Feb 28, 2008

DVD Review: MI-5 (Spooks) Volume 5

I was almost prepared to write this show off after its gradual shift from Sandbaggers-like semi-realism to 24-like soap opera mayhem and a rather lackluster fourth season. However, I’m happy to report an amazing rebound with Season Five, which probably ties with Two as the series’ best! Yes, it’s a totally different show than it was. I’ve accepted that now, and maybe I just needed a season’s worth of action-heavy episodes to do that. But it’s mastered its new genre, and manages to do it better than 24 or anything comparable on TV.

The season doesn’t get off to the greatest start, however. Perpetuating an ongoing flaw in the series, the preceding season’s dramatic cliffhanger is once again instantly resolved and then swept aside to make way for new challenges. At the close of Season Four, team leader Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones) was shot by a sniper. Well, within the first few minutes of the new season, that sniper jumps from her perch and kills herself, and Adam’s whisked off to the hospital for a seemingly speedy recovery. While he’s in bed, terrorists manage to bring Britain to its knees with attacks on fuel depots and pseudo-biological warfare. Wait–all that happens while our hero’s in bed??? Yes, it does. Wouldn’t it have been a much better cliffhanger for Season Four if Adam and MI-5 had failed to stop an attack they were racing to prevent? It would have been dramatic and paved the way for this season. It just seems like the writers don’t bother to plan too far ahead when ending each one. No matter, though. Within five minutes, all that set-up’s out of the way, Adam’s back at work, and things are moving at a breakneck pace.

Echoing 24 in another respect, the producers of both shows clearly have political agendas; they just happen to be diametrically opposed. The two-hour premiere really sets up the MI-5 writers’ agenda for the season. They’re wary of the Bush/Blair regimes (remember, America gets these seasons a year late) and uncomfortable with new restrictions on civil liberties. Yet they’re telling stories about an agency that’s essentially a domestic secret police force, which spies on its own citizens for their protection. They reconcile this by turning the oft-vilified MI-5 into the unlikely guardians of freedom and democracy, and making rival agency MI-6 (concerned with spying abroad) into a Gestapo-like organization out of Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta. It’s a bit of a stretch, but the show is made so well that one soon accepts this new reality and goes with it. In the first season, it would have seemed very odd to have MI-5 boss Harry Pearce (the still-excellent Peter Firth) stand up for anyone’s civil liberties, but in the context of Season Five, we accept from him declarations like "Britain will be ruled by an unelected committee with the silhouette of a hangman behind it!" in response to new "special measures to protect democracy" that include "compulsory detention orders at the discretion of the security services which deprive the citizen of every existing legal protection." We even accept a situation wherein Harry himself has been remanded to a newly-established "detention center" (looking right out of Children of Men) and ends up sharing a cell with a well-known Civil Liberties advocate. The evil MI-6 jailer punches her in the face and says, "Every time I’ve heard you yapping about Civil Liberties on television, I’ve wanted to do that to you." Harry nobly comes to her defense, even though the spook is acting on a sentiment that he may well have agreed with in Season One!

Like nearly all fictions dealing with the British Security Services (and, presumably, like real life), MI-5 has always played Five and Six off against each other. But, in a perfect representation of how the show has changed since its inception, we’ve now gone from bureaucratic standoffs to full-on hand-to-hand combat between agents of the two organizations. In the first season Harry matched wits and traded wry barbs with his MI-6 counterpart, the deliciously condescending and snobbish Jools Siviter (Hugh Laurie) in the confines of Siviter’s private club. In Season Five, Harry actually smashes his wine glass and attacks the Siviter-like JIC chief, Oliver Mace (Tim McInnerny), drawing blood in a similar club setting! Subtlety is officially out the window, but the tension is higher than ever. It’s a tradeoff. In Season Four, I was still lamenting the fact that what was once the anti-24 had become an imitation of 24. Now I’ve had a season to accept the new direction, and the show has had a season to embrace it. MI-5 might be "doing" 24 now, but they’re doing it better than 24 ever did! Instead of merely imitating the real-time spy thriller, they’ve surpassed it.

MI-5 does remain true to form in one important aspect, which is that no character remains safe. We’re reminded of that right off the bat as one of the most beloved characters meets a brutal end in the season opener. And they won’t be the only regular to sign off this season, either! MI-5 is a suspense show where not even the hero is safe, upping the ante tenfold. 24 may boast a high body count, but audiences can remain fairly secure in knowing that Jack Bauer never dies permanently. The same cannot be said for MI-5, which has already cycled out all of its original leads.

The gripping two-part opener is as good as any modern theatrical spy movie. It has moles, betrayals, twists, gunfights, chases and dangerous games of cat-and-mouse. It’s got conspiracies (linking Big Media, oil companies and government) and even some villain speeches worthy of Ian Fleming. ("I wonder why we fetishize democracy so much?" muses one of the conspirators.) And it acknowledges the classic themes of the genre. "This isn’t a game!" exclaims one team member after the loss of another.

