Monday, 22 October 2007

Spooky Spooks

I happen to like Spooks (but no doubt will forget to watch the next nine episodes). Last Tuesday’s opener twisted and turned through an hour of morally dubious decision making before leaving Asnik out on the streets of London, breathing something deadly and American all over an unsuspecting populace. No doubt if this was a movie, we’d arrive at this point after ten minutes, but as we have ten hours of this storyline to get through an hour was perfectly adequate. And very skilfully done it was too.

The only problem I have with it is that it all seems so reactionary.

The heroes of Spooks are members of the Security Services, which is all very well, but I can’t help hankering after the days of Edge of Darkness and Defence of the Realm for something a little more hard edged, subversive even. These well regarded series were informed by nuclear paranoia, and took strident and well considered anti-establishment positions.

Not so Spooks, which is set almost entirely inside the world of government. How much of this is a knock-on effect from 9/11 it perhaps difficult to quantify, but maybe it’s no co-incidence that, since then, we have seen a proliferation of series such as The West Wing and 24, where the machinery of the State is seen as being benign and even overly moral (or, at least, sacrificing the interests of the few for the many).

Where Edge of Darkness and Defence of the Realm explored complex conspiracies that went right to the heart of government, Spooks seems to invert this to give us a wholly new type of paranoia:

Series 5, Episode 10: An environmental terrorist group threaten to flood London if the government doesn't publish a secret document.

The role of government is now to protect us from an ever present array of long haired, loon panted left wingers and other assorted crazies with evil agendas.

Series 4, Episode 10: Ruth is asked to procure evidence that Harry was responsible for the assassination of Princess Diana.

Harry wasn’t responsible for any such thing of course – he’s merely been the target of another crazy person whom MI6 is duty bound to stop at all costs.

No doubt if a crusty old peace campaigner dared show his/her face in the world of Spooks at the moment, they would get a swift garrotting.

The current series of Spooks is a bit of a concern for precisely these reasons: we’ve already discounted the (now benevolent) Iranians as being behind the plot to let loose a deadly chemical agent on the hard working people of Britain (Copyright Gordon Brown), so I guess that leaves the old ‘splinter militant group’ fallback (Albanians? Disgruntled Russian business interests? It really doesn’t matter at the end of the day). What this does is to ensure that no-one is offended – a cop out in other words (didn’t The Devil’s Own do something similar?). Instead of taking some left field narrative choices to inspire some meaningful debate (like: what exactly is it that MI5/MI6 do that the police can’t?), I suspect that Spooks will focus entirely on just such a plot strand, but I hope (against expectation) to be corrected.


TonyB said...

You make some interesting points and as a Spooks fan your post made me have a good think about how the different series have portrayed the concept and the actions of government. Broadly I agree with your observations but I disagree with your interpretation of them. :)

It’s true that when our wonderful Harry of MI5 has clashed with the powers that be it’s tended to be with rogue elements of the government, rather than the government itself, which is generally portrayed as benign.

There again, perhaps that’s the reality in this country? People go into politics for generally good intentions, and when things go wrong it’s because certain elements within government or the civil service, have become corrupted by power. Okay, so in some cases that ‘element of government’ can be the Prime Minister herself (obvious example!) but even then the majority of Ministers were opposed to her excesses. We don’t live in a dictatorship and therefore it’s not ‘the government’ that’s at fault en bloc – that’s too simplistic.

It’s also not right to taint all politicians with the same damning brush and I really don’t hold with the prevailing view that they’re all as bad as each other and automatically bad guys. It’s that view which has led to record low levels of voting and an apathy toward politics in general, and we all know where that could lead if we’re not careful!

Also, there are no concrete black and white adversaries any more. Having grown up in the 1970s and 80s I’m well aware of the Cold War and how that manifested itself socially and politically. It was certainly a simpler world back then.

Perhaps Spooks is just reflecting the various shades of grey we now have to live with – is Iran an ‘evil’ nation or not? Yes and no. Was Sadaam Hussein a bad guy? No, then yes. Is Colonel Gadafi evil? A few years ago yes, Nowadays he’s mates with Tony Blair and presiding over a country which, with the help of his new American buddies, will become another Dubai if all goes to plan.

The adversaries in Spooks are not just left wing loons, they’re right wing too, as well as Islamic, eco warriors. MI6 and Americans. I think they’re well on track to offending everyone!

