People who know me well know that once upon a time I was safely what I’d call obsessed with a BBC drama about melancholy spies. That show was named Spooks. It ran for ten series with wildly varying degrees of quality from series to series. Spooks: The Greater Good starring Kit Harrington comes out in the UK May 8 so now more than ever seems the perfect time to finish the definitive blog post I’d planned years ago on the problems with Spooks. Because InkAshlings strives to be a largely positive blog, however, I will be fair and do a follow up post on the ten times Spooks got it right.
Much like my disclaimer to my Stephen Moffat and Doctor Who post, I feel I need to lay down some obvious ground rules. The below thoughts are only my opinions (though I know many people in the fandom would agree with me on most of these). I also want to be clear that I viewed Spooks from the lens of Le Carre meets Bond with the premise being one which explores the human cost to being a spy, particularly to personal lives, with the theme driven by an ensemble cast and quasi-believable characters. This mode of viewing obviously influences what I think went wrong with the show.
Oh, and there will be spoilers for all ten series.
1. They lost the show creators and never quite found the experienced drama writing talent to replace them
The original series of Spooks (1-4) were penned by David Wollstoncroft and Howard Brenton (both experienced drama writers and playwrights and both interested in the grey area between Le Carre moral ambiguities and pacey contemporary stories) and saw ex MI5 and CIA operatives offer script advice early on (leading to bizarre yet powerful moments such as blow-drying a cat and having a girlfriend who doesn’t know your real identity). This meant that early Spooks, despite it’s episodic nature, had strong themes and character development for most of s1-4. Physical explosions were always off set by internal explosions in character’s heads and tough moral decisions which broke the proverbial camel’s back or made monsters of men and women. It’s no secret that the majority of fans see 2.5 and 4.10 as two of the best scripts ever penned on Spooks.
Once the duo left, the show hit rocky territory, either styling itself on 24 and American drama to the detriment of character, upping the patriotism factor and downplaying the internal and upping external danger or trying to implement overarching plot arcs with varying degrees of success and believability. Too often the show felt like bad spy and conservative government propaganda rather than the tough yet intellectual bent of early series which focussed on the moral war found within individuals when they tried to spy for Queen and country. This problem is most obvious in Series 9 and 10, when two inexperienced writers took over the show, willfully ignoring canon, the need for character development and generally making some dubious assumptions about why many fans watched the show (but more on this later).
2. They Lost Sight of Spooks Main Theme: The Human Cost to Being a Spy…
In my opinion, the strongest character arc on Spooks was Tom Quinn’s, whose internal character explosion was both heartbreaking and believable. Brenton and Wollstonecraft used shock factor deaths sparingly with Zoe being burnt after doing her duty as a honey trap and getting squeezed by an uncaring bureaucracy, Tessa being fired due to questionable decision making, Sam leaving the service devastated by Danny’s death and Ruth sacrificing herself to leave Harry top dog in 5.5. Once they lost Ruth however, it felt like the show lost its moral way, with first Zoe than Ruth representing humanity and the bleeding hearts club. From Series 5 on, the show often emphasized physical dangers to spy work over personal and moral dangers to the detriment of the show. Because we never got to see what the characters felt about the tough choices they often made, they could seem like automatons or people as bad as the terrorists they faced. Though the show would occasionally remember its original theme (like in the majority of the excellent Series 7 or parts of Series 8), the majority of the time it was assumed the audience would identify with characters because we were told again and again that our spies were heroes despite the questionable and sometimes downright horrendous decisions made. Once they lost moral compass, we were expected to identify with characters like Harry Pearce even when they did bad things.
3. They Became Victims of their own ‘Shock Factor’ Trademark
In 1.2, Lisa Faulkner faced death by deep fat fryer in a scene which is still shocking to re-watch today despite over a decade passing. Consequently, the audience knew pretty early on that Spooks was a show where nobody was safe and back then, because characters had been given strong back stories, we cared deeply when it happened and were genuinely shocked. Both Danny’s and Colin’s deaths were brutal and upsetting. As the series continued on, the shock factor became Spooks own worst enemy. It seemed like whenever the writers didn’t know what to do with a character or how to get rid of one, they’d kill them. The problem with this method was that it soon became boring and predictable, cutting off character arcs in medias res instead of allowing for genuine character arcs. It also made it increasingly difficult to care about new characters when they were entered and offed from the Grid with little character development or initial depth (see next point).