"That’s exactly what it is!" insists Adam. "It’s a big, elaborate game. And the question we always have to ask ourselves is: what do they want us to do? How do they want us to react?" Even after the Cold War, the fabled "Great Game" endures. Throughout Season Five, the writers of MI-5 appear to be very consciously acknowledging, celebrating and sometimes subverting the best conventions of the spy genre. It doesn’t play like cliches, though, and it rewards afficionados of the form.

The third episode is one of those "recruiting an innocent" yarns that MI-5 does so well, and that seem to best reflect the true mission of the real-life agency. (My understanding is that actual MI-5 case officers spend a lot more time attempting to recruit spies and turn informants than shooting it out with their sister service.) When MI-5 plays up this angle, however, it’s a far cry from the innocent recruits of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or other spy shows of the past. Like the agents, the safety of the recruits is never guaranteed, and some of these episodes have ended quite tragically.

Where many U.S. spy shows purposely avoid addressing real threats to the nation’s security, and only make coded references to current events, MI-5 embraces them. For instance, Zaf (Raza Jaffrey) infiltrates an actual Al Qaida cell (not a less scary analogue for the terrorist organization), and Adam must make a split-second decision about whether or not to order the shooting of a Muslim man who might be a bomber, recalling the real-life tragedy in which British authorities killed an innocent civilian.

Where can liberally-minded writers turn for reliable enemies in the current climate so as not to use Arab extremists every week? America, of course! (And France, for good measure, because apparently no one likes the French.) I was intrigued by the matter-of-fact routine with which TV’s MI-5 bugs the suites of their supposed allies at a conference on Africa, but I suspect that’s probably pretty accurate. However, as the team tries to ensure that the "cousins" don’t subvert a British-led initiative for international aid to Africa, they discover that their own government isn’t so altruistic either. One bugged official admits the whole conference is about "getting aging rock stars off our backs" about the issues in that troubled continent. This intriguing look at what happens when MI-5 intercedes in politics recalls the best episode of Season Four, in which the team subverted democracy for the good of the nation to discredit a neo-fascist politician.

This same episode provides the first clues of this season’s primary character arc as well. Adam appears to be cracking up the way that Tom, the team’s first leader, did. Throughout the season, he flashes back to personal tragedies suffered in past seasons, cries, freezes up at crucial moments, and even takes to drink. (He’s also prone to shirtlessness this season, but one suspects that’s more to appeal to the female demographic than to signify his mental deterioration.) A psychiatrist diagnoses him as suicidal. Will Adam’s story end in tragedy? This being MI-5, you never know. It’s as likely as not.

The fifth episode is another that thrives on conventions of the genre. It plays out as a classic Mission: Impossible symphony of plot and counterplot. When Ruth is set up by rival forces inside the intelligence community, she despairs. She recognizes the signs. She’s caught in exactly the same sort of trap she herself has helped MI-5 ensnare dozens of others in, and she sees no way out.

Midway through the season, things get a little bit repetitive. An MI-6 mole (whenever someone from Mi-6 shows up on MI-5's grid, he or she is inevitably a mole. It’s as predictable as 24 in that respect!) uses the same trick to get a new recruit at Five to do his bidding that Jenny Agutter used in the very first season, and this season’s new heroine, Ros, finds herself in the same situation that Zoe encountered before her: trapped in a diplomatic party which is taken over by terrorists. Those terrorists use the threat of a human bomb to distract MI-5 from their true objective, the same ploy used at the end of Season Three! Along with repetitions come subtle inconsistencies, as one week Adam will rail against extreme rendition and torture, and the next he’ll throw an Arab informant against a car and threaten to send him to "a new place that makes Guantanamo look like Spearmint Rhino" (itself a bit of a repetition of his Jack Bauer-like behavior in the Season Four premiere). Of course, perhaps this wavering is merely a symptom of his impending breakdown.

The theme of indistinguishable lines between friends and enemies returns when the MI-5 team find themselves up against Israeli Mossad officers in three episodes in a row. The two organizations may be allies, but they have different objectives and different means of reaching them. Harry is particularly cruel in his punishment of a Mossad officer caught instigating terrorism on British soil (in order to further his own agency’s ends).

When things get too dark, you can always rely on techies Malcolm and Colin for some levity. One of the season’s funniest moments comes from the relish with which Malcolm sweeps a hotel room for bugs. "What a beauty!" he exclaims, unearthing one that’s been lodged there for decades. "Russian. Circa late Seventies. See that? It’s a motion sensor. Saves battery. It’s one oft he few missing from my collection!" Colin also maintains another important convention of the spy genre, keeping the team equipped with the latest gadgets–even if they’re all relatively believable, down-to-earth gizmos. (The only one that pushed it a little–but is probably quite feasible–was a "bone-anchored" receiver he injects into the back of Ros’ neck just under her ear! Yeah, kind of gross.)