In summary I would defend Spooks against the accusation that they’re portraying government in too rosy a light, or using comic book enemies as a ruse to avoid challenging the powers that be. I just think they’re telling it like it is - politics and power in all its nessy complexity.

TonyB said...

Or even messy complexity!


Chip Smith said...

Hello Tony - I was just having a bit of fun comparing where we are now to where we were twenty years ago, hence the references to Defence of the Realm and what-have-you. I'm not sure what's happened culturally in this period, but we seem quite happy to watch things like Spooks or 24, where government is portrayed as generally benign. I remember a point about fifteen years ago where MI5/MI6 were kicking their heels trying to figure out what to do with themselves - then the 'War on Terror' comes along and justifies their existence (and their big new shiny buildings of course) and even their worst excesses. Maybe it's tempting to point toward 9/11 with regards to this tonal shift?

Obviously there are varying shades of grey with setting a series like Spooks inside government which make the dramatic possibilities theoretically endless. It's just that government (like most large companies) is by its very nature reactionary and/or conservative, so the central characters of Spooks don't really get to kick against establishment figures very much - which is why we see so many 'rogue elements' as plot devices, I think.

To my mind this series is heading the same way, but even so, it's still good fun (and a series that seems to get better and better).

TonyB said...

Hi again! Yes, Spooks does maintain a brilliantly high standard, very good stuff!

To follow on from your last comment, it’s true that governments and their security services tend to be reactive (at least in our society) but organisations like MI5 can at the same time be at war with itself, given its diverse and secretive nature.

Certain parts of the organisation will be anything but reactive, taking it upon itself to be proactive for the greater good of the country, as they see it. This might involve attempting to topple ministers from power, for example.

I've had an interest in this subject for a long time and there have been times in MI5's existence when they've gone a bit crazy! In particular the 1970s, in their attempts to smear prominent union figures and politicians, and in the 1980s in Northern Ireland. There was also an alleged attempt by elements within the organisation to topple Prime Minister Harold Wilson from power. Naturally they deny this completely but there have been enough MI5 insiders who have spoken out after retirement to suggest there is more than a grain of truth to the allegation.

I thought that a series about a ‘bad’ MI5 section who are a law unto themselves would be brilliant and a useful counterpoint to Harry’s knights in shining armour.

Unfortunately Kudos beat me to it and are now in preproduction on a series on that very subject! Still, I’m looking forward to it a lot. I would enjoy the moral ambivalence, perhaps a bit like ‘The Shield’, with any luck.

Going back to cultural shift and its representation in this type of drama, what you said reminded me of Robert McKee’s lecture which I attended a few years ago – he said that there’s always conflict and in the absence of external conflict we revert to internal conflict.

Therefore, up to the 1980s we had the Cold War – external conflict, then the Russians become our mates, so no more external conflict. Thus from the mid 1980s we turn inwards and experience internal conflict – corruption at the top, ‘Edge of Darkness’, ‘A Very British Coup’ etc.

Since 9/11 we have external conflict once more, a real if diffuse enemy, hence our government is once again wearing the white hats and protecting us against those bad towel heads!

It’s a simplistic appraisal but perhaps there’s something in it?

Finally, a conspiracy theory of my own: perhaps Marchmont Films have been ‘extraordinarily rendered’, which would explain why they haven’t got round to reviewing anybody’s script, making any films or updating their website? If you get an acknowledgement from them with a Cuban postmark you’ll know what’s happened! ;)

Chip Smith said...

You make a good point about what MI5 were getting up to in the 70s and 80s: last night's Spooks was interesting due to the fact that Harry's section now has to battle against central government in order to get the job at hand done - a really good plot development in my book.

But, as you say, MI5 now seem to be the good guys. If a prodco had tried to do this twenty years ago, I reckon they would've been laughed out of Television Centre! The cultural shift is the most intriguing part of this whole thing I think - your McKee theory is interesting, but I'm sure it has more to do with 9/11 than we're giving it credit for. Problem is my sociology credentials are a bit rubbish so I'll stop right here before I formulate yet another bad theory!

Marchmont - well. Words fail me! My script has apparently been on their producer's desk for months, but I've given up with them now. I was thinking of prodding them just to provide some more fuel for the blog but I just can't be bothered! I seem to have this weird talent for tracking down really useless prodcos and agents!