the trial or hearing, the Yoeman played by Judith McConnell is still taking dictation!

    I love John Williams. Through the miracle of television he encouraged me to purchase my first classical music albums.

  3. I love to see posts like this, because it talks about two of my very favorite episodes of two favorite shows! Wolf in the Fold is still a great favorite of mine, and Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper is the same. I am a Jack the Ripper fanatic -- I try to see or read anything I can find about him. Robert Bloch was such a great talent -- so many of the Twilight Zones also were done by him. Oh, and CW, I never noticed that the Yoeman was taking dictation -- what a hoot! I really enjoyed this one, Rick....

  4. Don't think Bloch did Twilight Zone, at least not the original. Did Hitchcock,, natch, since Hitchcock lowballed Psycho's purchase by staying out out of the negotiations.

  5. Jack is such a touchstone in a variety of genres. After all this time, he's still relevant. I read Patricia Cornwell's "solution" to his identity as a novel and enjoyed it thoroughly. I just saw “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole” on AHP, via Netflix. Timely! I've not seen that Trek episode in some time so I'll check it out!

    1. You're right about the "popularity" of Jack the Ripper. Since we are both Angharad Rees fans, I immediately thought of the underrated HANDS OF THE RIPPER (a very sad movie, but quite well acted).

  6. Slight typo above--"Yours Truly..." was first published in WEIRD TALES in 1943, and was a breakthrough story for Bloch, the story he was most cited for till his 1959 novel PSYCHO became a cultural touchstone. "Yours..." is by my reckoning one of the most plagiarized short stories of the 20th Century as well, given how many immortal Rippers run about w/o credit to Bloch...he wrote for a number of anthology series over the years, but oddly apparently not for any version of TWILIGHT ZONE...he did novelize the disastrous film version of TZ.

  7. Thought provoking essay about two different treatments of a frightening part of history.