4. They Followed a Set Character Formula and Forgot How to Characterize
Beth with less and less character development each time…
The initial series was devised as an ensemble piece, held together by Tom Quinn, played by Matthew McFayden. This meant that all of the original team had character arcs and when they were eventually replaced, the new ones were given arcs too. Unfortunately, once Brenton and Wollstonecroft left, new cast members were treated like monikers for the old ones, given little character to work with (Eg Danny became Zaf became Ben became Tariq with less and less personal history given to each character with each new transition). It became more and more noticeable, culminating in the bland and blank slate team of Erin, Calum, Tariq amd Dimitri in Series 10. It is especially noticeable when you watch early series to series 5 and notice that some characters have more characterization in half an episode than a similar moniker character has in an entire series in the later series (eg Compare Zoe’s six series 1 episodes to Beth’s 8 Series 9 ones).
At the same time, a decision was made to invest more character arc and development time into certain kinds of characters: namely the white alpha male lead, the white female alpha lead (in her defense, Ros was awesome, but more on that next post) and to a lesser extent, Harry and later his will they/won’t they relationship with Ruth. The problem with this was that viewers were left with minimal emotional connection to characters and the show became less ensemble. It also meant that by the time of later Adam Carter and Lucas North we were treated to endless sex with poorly acted and developed girlfriends who had nothing to do with Spooks themes overall or were so abysmally awful (as in the case of Sarah Caulfield), they detracted from the story lines they featured in. It also meant that relationships between characters were largely abandoned to the detriment again of the original ensemble cast premise.
5. They Stopped Being the Grey Area Between Le Carre and Bond and Became 24Lite
Around the time of Series 5, a creative decision was made to make the episodes punchier and more action packed. Given what I’ve said already about use of character monikers and failure to develop characters in their own right at the same time as abandoning the original theme, you can guess why I thought this was a disastrous move. Once you take away developed characters to invest in and thematic cohesion, some viewers such as me were left clinging to old hand Spooks players such as Malcolm, Harry and Ruth to maintain interest. This made it all the more infuriating when certain creative decisions were made about such old hand characters.
6. They Wilfully Ignored Previous Canon and Resolving Story Arcs
Though to some extent, Spooks set up a very early precedent for ignoring canon and for resolving story arcs (hello Sam), it was easier to overlook because of strong themes and characters to care about. Once the show lost these things it became more and more infuriating when they ignored canon or established story arcs. From the inexplicable Juliet turned villain turn in Series 6, to the supposed traitor-hood of the Home Sec in Series 9 to the worst insult of all, the destruction of an until that point enormously interesting character in Lucas North, the cracks started to show more and more.
At the same time story arcs were abandoned at the drop of a hat. The Series 7 finale was never fully resolved, the consequences of Ruth’s return in 8.1 wasn’t picked up on until Series 9 causing some very inconsistent Ruth characterization in the transition from 8 to 9, Zaf is killed off screen after an entire series of dangling the carrot of his return and Harry escapes consequences again and again with little explanation of how he gets away with it. The worst case of canon disregard and story arc butchering came with…
7. …The Lucas North Debacle
Show me the man or woman who genuinely can explain the Lucas North story line so that it makes sense and I’ll show them the live dinosaur I keep in my closet. Take a look on any Spooks fan forum, IMDB page, review site, blog, tumblr post or online newspaper commentary spot, and you’ll instantly see the amount of anger this story line caused. It wasn’t just anger because some were hardcore Richard Armitage fans who wanted their favourite actor to go out the hero. It was a number of fans, myself included, hopping mad that they’d had two series worth of canon ignored and butchered to make a shock ending to Series 9 that had nothing to do with the cost of being a spy, rendered Lucas’ actions in previous series incomprehensible and simply served to ensure that the story arc about Harry, Russian prison and loyalty never had to be dealt with to maintain Harry as The Writer’s Hero TM.
