Sunday, 20 November 2016

Tatort 998: Echolot (3½ Stars)

"Tatort" (engl. crime scene) is Germany's most famous television series. From 1970 to now 1001 episodes have been aired at irregular intervals, not counting 13 unofficial episodes which were made in Austria in the 1980's. It holds the record for being the world's most expensive television series. The cost per episode lies between one million and four million Euros, and it's estimated that so far the total cost is more than 1.5 billion Euros.

Despite being classified as a TV series, I prefer to treat the individual episodes as films. For me two conditions have to be fulfilled.

1. Each episode must last a minimum of 70 minutes.

2. The episodes can be watched in any order.

The 70-minute limit isn't arbitrary. 70 minutes from the beginning of a film to the start of the final credits is the official dividing line between a full length feature film and a short film. The Tatort episodes have a standard length of 88 minutes.

The second condition has almost been fulfilled by "Tatort", so close that it doesn't matter. Over the last 46 years there have only been four two-part stories. In the other episodes there are often recurring characters, such as the same police team, but subplots are omitted so that each episode can stand by itself.

"Echolot" (engl. Sonar) is the 998th episode of "Tatort", first aired on 30th October 2016. The investigating police officers are Inge Lürsen and Nils Stedefreund. Inspector Lürsen's first case was in December 1997, and this is her 34th episode. Inspector Stedefreund has been her partner in 29 episodes since November 2001. The last time they appeared was in the 987th episode on 16th May 2016.

Now to the current episode, or film, as I prefer to call it.

A car accident is reported just outside Bremen. A woman has swerved from the road without any apparent reason, her car overturned and she died. Initial inquiries suggest that the car's automatic navigation system has been tampered with. The dead woman, Vanessa Arnold, was one of the co-owners of a small software company that has been developing a virtual assistant based on Vanessa herself. The police inspectors find themselves overwhelmed in the world of computers and artificial intelligence and have to call in outside experts.

The irony in the investigation is that the only person who knows who tampered with the car is the computer version of Vanessa, called Nessa. She can be seen on computer screens, and it's possible to interact with her with the help of a Virtual Reality headset. Effectively, Vanessa is being called as a witness from beyond the grave. We also see the dark side of modern technology. Vanessa's twin Nessa has been trained to perform sexual services on pornographic VR websites.

The exciting thing about what we see here is that the technology is beyond today's possibilities, but only slightly. Within a few years virtual assistants like Nessa will become a reality, and much cheaper than Andrew in "Bicentennial Man". In answering phone calls Nessa effortlessly passes the Turing Test and is considered to be a human.

I intend to watch a few more Tatort episodes over the next two weeks. Whether I continue after that depends on how much I enjoy them.

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