Spooks: Season 4 Review
The third season of Spooks met with decidedly mixed reactions, with many viewers arguing that it had lost the essence of what made its first two years so successful. Such responses were not entirely surprising: the show did, after all, lose its three original leads over the course of the ten-episode series, while at the same time drafting in replacements to fill the gaps left by their absence. As a result, Season 3 felt very much like a period of turnover, never really settling into a sustained groove, while the new characters being brought in seemed like mere shadows of their predecessors. It's a good thing, therefore, that Season 4 reclaims the ground lost in the previous year, and more besides. Indeed, this is perhaps the best Spooks has ever been, combining gripping, fast-paced storylines with cutting edge technology, while the characters who appeared in the previous season, and their respective actors, begin to get more comfortable with their roles.
The show, however, is not content to settle into a groove, and indeed, as early as the first episode, subtle changes can be glimpsed. The opening two-parter, dealing with a bomb blast in central London, carrying with it eerie reminders of the July 2005 terrorist attacks still fresh in viewers' minds, indicate a shift away from the narrower focus of the first three series in favour of large-scale national disasters. In the past, the central theme of Spooks was very much that these characters were very much fighting an unseen battle, with their actions never being known to the general public. In its early years the show stuck doggedly to creating a semblance of realism, the impression being that these events could in fact really be taking place behind our backs at this very moment. (The same is true of the episode's portrayal of major political figures, with a fictional Home Secretary reminding us, once again, that what we're seeing could not possible be actually happening.) By portraying a major incident which rips into the heart of the capital city, the writers signal that they are moving away from the original premise into what is best termed "what if?" territory.
An interesting parallel can be drawn between this and the highly acclaimed fifth episode in the second season, in which the team were locked inside the Grid as part of an initiative exercise to test their ability to cope with a major chemical attack on central London. In the context of Season 2, the exercise, as deftly-written as the episode was, could only ever be seen as just that: an exercise. The show's commitment to realism meant that a chemical attack could not actually have taken place, because one had not taken place in real life. Had this episode been placed in the fourth season rather than the second, though, the conclusion would probably have been nothing like as clear-cut. This is not so much a criticism of the show's new direction as a simple observation, but it does thoroughly alter the dynamic, upping the stakes at the expense of some of its believability.
Realism also suffers in a number of other areas, among them Adam (Rupert Penry-Jones)'s recruiting policy, which at the very least raises eyebrows. The episode in question is the fifth in the season, in which an aspiring reporter, Jo Portman (Miranda Raison), manages to put two and two together and follows Adam on a mission. Her quick thinking alerts the team to the presence of assassins, saving several lives in the process, to which Adam's response is to offer her a job as an MI5 agent. Not only this, the training programme is presented as being remarkably brief, given that, as soon as the very next episode, she is a fully-qualified spook and is allowed out on missions that are literally of the life and death variety. It's moments like these, and the first episode's supposedly concealed explosive devices with giant ticking LCD timers, that serve as reminders that this is first and foremost a work of fiction, albeit one with its finger on the pulse of real-world events and fears.
It is, as a result, the quieter, smaller scale episodes that impress the most, and none more so than the gripping finale, in which the team find themselves trapped inside the Grid with a volatile former operative, Angela Wells (Lindsay Duncan), armed with several kilos of concentrated explosive. Barring a few minutes at the beginning and end, this episode takes place entirely within a single location, and is almost completely dialogue-driven, but the quality of the script, by veteran Spooks writer Howard Brenton, and of the direction, by Julian Simpson, is such that it is by far the tightest, most engaging episode in the season, and perhaps indeed in the series' entire (so far) 36-episode run.
The overal quality of Spooks' fourth season more than makes up for the inconsistency of the previous year, firmly establishing that its problems stemmed from being a necessary transitional period rather than the new characters and actors themselves being at fault. These ten episodes once again confirm that this series is one of the best home-grown dramas in recent years.
The audio-visual presentation of this release is very much the same as that of the box sets for the previous three seasons. The episodes are presented in their original 16x9 1.78:1 aspect ratio (anamorphic, of course), and compression artefacts are nicely kept in check by the generous offering of five dual-layer DVDs (working out at two episodes per disc). Spooks is a show whose visual style varies noticeably on an episode by episode basis, depending not only on the requirements of the storyline but also on who is directing. Thus, Antonia Bird's opening two-parter is quite desaturated with a lot of smooth camerawork, whereas, in the finale, Julian Simpson bathes the Grid in rich Dario Argento-like colours, with the primary reds and blues contrasting with the heavy use of shadows. Bearing in mind the television origins, everything looks very good indeed, although softness is at times a problem, as it has been with every season.
Audio, meanwhile, is offered in 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround variations, with the latter unsurprisingly offering far more back for buck than the former. Optional English subtitles have been included for the episodes themselves, but not, alas, the extras.
Compared with the DVD releases of the first three seasons of Spooks, you would be forgiven for thinking that the more limited selection of extras offered up here is a bit of a let-down. To be perfectly honest, though, this reviewer was actually rather glad not to have to trawl through hours and hours of interviews documenting, in exhaustive detail, virtually every aspect of the production process.
This time round, all the material has been edited down into "An Elusive Peace", a 35-minute documentary interviewing the main cast. Unfortunately, whoever was in charge of assembling this documentary made the mistake of conducting the interviews outside on a windy day, so the interviewees' speech is constantly being distorted and drowned out not only by gusts of wind but also nearby traffic. It's a good, informative piece, though, although it does rely a little too heavily on video clips from the episodes themselves. Julian Simpson, director of episodes 9 and 10, and Andrew Woodhead, who has been Spooks' producer from the third season onwards, are also interviewed in separate featurettes running for 9 and 19 minutes respectively.
Finally, every episode is accompanied by an audio commentary, featuring a variety of contributors, ranging from writers to directors to cast members. To be honest, these commentaries are a bit of a mixed bag, as they always have been for Spooks, because it's clear that there is a distinct lack of preparation from those involved, leading to a lot of repetition, gaps of silence and overall time-wasting. Special features director Lancelot Narayan appears on a number of tracks, presumably to moderate and give some sense of continuity, and his tend to be the most focused, because he at least has a specific series of questions to ask the participants, but, while everyone is appropriately enthusiastic, there's really nothing here to make these tracks out as required listening.
Unfortunately, there are no trailers or deleted scenes this time round.
Contender have once again put together an impressive package for Spooks' fourth season. While the extras are somewhat less wide-ranging this time round, and the high price tag continues to be rather prohibitive for a mere ten hours' worth of episodes, the care with which the entire collection has been put together should, once the price comes down a little, make it a tempting purchase for those who either missed some or all of the fourth season, or who simply want to remind themselves of what happened last year, now that Season 5 has started airing.