Much has been said about this character hatchet job through the creation of the Lucas North alter ego John Bateman. Suffice it to say, the debacle burnt a lot of fan loyalty going into series 10 and wasted time which should have been spent on building up a new ensemble team (in particular Beth, Tariq and Dimitri). My favourite quote by far on the Lucas North mess came from The Guardian’s Vicky Frost whose hilarious viewing commentaries were sometimes superior to the show she viewed. Her response to wet blanket girlfriend Maya’s comment to notLucas! who inanely stated “Do you know how I knew it was true? Because for the first time you made sense” was comedic gold. “That’s bloody optimistic, Maya. Lucas makes less sense than ever before,” was a sentiment shared by many at the time and the Lucas debacle remains one of the worst plot decisions I’ve seen on any TV show ever.
8. They Assumed Harry Pearce was the Moral Compass and Beating Heart of the Show…
I’ve alluded to this one already. I used to quite like Harry, but by Series 8, I would have been quite happy to see him shot in the back of that boot by a faceless terrorist. The problem with Harry wasn’t that he was a flawed character (which is always interesting), but that he was a flawed character sold by the writers as the moral arbiter and hero of the show. We were banged on the head again and again with such sentiments and Harry was never given consequences for the poor choices or immoral decisions he made because he became a serious case of the ‘privileged white male hero who can do no wrong’ trope. Anyone who showed up Harry had to go. Any story line that undermined Harry as supposed paragon of goodness had to go (see Lucas North). It was both immensely frustrating and morally questionable for this viewer. Though many saw Harry as the beating heart of the show (and that’s fine), just as many did not…
9. … And in Doing so Lost the Show’s Real Moral Compass
When Keeley Hawes left the show in Series 3, Nicola Walker had to take on a greater role in episodes to fill the moral gap left by Zoe leaving. Full of heart, compassion, kindness and humanity from early on, many saw Ruth Evershed as the show’s moral compass alongside Harry. I know of many casual viewers who stopped watching once Ruth left because they felt that the show no longer had heart. Such was Ruth’s popularity amongst viewers, she returned to the Grid in Series 8 till the show’s end, resuming her on/off relationship with Harry at the same time as burning up inside with guilt over 8.1. With other characters given little to work with, the Ruth/Harry relationship was given greater prominence and by Series 10 was given increased weight. At the same time, Nicola was given more to work with in developing the Ruth character. When reviewers reviewed Series 10, many pointed out that Peter Firth and Nicola Walker carried the show, with some pointing out that Nicola deserved kudos for essentially stealing the show’s battered crown out from under other flashier characters noses, her performance a masterclass in quiet dowdiness, intelligence, social paralysis and heart.
Her death felt un-necessary, cheap and needlessly cruel after three series of largely unnecessary ‘ship teasing’ without developing other characters or credible story lines for viewers to invest in. Not only did her death in the final few minutes of Spooks feel mean spirited, it didn’t further the theme of the cost of being a spy (she died because of Harry’s personal history with the Gavrik’s rather than dying to protect Queen and country) and her death was penned in the laziest of ways. She was fridged to uphold Harry as the show’s moral compass and to deliver a final ‘shock’ to the audience and it still fills me with rage every time I remember the finale. In a recent interview, Peter Firth expressed his belief that the producers now regretted their decision to kill Ruth off. I doubt it, but I do know that they upset a lot of long term viewers in the way they chose to off her.
10. They Created a Finale Which Contained Many of the Above Excesses, but Ironically Tied up Little Thematically
As I stated earlier, I always saw the main theme of Spooks to be the human cost to being a spy: the moral, emotional and ethical costs. Instead, as another blog writer pointed out, the show tried to claim that Harry Pearce had always been the centre of the show. The final shot was intended to make us feel safe with Harry behind the desk protecting us despite it all. Given the continued poor judgement he made during Series 9 and 10 in particular, I was left cold and confused. I didn’t want a Harry protecting me: I didn’t want a broken shell of a man protecting me with a stiff upper lip and ice in the heart. I wanted a welcome dose of humanity that never came. Maybe the film will oblige?