Sunday, January 31, 2010

TV Thrills with Brains: MI-5/Spooks

In this day of the quick cancellation of TV series, it is probably best to wait until a season or two has gone by before you risk taking a chance. Too often, I've latched onto a new TV series, especially ones with a continuing storyline, only to have it cancelled. Recent examples: Invasion, Boomtown, Pushing Daisies, Jericho and Day Break, amongst several others. One of the worst examples was back in 2000 when I watched the first season of the remake of The Fugitive, starring Tim Daly as Richard Kimble. It was surprisingly good, but a little series called CSI, debuting in the same season and time slot, came along and kicked its ass. The Fugitive was cancelled at the end of the first season. How did the series end? With bullets flying at Kimble's head. I can only assume he ducked.

Today, I reluctantly add 'new shows' to my viewing repertoire (I've added Flashforward this year, but that's because an acquaintance of mine, Robert J. Sawyer, wrote the novel the show's based upon - hopefully it will last). Then there was Battlestar Galatica. Due to my reluctance, it took me until season three was about to begin before I started watching. I caught up using the method that is probably best for most TV series now: mainlining them on DVD. Over two weekends, my wife and I plowed through seasons one and two. We became complete addicts. It was a little disappointing, then, to have to start watching season three week after week, like everybody else.

This leads me to the BBC series Spooks (called MI-5 in North America due to ‘spooks’ racial connotations on our side of the pond). I'd heard about the show for several years, but never caught up to it. In this case, I didn't have the channel during the first three or four years, so when I finally did I didn't see the sense of watching a show starting in season four. Good plan, no? Well, yes, but then this past summer, this horrid summer of rain and cold, my wife and I began watching the show on BBC Canada because there was nothing else on.

Where did we start? Season Seven, the most recent season. The show was self-contained enough that we were able to pick up the threads of it. It was a good show. Curiously, it never contains credits (to add to the spy/mystery of it, I guess), so I had to look up on IMDB to discover that the lead character, Harry Pearce, was played wonderfully by a rumpled and slightly pudgy Peter Firth (Equus, Tess). We were intrigued enough that during another of the seemingly endless rainy weekends, we decided to rent Season One. We quickly discovered that this was probably going to be a brave show, since only Peter Firth, and an actor named Malcolm Wynn-Jones were holdovers through Season Seven. Clearly, several cast members were going to be bumped off.

Season One was somewhat episodic. It starred Matthew MacFayden, who portrayed Mr. Darcy in the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice, as the main in-the-field spy. But compared to the other seasons, it did a nice job introducing the show's concept. In their attempts to do their job protecting their country, MI-5 was in a constant battle, not only with the baddies, but also with the other intelligence organizations: MI-6, CIA, plus the PM, Cabinet and Parliament.

Season Two was when the stories started to hit a rhythm. The shows seemed to be written by a group of writers from across the political spectrum. For every script that tiresomely blamed the US or the West for all the world's ills, there were an equal number that held up to ridicule those who are willing to turn a blind eye to the Islamists who want to destroy the West. The hardest part of tearing through Seasons One through Six (which we did over the course of about 7 or 8 weekends) was you get attached to the characters even more profoundly than if were to watch it week by week. It's therefore even worse when the end comes for some of them. Some of the deaths really hurt. Fortunately, the worst of these were held for a season ender, giving you a chance to absorb what had just happened. I will always remember the last lines of one particularly brilliantly written and acted character just before he was killed. This character said "Fuck you, you death-loving fascist," in an attempt to pull the pointed gun away from his colleague. By saying it, we know, and he knows, he is about to die. And die he does. My wife and I sat on the couch dry-mouthed. Like I said, thank God our gruelling schedule of watching 3-5 episodes a night (the renter only rented complete seasons over four days, so you either burned through it or you would have to re-rent at full cost - most seasons are 10-episodes long) was over on that episode, because if you had to carry on, it would have been difficult.

Then there was Season Five. The BBC is a government-funded network similar to CBC (except without commercials). I can just imagine the lobbying pressure from certain groups put on the Beeb and the show to 'soften' its approach to its depiction of the Islamists. Obviously, in Season Five, it worked. The bad guys were now the Israelis and Mossad (twice), MI-6, white environmentalists, anybody but Islamists. Where in previous seasons there was a good balance of shows that examined MI-5's themes from both a left and right perspective, in Season Five, the left POV prevailed. There was still one exceptional episode, dealing with the Serbian war of the 1990s, but the balance was off. I remember, in one episode when the Israelis were the 'villains', I turned to my wife 15 minutes into what turned out to be a two-part episode and said, "oh, I can see where this is going. These 'terrorists' aren't Islamic terrorists, there Israelis pretending to be Islamic terrorists." It's a shame that the show had to bend to the obvious pressure for a more 'balanced view.' Balanced my ass. Ass covering is more like it.

In Season Six, it got worse. The 'blame the west' cry (or rather, 'blame America') became even more irritating. Here were some of the touchstones of the season: America covertly convinced MI-5 to blow up a train in Tehran, killing several citizens and releasing a deadly gas being transported on the train; the Americans, with the British governments cooperation, covertly arranged for 'triggers' for nuclear weapons to be 'stolen' by the Iranian government. Thus -- when Iran 'goes nuclear' -- the Yanks have an excuse to nuke Iran; the Americans arrange to have Hugo Chavez (though he's never named, just referred to as the President of Venezuela) assassinated while on a visit to Britain. It is thwarted by MI-5. A group of white Europeans launch an organization called Yalta aimed at bringing down the US (okay, this one is sorta condemned, but only sorta) and elevating Iran's status in the world. The last episode began with the Israelis bombing a Gaza school filled with cute Palestinian girls. It goes on from there. Characters we've grown to like (particularly Rupert Penry-Jones, as Adam Carter, and Hermoine Norris, as Ros Myers) begin to spout 'evil west' doctrine. Though the acting and production values remained consistently high throughout the season, I cannot think of one episode that rang with any credibility.

Luckily, since I'd already seen Season Seven, I knew they somewhat righted the ship. Okay, the season-long story concentrated more upon Russia and old 'Cold Warriors,' but at least the 'awful west' doctrine was set aside. Let's put it this way: If I'd seen Season Six first, and not Season Seven, I would have never watched the rest of the show. Therefore, I'm not going to let the creative cowardice of Seasons Five and Six ruin it.

Best individual episodes, in order: Season Three - "The Suffering of Strangers"; Season Four - "The Russian"; Season One - "Traitor's Gate"; Season One -" The Lesser of Two Evils"; Season Two - "A Nest of Angels"; Season Three - "Love and Death"; Season Three - "Persephone"; Season Three - "Outsiders"; Season Five - "Episode 9." However, without question, Season Three was the finest, and most complete season. By viewing this show in one massive wave like this, your brain becomes overwhelmed with the stories and the characters. You strongly connect to the characters and feel a lot of pain when they are killed off. This, I think, is the best way to watch shows like this: as one big gulp, not in little sips.

One final note. Do not watch this show on regular TV (unless it's PBS), watch it only on DVD. In the UK, the shows run 59 minutes; in North America, they run 42-44. You are losing 15 minutes of (mostly) compelling TV if you watch it on the networks.

The current season of Spooks is running on BBC Canada on Thursday evenings at 10pm.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

1 comment:

  1. David, what networks is Spooks running on? In Canada - - it is only BBC Canada. In the US it is BBC America or PBS. And I think the PBS is also 45 min or so (the last time I looked there was a lot of promos running at the end of the show).

    Full-length eps on the DVDs you can borrow for nothing from the public library. TPL has scores of TV shows for borrowing.