Like the premiere, the two-parter in which Ros gets that device (and gets into her "Die Hard in an embassy" situation) could easily be a movie. Director Andy Hay brings a lot of cinematic flair to the show, producing an even slicker product than we’ve seen before. He brings some new techniques to the table, including a very effective use of the Children of Men trick of sound dropping out, followed by residual ringing on the soundtrack, to accompany an unexpected explosion.

Flashy direction also takes the forefront in the subsequent episode, which follows up this season’s Islamic and Jewish extremists with Christian extremists, who haven’t plagued MI-5 since its very first episode. "Afghanistan under the Taliban frightens me no more than England under Cromwell," states Harry very reasonably. Director Julian Simpson uses this theme as a chance to treat the material like a Gothic, with lots of high contrast, long shadows and even a rogue priest talking to God and unblinking statuary in an empty, darkened cathedral.

The threat is addressed with another elaborate sting that would do Jim Phelps proud, and it really showcases everyone’s talents. The whole team comes together well, with Adam and Ros in the field, Malcolm and Jo supporting them on com, using satellite imagery, and Harry trying to resolve the situation his agents are in through diplomatic channels. That "situation," of course, isn’t helped by the fact that Adam is really unstable by this point.

If the whole of Season Five plays as a tribute to spy stories of the past, it’s the penultimate episode that really brings home the theme. Titled, appropriately, "Tradecraft," it revels in all the classic tactics of Cold War spies familiar to avid readers of Le Carré and viewers of Sandbaggers. It’s got all the familiar tropes: a moonlit rendezvous on the Austro-Serbian border, dead drops, betrayals, microdots (wholly unfamiliar to the younger members of the team), moles, even an Old School "book code" like the one in Our Man In Havana! This episode, about a deep cover operative (and former childhood pal of Adam’s) who wants to come in from the cold, is a real treat for fans of Cold War spy thrillers.

After that, the actual finale is a bit of a letdown. The plot is another rather standard (for the new model of MI-5, at least) "Die Hard in a..." situation (in this case, in a... water... thing... of some sort; it’s hard to explain, but levee-like in nature and probably more familiar–and therefore more exciting–to Londoners). Recalling (a little too closely) the finale of the previous season, the terrorists who have taken over this dam-like structure demand the release of a classified document which may or may not actually exist. If their demands aren’t met, they’ll flood all of London. Adam insists on going in alone, but once he’s inside (and out of communication), some digging on Ros’ part reveals his most recent psych evaluation, and his colleagues become aware for the first time of the seriousness of his current mental state. Needless to say, the conclusion is wet. I won’t reveal whether Adam or anyone else makes it out alive, but I will say that we do find out; this season may end abruptly, but it doesn’t end with the typical MI-5 cliffhanger.

Like on the Season Four set–but decidedly unlike prior volumes–there is a dearth of extras on MI-5: Volume Five. Disc 1 has the cast interviews, which mostly play like EPK material. There’s far too much time spent on Miranda Raison (Jo) being sarcastic about the new girl, Hermione Norris (Ros), saying "oh, she’s so horrible to work with" and whatnot, which stopped being funny and started being overdone a long time ago on DVD features! The contributions from Rupert Penry-Jones and Peter Firth prove the most interesting, though I feel like I’ve seen Firth make similar comments on previous seasons (about the show’s high mortality rate–and how he always checks the last page of each new script he gets to make sure he’s still alive!). The whole brief interview segment is rife with Season Five spoilers, as well as warnings to that effect. I’m glad they provide warnings, but the placement of this revealing feature on Disc 1 (of five!) is rather perplexing. It’s certainly no good for Netflix viewers! Similarly, it seems an odd choice to put the "Season Five trailer" (really just a trailer for the season premiere) on Disc 3.

There are only two commentary tracks this time around–on the last two episodes–along with a "Season Six Preview" on Disc 5. It’s not really much of a preview, but rather a brief, on-set video diary by Miranda Raison that reveals nothing about the plot of the season.

Lack of extras aside, MI-5: Volume Five is a terrific DVD set, and a very satisfying purchase for spy fans. If you’ve lapsed as a viewer since the series’ initial Golden Age, it’s a good time to return, and it would likewise make a decent jumping-on point for the uninitiated. It’s undoubtedly a different show with a different tone from what it was the first few seasons, but it’s managed to reinvent itself quite successfully, and proves every bit as slick and entertaining as most big screen espionage fare.

Read my review of MI-5: Volume 1
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 2
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 3
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 4

1 comment:

Rogue Spy 007 said...

I saw the first three seasons of this show when it aired on A&E. I've never seen the fourth or this one. Your review definitely made me miss this show even more. I'm going to have to get these on dvd to see what I've been missing since the end of the third season. Great view. Thanks for sharing your observations with us.