Monday, 11 August 2008

SPOOKS: CODE 9 - 1.1 & 1.2

Monday, 11 August 2008
Writers: Cal Bedford (1.1) & Howard Overman (1.2)
Director: Brendan Maher

Cast: Joanne Frogatt (Hannah), Liam Boyle (Charlie), Heshima Thompson (Jez), Ruta Gedmintas (Rachel), Andrew Knott (Rob), Georgia Moffett (Kylie), Christopher Simpson (Vik), Lorraine Burroughs (Sarah Yates), Kenny Doughty (Neil Mayhew), Louis Dower (Flynn Dixon), Jamie Bertwistle (Jermain Lee), Michael Taylor (IV) (Sean), Nichola Dixon (News Reporter), James Lauren (Checkpoint Policeman), Sarah Hope (Relocation Clerk), Nick Nevern (Theo Danakis), Lorraine Burroughs (Sarah Yates), Oona Chaplin (Kate), Daniel Rigby (David), Michael Keogh (DS Philips), Parvez Qadir (Saeed Khan), Tom Harper (Major Saunders), Simon Lawson (Billy), David Prosho (Philip), Caroline Harding (Sarah), Everal Walsh (Social Worker) & Melanie Clare (Woman)

The problem with multi-channel television is that individual stations find it difficult to attract audiences, who are swamped with choice. One answer for big, successful broadcasters with subsidiary channels is to create spin-off programmes to attract viewers of the original. It worked for Torchwood (originally a BBC Three spin-off of BBC1's Doctor Who), so surely it'll work for Spooks?

The latest result of "brand-expansion" is Spooks: Code 9 (hereafter SC9), a counter-terrorism drama that, unlike its reality-based forbearer, deals in speculative fiction. The premise finds London hit by a nuclear bomb in 2013, resulting in the death of millions and a (rather mild) dystopia across Britain. The 25% death toll of MI5 agents and destruction of Thames House means Manchester becomes the security service's HQ and the government are forced to recruit 18-24 year-olds to cover their losses...

So, as part of "Field Office 19" (Bradford) we're introduced to experienced spook Hannah (Coronation Street's Joanne Frogatt), maths whiz Charlie (Drop Dead Gorgeous' Liam Boyle), ex-cop Rachel (The Tudors' Ruta Gedmintas), rehabilitated criminal Jez (Prime Suspect's Heshima Thompson), Vik (Brick Lane's Christopher Simpson), junior doctor Rob (The History Boys' Andrew Knott) and psychology student Kylie (Doctor Who's Georgia Moffett, unwisely going redhead).

Episode 1 found the team trying to prevent a suspected assassination attempt of the Prime Minister; a threat Hannah's "grown up" superiors refuse to take seriously. First episode are notoriously difficult to get right, as introducing a fresh concept and new characters, while simultaneously providing a worthwhile storyline, is easier said than done. For the most part, SC9 did a decent job of laying foundations, although only Charlie Green got enough screen-time to make an impression. He's the pretty boy maths "geek" (i.e, he wears glasses at work) who can therefore confuse a superior by requesting 5 and a half hours to find a killer.

The production is slick and glossy enough to belie its lower budget, but it's a little overindulgent. The ubiquity of union jacks seems intended to stir some patriotism into the show (echoing the abundance of American flags after 9/11), but it all got a bit much: peoples faces watermarked with union jacks during freeze-frames? A fluttering flag superimposed during scene transitions? Characters drinking red-white-blue union jack themed cocktails? Talk about overkill.

The characters are all fresh-faced and eager types, but nobody had a back-story or personality that was particularly memorable. SPOILERS BEGIN. The big shock of Episode 1 was the premature death of Hannah, in a bid to keep audiences on their toes. You might remember Spooks performed the same trick with Lisa Faulkner's character (death by deep fat fryer), but audiences were given a few episodes for her character to become part of the show. So the shock worked.

By comparison, SC9's reprise can't compete with Spooks' stunt killing, as we'd only known Hannah for 30-minutes and, to be honest, she was the most irritating of the seven. Froggatt can play working class characters extremely well (see Coronation Street and Life On Mars), but as Hannah she came across as an accomplished pretender: a twentysomething girl acting like a fortysomething pro. SPOILERS END.

Above all, it's the premise that's most frustrating and flawed here. BBC1's Spooks doesn't discriminate with age, so I can't understand why it was decided the under-25s need their own youth-orientated version. Show me a teenager who can't watch a Bond film because they don't identify with a character over-35. You can't.

Regardless, these spy kids march on with a moment of state torture Jack Bauer would be proud of, struggling to achieve credibility. The team don't even wear suits to work -- what, too "square"? It all plays like a misguided fantasy where teenagers have taken over the country. Indeed, even its terrorists have traces of acne.

A nuclear attack on London is a controversial and interesting backdrop, but SC9 lacks the bravery to associate this disaster to the most likely aggressor (Al-Qaeda) or link anything to the 2012 London Olympics. Like BBC1's summer folly Bonekickers, the production refuses to single out "foreigners" as the villains, with this double-bill focusing on "the enemy within" (white, misguided nationals with a hatred of the government that failed to protect them from a nuke.)

In both cases, I think the writers truly believe it's more surprising and interesting to show British whites as the antagonists, but I think the producers are just afraid to have their show labelled "racist". I'm not suggesting every villain should be a clich├ęd Muslim suicide bomber screaming for Allah, but the balance has become decidedly lopsided towards a demographic less likely to complain about poor representation in the media.

Episode 2 saw protesters hacking into the government's emergency communications system and broadcasting a video of dead inmates at a prison, before masterminding a Hillsborough-style crush in a train station with a fake evacuation signal. Like Episode 1, while decent material to work with on the surface, SC9 fails to make any of it essential viewing. The tone is too flash and ridiculous, although a few neat ideas leak through -- like hedonism gripping the nation's youth, as they're made aware of their own mortality. That said, SC9 has so far failed to accurately portray a society teetering on the brink of anarchy. In one foot chase, Britons seem to be happily shopping in the background, and hope for a 1984-style edge to SC9's future never arrives. The best you get are ID-card checkpoints.

Spooks: Code 9 might work better if it wasn't associated with Spooks, as it's a far cry from its parent show's intelligence and comparative realism. Trouble is, without "Spooks" in the title to draw in a crowd, Code 9 would be dismissed outright. It's a lukewarm thriller with commendable ambition and a few intriguing ideas at its core -- but the premise is riddled with holes and the characters are forgettable. M.I High for students, but minus the fun.

10 August 2008
BBC Three, 9.00 pm (1.1) & 9.50 pm (1.2)