Every once in a while, a TV series grabs me by the throat. Mostly, I give in rather than resist. But I expect a lot in return. Fans of the show know that the BBC's Spooks can boast of some of the finest writing, acting, and directing on TV. For ten seasons, the story followed the professional and private lives of a group of MI5 operatives, with one man, Harry Pearce, the head of counter-terrorism, at its core. The show enjoyed a healthy following at home and abroad.
For seven years, the series got better with each season. Season eight remained strong, even while veering slightly off course to concentrate on CIA involvement in the UK. (The show was re-branded as MI-5for American audiences, who seem to prefer things a bit more literal and a lot more obvious. I give you the disastrous Little Britain USA and the American Queer As Folk, if you need further proof.)
I was glad when series eight ended, though, hoping one lesser year would not turn into two, and praying the American flirtation would soon be over. In fact, far worse lay just ahead. One of the series' trademarks is the sudden and unexpected endings that befall some of its more popular characters. This, we are to believe, is what actually happens to spies. While it was maddening to see them go, the leavings were usually spectacular in dramatic terms.
The challenge, of course, was to fill those roles in a way that the previous agents would not be missed too much. For eight years, they hit the bulls-eye every time. Tom became Adam became Lucas; Zoe became Fiona became Ros. And you held your breath, because it just got better. With Peter Firth as Harry Pearce, the one holdout year after year, the series had casting magic.
Then disaster struck. Someone at Kudos, the show's producers, must have decided the show needed sprucing up. They hired a writing duo whose process is best described as schizophrenic. Asked to describe the process, the writers revealed their preference for a tag-team approach. Each takes turns writing five pages before passing the script along to the other. Even more revealing, at least to me, was their idolization of Joss Whedon, the new king of Hollywood blockbusters. From subtle and layered, the show suddenly became little more than an action cartoon.
The new writers seemed to think it great fun to take liberties with the characters in ways that appalled and dismayed anyone who had enjoyed the careful building of each agent's psychological profile and background. The adage seemed to be, when in need of tension turn one of your best characters into a villain. Preferably one who has not been set up in any way to show such traits previously. The inept desecration and dispatching of Lucas North's character as a terrorist infiltrator in season nine was not the first nail in the show's coffin, but it would prove its most unpopular with many.
In the show's final two seasons, cheap tricks and shock tactics abound: improbable plot turnarounds, an over-reliance on technology, and action spat out at machine-gun speed. Tellingly, characters are relegated to stating the obvious to one another to keep the story rolling: "Hey, Tariq, better answer that phone. It might be the bad guy calling." Because we might not be able to figure it out, otherwise, right?
Where previously plot resolutions came from character, suddenly they were the result of "new" technology that sounds sketchy at best and unbelievable at worst. Realistic threats are ditched in favour of dime store hobgoblins, like fake bio-toxins and imaginary ethno-genetic bombs. Even the erstwhile Peter Firth, as director Harry Pearce, the only actor to make it through all ten seasons, looks unconvinced by much of what he has to say.
Never before has such a great series gone so thoroughly and regrettably down in flames. It would be akin to putting the sequel to A Streetcar Named Desire in the hands of Sacha Baron Cohen. Who would do such a thing?
Kudos and BBC, you have a lot to answer for.
Jeffrey Round is a writer of contemporary fiction, equally at home in different genres. His first two books, <A Cage of Bones
and <The P-town Murders
, were listed on AfterElton's Top 100 Gay Books
. His most recent Dundurn title is <Lake On The Mountain
, a literary-thriller and first in the Dan Sharp Mystery series. He is author of the Bradford Fairfax comic mystery series, whose style he describes as "a cross between Oscar Wilde and Agatha Christie." He is also a film/stage director, television producer, and songwriter. Jeffrey’s Blog, A Writer's Half-Life
, has been syndicated online. Visit his website: <>www.jeffreyround.com