Category: British Television
Broadcast: Spring 2002
Genre: Spy Drama
Maybe it’s just because the majority of my multimedia diet consists of highly processed, yet strangely nutritious, US programming, but when I do get around to watching contemporary British drama, there is usually a strange sense of familiarity lurking around that somehow makes the experience more engaging. I’m not sure whether this is a universal phenomenon, with Californians feeling nostalgic as Jack Bauer massacres terrorists across Los Angeles or New Yorkers becoming misty eyed as another apocalypse descends upon their city, but for me at least, a glimpse of Holland & Barrett amidst race riots, espionage and murder most horrid certainly improves how immersive I find a show. As the credits for the second episode of the first season of Spooks rolled, it was this sentiment that stood out most in my mind and it was only at this point I realised that I had enjoyed the hour of entertainment to a higher degree than the contradictory plot and two-dimensional characterisation should really have justified.
Perhaps the intricacies of terrorist activities have become more common knowledge in the eight years since the episode was aired, but I found it particularly hard to believe that nationwide race based insurgency was being orchestrated by Lord Bastard and his tweed wearing minions while they sipped quadruple malt whiskey in front of the fire, fuelled presumably by the dismembered limbs of single mothers and benefit scroungers. However, typecast as he might be, Robert Osborne did function particularly well as the nemesis of the episode, his overly pompous attitude and superiority complex invoking a genuine dislike that resulted in a large amount of satisfaction when witnessing his demise in a tunnel based assassination/car accident that Princess Diana’s most ardent conspiracy theorists would be proud of.
Britain’s new immigration checks weren’t quite what she expected…
Unfortunately, the narrative benefits of such stereotypical characters begins and ends with Osborne, his whimpering wife justifying her nightly polo mallet beating and the emotionless minister making the government appear underhanded and cunning rather than the Cheeky Girl dating misfits we know and love them to be. Additionally, minor plot devices such as Danny’s use of MI5 systems to improve his poor credit rating seem completely out of place within the scope of the episode and can only be explained as a weak attempt to shoehorn some character development of the non-featured cast into the storyline.
Such poor characterization may not have been that important in a more action based affair, but it appears that the whole episode was engineered to further develop Tom’s commitment issues and this was done to such a degree than when Helen had her disagreement with a deep fat fryer and became the newest flavour of Findus Crispy Pancake, it was the brutality of the scene that was more shocking than the loss of the character. As long-term Star Trek fans will acknowledge, Helen was no more than the Spooks equivalent of a ‘Red Shirt’ (for the uninitiated, this was a long standing observation that any new character appearing in a red shirt was doomed to a horrible death while on their first assignment) and as she was nothing more than a plot device, albeit one with nipples, characterisation was generally avoided to the detriment of the episode.
The Scottish will eat anything battered and deep fried…
However, the sudden graphical nature of seeing someone getting their head dunked into boiling oil was a highlight of the episode for me, not because a have a cannibalistic fast-food fetish, but more because up until that point, most of the scenes had been sedentary, dialogue heavy affairs and I found the abrupt change in pace refocused my attention on the plot instead of the woeful lack of continuity that had reared its ugly head in the previous scene. Now, I understand that every episode needs a climax, but the build-up to Tom and Helen’s capture was ridiculous. After previously watching several scenes detailing the meticulous lengths taken to ensure their cover wasn’t blown, it seems the writers forgot they weren’t targeting amnesiac ADHD kids more interested in eating their crayons than watching the TV. The audience was apparently supposed to believe that after blowing their cover to the potentially untrustworthy wife, the highly trained MI5 agents would return home, let their guard down and then be positively surprised when the Tweed Army showed up. The quality of the following scenes did alleviate the exasperation I felt at this contrivance though and when the episode finished I did feel satisfied with the experience.
Aside from several grips with poor characterisation and gaping plot holes, overall I enjoyed the episode as a single episode of light entertainment with some nice twists and turns to keep it interesting until the end. It is probably unfair to compare an eight year old episode with current shows but since for the last few decades the BBC has been telling us that their dramas are more respected than the potential love child of Jesus and Ghandi, such an evaluation illustrates that at this point Spooks lacks some of the long-term integrity of modern shows and would probably be more engaging with a overarching storyline that doesn’t exist just to further character personalities. Either that or a truckload of pyrotechnics, some Nazi villains and a complex plot so gripping that even Stephen Hawking can’t get his head around it.
- Good heavens! It’s set in Blighty!
- Episode nemesis is suitably evil (that suit being tweed)
- Humans + Boiling Oil = Compelling Viewing (and third degree burns)
- Poor credit rating woes a good side story maketh not
- Secondary characters have less depth than a paddling pool for stunted chiwawa
- Real spies may make dumb mistakes, but there’s no excuse for fictional ones