18 October 2015

Spooks 5.1: Gas and Oil (Part One)


It occurs to me now that Ben Richards is a writer who deals most adeptly in big ideas. Where I'm afraid he doesn't seem to be so able, particularly consistently, is in the actual scripting of episodes. He would probably make a good script editor or creative producer but I'm afraid a lot of his episodes just come off as lacklustre to me as they don't work especially well as pieces of television.

As last year, Spooks' fifth series opens with a trio of episodes, of which this is naturally the first. The experiment with two-part stories - inspired perhaps by Doctor Who? - seems to have gone so well that they've stuck two in this series. Gas and Oil is the first of these and actually deals with neither of the topics in its title except in passing. The plot so far concerns big business and MI6 trying to overthrow the government through a series of attacks on the general public.

Given MI5's a government department, it's inevitable that the threat of its derailment will come up occasionally. It feels like it was only recently that a big financial power tried to take control of the government and to be honest nothing in this episode really feels that fresh. The most entertaining parts are the set pieces, which thankfully are pretty frequent. The linking scenes, dealing with the mechanics of the plot, are more tiresome than anything else.

At one point in Richards' script, Adam says that they must do the exact opposite of what the enemy expects and perhaps that's applicable to the series as a whole too. Spooks has been at its strongest for me when confounding expectations, and bureaucrats storming out of meetings where they're accused of wrongdoing, rather than trying to cover their tracks intelligently, is all a bit flat.

There's a bit of jeopardy injected with various scenes of miscellaneous violent acts but sadly none of them are particularly gripping. The four major acts in this episode are a series of explosions by Al Qaeda, some kind of injection that causes people to cough blood shortly before dying, the hanging of Colin and the car of Juliet Shaw and the Home Secretary exploding. These should all be highly significant events with massive fallout but the script glosses over them without much incident.

Colin, along with Malcolm and Harry, has been one of the pillars of the series since the very start. His murder, especially given it was at the hands of MI6, is a huge event but after the initial outpouring of grief (chiefly from his best friend Malcolm) it's hardly even mentioned again, and you don't see anyone breaking down or anything. I understand they have to carry on to resolve the trouble currently at hand, but for it not even to be mentioned amongst themselves is pretty inexcusable within the same episode.

I can see what Ben Richards was getting at with this story. He wanted to start big, with Al Qaeda, a potential plague, the death of a lead character and a conspiracy to bring down the government from within. But all the ideas never really seem to cohere and instead float around, seguing awkwardly between each other. At one point I was really optimistic for this story's prospects. The plague spreading across London - even the whole country and beyond! - is a great idea and would be enormously, unspeakably damaging for Britain and the world at large. It would be pretty easy to sell as well; since everything's so easily accessible nowadays it would be simpler than ever for a plague to spread uncontrollably. But what we got instead is a little duller so far in my opinion.

There's a few notable newcomers in this episode too. Most significant in my eyes is the extremely wonderful Robert Gleniser as the Home Secretary. This was right in the midst of his stint as Ash on Hustle and the two characters couldn't be more different - one laying down the law, the other actively defying it. Glenister is such an excellent actor, it's brilliant they managed to get him for this. I just hope he sticks around for a very long time, which politicians on this show don't have much of a habit of.

Also arriving on the scene is Ros Myers, played by Hermione Norris. With the benefit of hindsight I know that Ros will be a series regular for quite a long time but I don't think I would have guessed this would lead to that if I didn't already know. She gets up close and personal with Adam and is the necessary doubter at the heart of the villains' plot but so far there's no spark to her. In fact, I don't seem to be able to remember a single thing about Ros apart from she was obviously from a rather well to do background and a bit of an action girl. I hope she doesn't go the way of Zaf (who only shows up on the fourth day of this plot) and actually has a personality installed.

Also showing up are the superb Roger Allam as a media mogul (yes, another one) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Wes' new babysitter Jenny. I know we'll see more of the latter across episodes to come and I hope the same is true of the former.

The direction of this episode is a bit weird, to be honest. Omar Madha's last two episodes, Syria and The Russian, both looked alright - if a little off the mark in places - but here he seems to have taken a massive shift out of his comfort zone to fit in with Richards' script, and it doesn't work that well. For some reason all the scenes on the Grid have feathered black edges which is really distracting and just looks weird. The stuff in the operating theatre and in the forest is strange too, although Madha does do better with exteriors than interiors in this episode. Overall, a bit of a weird feel for the series, but perhaps he'll get back into the swing of things next time.

The first part of Gas and Oil is just a bit unappetising, all things considered. It tries to simultaneously have the most exciting plot ever and also the slowest plot ever (it takes five days for the first major development) which is an unhappy marriage. I don't like Ros stepping up to take a lead role while Jo's still around. She was brought in to be the new lead field agent (or Junior Case Officer, as Zaf would put it) but she's just put on babysitting duty here. Give her something to do! Anyway, the death of Colin is a real shame, and Hugh Simon performs superbly in the aftermath. I just wish it were for a better reason in a better story. All in all, lacklustre. Why did Howard Brenton have to leave?

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