Spooks: Season 5
In the world of television, it's easy to become overly enamoured by the concept of realism. Broadly speaking, I suspect that most of us watch fictional dramas because they offer us the chance to escape from the real world, and, as such, are willing to forgive a bit of artistic licence in the name of entertainment. Spooks has generally been a good example of an acceptable trade-off between realism and escapism: a series which deals with extremely pertinent current events, often to an uncomfortable degree - its fourth series, for example, opened with a bomb blast ripping apart a street in central London a scant few months after the 7/7 bombings - and yet has always played hard and fast with realism, frequently bending the rules in order to maintain the illusion of the life of a spy being one of glamour and excitement. Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones) isn't exactly James Bond, but neither is he George Smiley. He doesn't jet around the world, bedding multiple women and engaging in fisticuffs atop precarious construction rigs, but he does rush around London with a gun in his hand and occasionally ends up on the receiving end of the odd beating. The world of Spooks is fast-paced and flashy, filled with computer screens displaying scads of nonsensical zeros and ones, but it is more often than not grounded by its realistic, desaturated visuals and a sense that its writers have their finger on the pulse of current affairs.
How odd, then, that the fifth season of this successful home-grown spy drama should spend the better part of its duration sacrificing realism in the name of increasingly ambitious but unlikely disaster scenarios. For its first three years, Spooks generally operated under the assumption that, while the characters being portrayed were obviously fictional, the missions that they undertook must take place sufficiently under the radar for the possibility to exist that such events were actually taking place in the real world without our knowledge. The message seemed to be that the job of an MI5 officer is incredibly demanding, often psychologically destructive, and yet their heroism will never be recognised. A bomb may be deactivated at the last minute, and yet no-one will ever know it was there in the first place; in the first episode of the fourth season, the country's security services received a drubbing from political commentators for failing to prevent the aforementioned detonation in central London, without realising that Adam and his team had managed to prevent several other explosion on a similar scale from having been successful. This previous season, which in many was constituted Spooks at its very best, stayed true to the formula but was already beginning to show signs that the writers were eager to explore a new agenda.
This new agenda is in full swing from the moment Season 5 begins, throwing the audience (and Adam, who has been recuperating from a gunshot wound received at the end of the previous season) head first into a nightmare world in which the country has descended into anarchy and a sinister group of politicians is planning on seizing power by force and instituting a police state. This is more V for Vendetta than anything you could expect to find on the six o'clock news, and as a result the credibility of the series is quickly shot to pieces. This opening two-parter is certainly filled with excitement, but it never seems real, and as a result robs Spooks of its main strength. As the season continues, it veers increasingly close to 24 territory, with Adam Carter effectively becoming a stand-in for Jack Bauer, as virtually every event revolves around him in some way and his sanity continues to totter on the brink. In a sense, this gives the 10-part season a sense of purpose - right from the start, it is clear that the main focus will be on the effect that the death of his wife has had on his state of mind - but it too closely mirrors the breakdown of his predecessor, Tom Quinn (Matthew Macfayden), whose similar character arc was handled far more effectively in Season 2, primarily because, in that instance, we were given an insight into how his erratic behaviour was affecting the rest of the team, a perspective that is almost entirely absent in Season 5.
It also means that few of the other regulars get the chance of a look-in. In particular, the roles of the two junior spies, Jo Portman (Miranda Raison) and Zafar Younis (Raza Jaffrey), become merely functional, while the mid-season departure of one of the series' longest-running characters finally removes any sense of this being an ensemble, allowing the remaining episodes to be almost entirely devoted to Adam and his increasingly bizarre relationship with newcomer Ros Myers (Hermione Norris). Ros, incidentally, is first introduced conspiring to take over the government by detonating cars and crashing planes, and yet is soon inducted into MI5 and, by the end of the season, is actually trusted to run the Grid in Adam's absence - a fine example of increasingly preposterous plot developments that come to define the season.
