[ Spooks ]
Posted On April 5, 2021
I barely wrote on this site for the month of March, not through lack of interest, but because I was engaged in a MASSIVE re-watch of Spooks, the 86-episode series from the BBC that ran between 2002 and 2011. Now that I actually type those figures I realise what a crazy thing I’ve done within the space of a month. Yeah, actually… let me pause and dwell on that for a moment. Did I just do that?!
And what I’d like to say upfront is that, in an age where TV shows decline and by their final episode(s) do something absolutely stupid so that their once-loyal viewers are so shocked they never want to watch the series in question again (hello, Game of Thrones), Spooks certainly evolved over the years, but the final episode had me as hooked as any, and threw in some melancholy for good measure.
In fact, as I fired up the PC to write this post, I even felt a little teary. One particular scene really got me in that final episode, right towards the end. But we’re jumping the gun. Let’s go back to the start.
I was aware of Spooks as a show from its first series, and on this re-watch I even recognised multiple episodes in the first and second seasons that I’d already seen. Some of them multiple times. It was, however, a series I never followed religiously. Why? No idea. Was it scheduling? My lifestyle at the time? Something else? I don’t know, which is odd, because tales of MI5 is right in my wheelhouse.
For the uninitiated, the series is just as I described; tales of MI5, the United Kingdom’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency. If it sounds familiar to you, it might be due to the fact its big brother, MI6, is who James Bond works for and there’s actually a lot of mentions and even some operational crossover with MI6 at times in the series, which was always welcome in a story.
The opening season introduces us to three young leads played by Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes, and David Oyelowo. Their boss, played by Peter Firth, is a kind of fourth lead and, over the ten seasons, becomes the central point of the series. Earlier on, however, he is generally office-bound, dealing out the missions and advice and hoping all his officers come home at the end of the day.
I say that as a deliberate segue into the fact that Spooks is pretty ruthless with its cast. Officers last a few seasons; some not even that, before moving on. This gives a realistic feel to the series, not to mention a sense of “anything can happen” which is generally absent in a lot of spy films and series, where you know the lead will absolutely make it through to the final curtain. Here, not so much.
Which isn’t to say every officer you start to enjoy watching meets some kind of grisly end. Some do. Others go out in more creative ways. One even disappears in a story and for several episodes after, you think he’ll make a return… and he never does. The writers of this series play loads of mind games with the audience when it comes to the cast, even inserting some pretty unlikable characters.
You may have already read my thoughts on Whitechapel, which starred Rupert Penry-Jones as a slightly prissy DI in The Met. Fortunately he’s not one of the unlikable characters inserted into Spooks; he’s one of the good characters, and a lot tougher than in Whitechapel to boot. Happily, he’s also in a bunch of seasons too before his eventual departure, with a really interesting character arc along the way. As a replacement for Matthew Macfadyen (they definitely share a crossover episode, or was it more than one?), I believe fans took awhile to warm to him at the time. For me, however, being a fan of Penry-Jones and not always sold on Macfadyen’s character, Tom Quinn (Macfadyen’s acting, meanwhile, is great), I was delighted to see him in the role of Adam Carter for so long.
One aspect of the series which I will pull out for some slight criticism is something that wouldn’t have been as noticeable if watching the series as six to ten episodes a year, instead of 86 episodes in the space of a month. And that issue is simple repetition. ‘The bad guys’ are invariably Islamic fundamentalists… or Russians. Someone will invariably get tied up. There will be a bomb with a countdown. Someone within MI5, MI6 or the American secret service will be up to something dodgy. And innocent people will often end up as collateral. Think that just about covers it. Rinse and repeat.
To its credit, however, the series uses the coming and going of main characters to shake things up a bit. Macfadyen’s Quinn is a different right-hand (or Section Chief) for Firth’s Harry Pearce character than Penry-Jones’ Carter. Ros Myers, played by Hermione Norris, meanwhile, is a totally different kettle of fish to Carter when she replaces him. Richard Armitage’s Lucas North character is different again to any of the characters who preceded him. Finally Lara Pulver (remember her as Irene Adler in Sherlock?), plays Erin Watts as a totally different character again; her character has the feel of a more studious desk operative being fast-tracked up the ladder, although a later episode where she hangs out the door of a speeding Audi, attempting to shoot the tires of another vehicle puts paid to that somewhat. So yes, although storylines seem to repeat at a macro level, there’s plenty at the micro level, starting with the characters and how they operate, to keep it pretty fresh and interesting.
Another slight criticism is that the feel of the first four or five series, which tend to have a lot of standalone episodes dealing with genuine domestic issues, gets a bit lost in the latter seasons, where the entire season tends to be an arc and the action is very international in nature. Yes, it’s always brought back to a UK level to justify why the domestic MI5 is involved, rather than MI6, but you sometimes get the feeling the writers would just love to be doing a full-on Bond movie at times.
All told, the fact I watched 86 episodes of this in the space of a month ought to tell you something. As I said at the beginning, the final episode left me feeling very satisfied, and a little sad, which is how I think you should be feeling when any series ends. So, honestly, although I read critiques of the series which suggest a less than enthusiastic reaction to the latter seasons in the UK, I genuinely enjoyed my time with the whole thing. Yes, there’s a difference between the earlier seasons and the latter ones, but I don’t think it’s a quality thing. Infact, as the seasons go by, you can see more and more money being thrown onto the screen so, if anything, the series actually gets even better to look at, over time.
If you like spies and counter-terrorism stories, Spooks is an absolute no-brainer to watch.
NB: There is a standalone Spooks movie called The Greater Good, which came out after the series ended. I own a copy and will write about it one day here on the site. But perhaps not right away!