(a terribly clever joke for all our Scottish readers there).
Here's my review of Spooks: Code 9, from the Private Eye that came out last week.
Way back in December 2006, with BBC One’s superlative spy drama Spooks at its height - Ruth had just safely sailed away up the river away from her nailbiting will-they-won’t-they-oh-blimey-actually-they-won’t relationship with Harry Pearce, and the pretty boy was busy drowning under the Thames barrier with her off of Cold Feet – BBC Three controller Julian Bellamy announced a spin-off entitled Rogue Spooks as part of his spring season. Eighteen months, one channel controller and a name change later, the resulting show slithers out on Sundays in the middle of August. Has some unintended topicality – a fictional atrocity tragically reflected in reality – caused the scheduling delay? No. Make no mistake: Spooks: Code 9 (you can bet they focus-grouped Codes One through Eight and found they didn’t play well with the 16-24-year-old demographic) is limping out at the bottom of the year because it’s the biggest heap of steaming radioactive waste ever to contaminate the name of a successful brand.
Not, that is, that it’s allowed to get anywhere near its parent programme. To avoid any of the difficult questions thrown up by after-hours Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood (“What’s Captain Jack been doing since he last saw the Doctor, Daddy?” – “Shagging”) Code 9 is set five years in the future, following the abject failure of Harry Pearce’s mob to save London, which has been destroyed in a nuclear explosion. This being a digital channel, it’s a very minor nuclear explosion which takes place mostly in the distance and in the form of various bits of stock footage, allowing for some ghoulishly nostalgic disaster-spotting – “isn’t that Canary Wharf after the IRA bomb? And there are the poll-tax riots!” It also neatly removes any subsequent peril or tension – given that, as the voiceover informs us, unknown terrorists have already “incinerated over 100,000 people and given many more a death sentence through radiation”, you’re left asking, well, what’s the worst that can happen if our heroes fail to save the day?
Not a lot, it would seem – which is fortunate, since the heroes in question are a bunch of pouty 19-year-olds who have been recruited solely on the strength of Big-Brother style audition videos, in which they compete to outdo one another in smuggery. “Terrorists are getting younger, so you’re probably looking for younger spies,” swaggers one blonde. “Am I right?” Well, no dear, not really. Some older spies with experience in the field and training in how to spot and neutralise potential terrorists, whatever their vintage, might just come in useful. Ah, but they’ve all buggered off, as a helpful character explains in one of the great clunking lists of expository dialogue in which this show excels: “25 per cent of officers wiped out in the bomb. Half the remainder migrating to the private sector.” Really? The disloyal bastards! But not to worry – our trusty band of school-leavers are so achingly patriotic that union flags are sometimes randomly superimposed on their faces – at least until the end of the first episode, when the director got bored and couldn’t be bothered with that particular tic any more.
That innovation aside, it’s cliché all the way: chases take place across roof-tops before villains fail to grasp the proffered hand and plunge to their deaths; deceased characters leave valedictory videos which point out “if you’re watching this, I must be dead” and both sexual tension and menace are signified by characters standing halitosis-inhalingly close to one another and wiggling their eyebrows a lot. Regular shots of barbed wire, ID cards and surveillance cameras are intended to establish the Big Brother theme that is obviously going to be the series’ big revelation (“you mean we’re not the good guys after all?”) but just serve to remind viewers what an editorial standby the cut to black-and-white CCTV has become. Even the trick of killing off a major character early in the story, as shockingly introduced by grown-up Spooks and recycled in the aforementioned Torchwood, is no longer remotely surprising, although the intended cries of “I can’t believe they did that!” duly erupt when the corpse is replaced as unit leader by a gawky teen who has been a spy for slightly under 24 hours.
The real shock, however, is the quality of the spin-off’s spin-offs: because this is BBC Three we are in the realm of 360-degree commissioning and multi-platform gubbins, which in this case boils down to a diverting fake “news from 2013” website and an impressive choose-your-own-adventure game which allows you to scan in your own face and play as a moving, breathing character in a tale that is far more exciting than anything on the marginally-bigger screen. Since original ideas, convincing plots, decent dialogue and half-capable actors seem to be beyond the grasp of BBC Three’s drama department, might they be better off – not to mention more in tune with their target audience – just abandoning around 270 degrees of their commissioning process and concentrating on becoming a quite capable little computer games developer instead?