The above paragraphs might give the impression that Spooks' fifth season is entirely devoid of merit, but that would be unfair. When all the cards are properly stacked, it still manages to be an exciting and genuinely gripping programme, best exemplified by the fifth episode, which shows the team racing against time to prove the innocence of one of their own, Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker), unjustly accused of assassinating a government official and being involved in a cover-up of monumental proportions. The episode, which recalls the best of the earlier seasons, is filled with bluffs and double-bluffs, and features an incredibly moving conclusion. The two-part storyline spreading across episodes 5 and 6 is also interesting, and manages to pull off a surprising and rather ingenious twist on the familiar and overused "Islamic fundamentalist terrorists" storyline, although the setup is a little too similar to a Season 1 episode, which, just like this, featured the hostile takeover of a foreign embassy in which one of the team had been posted undercover. The remaining episodes, however, either do little to distinguish themselves or stretch credibility to breaking point, the biggest offender being the eighth episode, which, while dealing with an intriguing scenario (what if Christian fundamentalists declared a holy war on Islam and began using similar tactics to Al'Qaeda?), quickly descends into scene after scene of people stomping around gloomy churches and having loud one-to-one conversations with their deity, before concluding with Adam's complete mental breakdown.
It's easy to see where Spooks' fifth season goes wrong: it succumbs to the same mistakes made by virtually every series that lasts for any significant length of time, sacrificing its credibility through a need to continually outdo itself in the scale of its scenarios, while veering away from its original brief due to an increased focus on the personal side of its principle characters. We've seen it happen all too often, with everything from Casualty to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and even the generally reliable Waking the Dead. I can only hope that Spooks' sixth season, due to begin airing later this month, corrects this trend before it passes the point of no return.
The audio-visual presentation is of a high standard, something that has been true of every Spooks DVD release thus far. With the ten episodes spread generously across a total of five dual-layer discs, compression is unsurprisingly not a problem, and the image quality is generally very pleasing on the whole, although a handful of establishing location shots have clearly been culled from poorer quality sources: an unavoidable reality of television production.
The audio, meanwhile, which comes in stereo and 5.1 flavours, is similarly decent if never outstanding. The 5.1 track is unsurprisingly the way to go, offering a slightly more engulfing experience, although the rear channels are certainly not used to the extent that you would expect from the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Optional English subtitles are provided for the episodes themselves but not the extras.
The bonus materials provided for Spooks' fifth season are undoubtedly the flimsiest so far. Light in number and in content, they definitely constitute a change of pace from the extremely generous helpings offered for the first three seasons. Disc 1 includes a 12-minute series of interviews with the cast, which are punctuated by overly length clips and really don't reveal a great deal, other than that everyone gets on like a house on fire on the set and that Peter Firth makes a habit of reading the final page of every new script first to make sure his character hasn't been bumped off.
Disc 3, meanwhile, includes around four minutes' worth of trailers that ran on BBC1 when the season was airing last Autumn.
Disc 5 features what purports to be a sneak preview for Season 6, but in reality is little more than Miranda Raison wandering about the set with a camcorder for a minute and having a laugh with various members of the cast and crew. Absolutely nothing is revealed about the content of the new season at all. Finally, audio commentaries are included for episodes 9 and 10, the former featuring assistant producer Katie Swindon and writer Neil Cross, and the latter featuring writer David Farr and director Julian Holmes. Spooks commentaries have always tended to be rather dry, and these are no exception. Episode 10's track is the more relaxed of the two, but neither of them really offer anything particularly insightful about the episodes in question, with the writers in particular often falling back on stating the obvious about what is taking place on the screen. They're acceptable enough to listen to, but at no time does it feel like two hours well spent.
Discs 2 and 4 are devoid of extras.
Season 5 comes across as Spooks' weakest so far, sacrificing credibility and its ensemble cast in favour of increasingly unbelievable situations and an annoyingly narrow focus. The DVD release, likewise, is the most disappointing of the bunch, making the high £39.99 RRP seem particularly extortionate given the lack of bonus materials.
6 out of 10
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4 out of 10