Spooks: Code 9 Review

The Show

BBC Three describes itself as an outlet for “new drama, talent, comedy, films, and accessible news”. I presume that Spooks: Code 9 is meant to fulfil the “comedy” quotient of this brief, for two reasons. First of all, it doesn’t appear to be a film or a news broadcast; nor does it convince as a drama, and I certainly didn’t spot any talent on display. Secondly, I found myself laughing at it on several occasions. Admittedly, I’m not convinced that my reaction was what the producers originally intended, but given that the schedules are increasingly dominated by depressingly puerile reality TV and variety shows commissioned by executives who think the likes of Jimmy Carr and Russell Brand are funny, I take my humour where I can get it.

In a word, Code 9 is shit. Not just run of the mill, take-one-look-and-change-the-channel shit, but oh-my-God-am-I-really-seeing-this shit. No doubt the brainchild of some jaded executive who saw the perfect opportunity to craft some exciting yoof TV and get down wif da kidz, the result is a bit like being locked in a room with Eugene Levy’s character from the American Pie films. In other words, cringe-inducingly embarrassing, very probably for both parties. The basic setting is Britain in the year 2012, months after a nuclear attack during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games killed thousands and made London uninhabitable. With the government having upped sticks and moved to Manchester, the security services have established several cells around the country, for some reason consisting primarily of attractive young people fresh out of drama school. We're told that this is because “terrorists are getting younger”, the logic clearly being that the people best placed to fight twentysomething bombers are spies of the same age.

It’s actually a horrendously cynical venture when you stop to think about it, given that it assumes its target viewers are only interested in watching people their own age, and that they have killed so many brain cells sending incomprehensible text messages to each other or sniffing glue (or whatever it is teenagers do nowadays for kicks) that they now have the attention span of a goldfish and therefore require to constantly be kept engaged by hyper-frenetic camerawork, loud “whoomf” sounds during cuts between scenes, and banal plotting that is less about the nitty-gritty of espionage and more about the tired interactions of a bunch of interchangeable pretty faces. Even I, despite being a massive misanthropist, would like to credit the younger generation with a bit more intelligence than this.

In itself, the premise raises several questions. First of all, why are terrorists getting younger? Did all those over the age of 25 with such tendencies become extinct at some point between now and 2012? Secondly, what about Spooks causes it to require a separate spin-off to be created for teenagers? Nothing about the original series excluded younger viewers, and in fact, one of my biggest criticisms of the later episodes was their increasing tendency to dumb things down, abandoning old-fashioned mind games in favour of frenetic shakeycam and in-your-face action. Judging by Code 9, the people in charge clearly thought that the latter is what the modern teenager craves most in his or her television viewing. That, and cringe-inducing performances by a cast so hopelessly inexperienced that the end result is akin to watching high school children putting on a play that requires them to pretend to be adults, only with worse acting.

But I digress. Over the course of six 45-minute episodes, we are introduced to a group of six generic men and women in their late teens or early twenties, with the central focus soon falling on newcomer Charlie Green (Liam Boyle), thrust against his will into a leadership role following the untimely death of the squad’s original boss. Charlie’s special ability is that he is a mathematician and specialises in risk assessment. His personality is defined only in the broadest possible sense: he’s a nerd, and you can tell that because he wears glasses and gets flustered easily. In the context of the show, he’s rather unique, as he’s the only member of the group who actually has a personality. The rest all have the same basic “thrill-seeker” persona. They’re people who live life on the edge (you can tell this because they consume massive quantities of alcohol and drugs and have lots of sex), existing for the adrenaline rush provided by the life-threatening situations in which they continually find themselves. As the series’ tagline puts it, “for Queen, for country, for kicks.” Oh, God.

There’s an ongoing storyline threaded through the series, involving – ta-dum! – the presence of a traitor within the ranks of MI5, but it too is hopelessly dreary because the villain’s identity is so obvious that he/she might has well be sporting a handlebar moustache and cackling evilly at any given opportunity. In the first episode, said traitor organises the assassination of the group’s original leader, which actually proves to be something of a blessing, because if there was a competition to determine which of the cast was the most dreadful, the actress playing her, Joanna Froggatt, would win hands down. (She both looks and sounds uncannily like that awful woman in the green overalls who used to front those infuriating Yes Car Credit ads on daytime TV, and is just as insincere.) By far the biggest problem, I suspect, is that, with all of the main characters under the age of 25, there’s not a single authority figure to give them a sense of purpose or keep them in line. We’re supposed to believe that the nerdy, insecure and borderline neurotic Charlie has the ability to lead his own squad of security officers, and more laughably still that he was actually hand-picked for the job, which destroys the last shred of credibility the show was still clinging to. Liam Boyle does his best to play the part, and his underlings try very hard to look serious and hang on his every word, but it’s just not convincing. It’s all incredibly predictable, barrelling through the usual series of contrived scenarios in which our intrepid adventurers race against time to diffuse ticking bombs, go rogue to avoid information leaks and brutally interrogate uncooperative suspects. On paper, all of this might sound quite exciting, but a combination of the characters’ ages, the awful acting and the unconvincing attempts to portray a futuristic Britain continually strive to undermine any prospect of actual tension or drama. There’s not a single new idea here, with every storyline being cribbed from a far better one in the original Spooks.

With all that said, I hope Spooks: Code 9 gets commissioned for a second series. In terms of the absurdity stakes, it easily beats out Bonekickers, another much-reviled BBC disaster from 2008. I’d say it’s fairly unlikely, though, given the combination of dismal viewing figures (losing nearly half of its audience by its second week of transmission) and the scathing reaction from the press. Even if the final episode does show the vaguest hint of promise, with both the acting and plotting improving from gut-wrenchingly awful to merely appallingly bad, I can’t see any possible future for this series other than as an unintentional farce.

The Discs

Spooks: Code 9 is presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. This is one of those naff-looking shows that is shot on video and then deinterlaced to make it appear like film, the result being that every second field is discarded so you end up with half the vertical resolution and distracting stair-stepping artefacts on anything that looks remotely like a diagonal line. As such, the DVD release probably looks about as good as it possibly could have, which is not to say that it looks particularly good at all.

Sound is a no-frills Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track, which is perfectly crisp and clear but is understandably flat and never more than serviceable. Optional English subtitles are provided.

There are no extras. The six episodes are spread across two DVDs, with Disc 1 containing Episodes 1-4 and Disc 2 housing the final two.

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Tags 9, code, spooks

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