Friday, March 14, 2008

Own Worst Enemy

About sixteen months ago I was all a jingle-jangle, dancing around like spit on a hot griddle over the marvellous six-part political thriller The State Within. The past five Sundays the BBC has broadcast their latest conspiracy drama, The Last Enemy, and sadly it hasn’t even got my toes tapping.

Read previous posts and you’ll find these are the kind of television dramas that I absolutely love. Less than ten minutes into the first episode I had flicked over to Channel 4 to check out the eviscerated, theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven. It’s only down to the BBC iPlayer facility that I eventually managed to sit through the whole thing. Even then, it still took three attempts. In the weeks since, iPlayer was utterly vital in helping me get through the following episodes.

Last Sunday was the penultimate episode, with the finale two days away. At this point watching The State Within I was close to shaking with anticipation as Lizzie Mickery and Daniel Percival’s drama confounded expectations and kept everyone guessing to the very last episode. With The Last Enemy I figure that since I’ve come this far I might as well carry on to the end.

For a near-future drama built around an extrapolation of today’s surveillance society, why has The Last Enemy been so utterly bloody difficult to watch? Perhaps it’s because with each episode the serial simply looked more like a concept in desperate search of a story.

With the country apparently transformed into a security state and ID cards strictly enforced, it came across as the sort of vague (and increasingly ridiculous) ideas employed by the If... series of docudramas from 2004 – which began with If... The Lights Go Out, looking into the results of a massive failure across the national grid – or in the vein of the previous year’s single drama The Day Britain Stopped, in which events conspired to push our transport infrastructure to breaking point.

It may be unfair, but any political-conspiracy drama that appears on television is, whether it likes it or not, going to be compared to The State Within or Paul Abbott’s State of Play or A Very British Coup or Troy Kennedy Martin’s Edge of Darkness which, after twenty-three years, still remains at the top of the pyramid in terms of television drama.

Instead, in the rankings, The Last Enemy is somewhere down with 2002’s rather rubbish Fields of Gold, which, in ratcheting up the genetically modified, Frankenstein crops scaremongering, replaced drama with a tiresome, tub-thumping soapbox polemic against multinationals. Given that it was co-written by the editor of The Guardian I suppose we shouldn’t have expected anything less.

The Last Enemy at least begins with a bang. Whereas shocking acts of violence in The State Within (the blowing up of a commercial jet leaving Dulles Airport), State of Play (the deaths of political researcher Sonia Baker and teenager Kelvin Stagg), and Edge of Darkness (the murder of Ronnie Craven’s activist daughter, Emma) kick off the investigations that ultimately uncover very dirty secrets, the death of a British aid worker in The Last Enemy – blown up after leaving a refugee camp near the Afghan-Pakistan border – sees his scientist brother return to England, almost miss the funeral, and then pretty much not give a damn.

Instead of being driven to discover the truth behind his sibling’s death, once back home Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Ezard discovers his brother has married a Bosnian woman in his absence, and then proceeds to shag the widow. When the Total Information Awareness database, created by a rather dubious company to spy on everyone, is eventually introduced into the narrative, Ezard signs up to help push the government to ratify the spyware, solely to use TIA to track down the suddenly missing widow.

Set in the “near future” – which is always a hiding to nothing – The Last Enemy supposedly takes place in a Britain transformed by a major terrorist atrocity in the nation’s capital. Though vaguely mumbled about in passing at one point, it wasn’t mentioned there after and didn’t seem to be that big a deal. The incident had apparently turned the country into a security state where everyone lives under the lens of a surveillance camera and ID cards are strictly enforced but apparently not yet compulsory. How that works, I’m not sure but before it finally started to look like things were eventually going to turn vaguely nasty, this aspect of life solely consisted of people surrendering their cards for inspection and then allowed on their way.

Along with the spot checks there was also a passing remark about traffic speed enforcement. Of course anyone who drives in or around London knows that, with all the congestion and continual road works, travelling at a virtual crawl is pretty much the only option anyway. Unless, of course, the plot requires a car chase or two, in which case the vehicles set off and nobody takes any notice.

That alone showed how The Last Enemy repeatedly undermined itself by inconsistencies and contradictions in plot and character. Stephen Ezard is initially presented as being anti-social and germ-phobic, with a little OCD on the side. Yet he’s happy to bang his new sister-in-law in an apartment that contains a sickly, dying stranger.

Later on his ex-girlfriend MP later gives him a sachet of handy wipes to use after he shakes hands with strangers. But if he was so Mr Monk, surely he’d carry his own around on his person. Since then the symptoms seem to have been completely forgotten altogether. While these disappearing quirks were pretty much all there was to define his character, at least they made him stand out slightly from the rest of the bland. After five episodes I can’t name any of the other characters.

There’s Robert Carlyle as a one time government-sanctioned assassin now off doing his own business, outside of official channels. Working from the safety of a gadget-filled metal cage inside an abandoned warehouse it’s obvious that he’s watched Enemy of the State during the time he relaxed between killings. He even got to blow it up, much like Gene Hackman’s Brill. As for the shady government types – one of whom just ate a bullet when he realized he might be in over his head – and the shady big business types who looked like they might be integral to the plot before effectively disappearing from view, they’re all pretty much of a muchness.

None of them are all that distinctive and it didn’t help matters that almost every one of the dozen-odd main characters were introduced in the first episode. Without being properly name-checked they appeared, did their piece, made virtually no impact at all, and then hung around in limbo until their presence was required again.

Compare that to the first episode of Edge of Darkness, say. There the audience is introduced to Craven, James Godbolt and Assistant Chief Constable Ross, then Emma, and finally Pendleton. There are also incidental characters like Jones, Craven’s colleague in West Yorkshire CID, their Chief Constable, Muntsey in the mortuary and Dingle from Scotland Yard, but that’s pretty much it.

Hardcourt, Darius Jedburgh, Terry Shields, Bennett, Clementine and Jerry Grogan don’t appear until the second episode or much later, allowing each of them to be clearly defined characters that play an important part in the unfolding narrative. Hell, even Shirley, the tea lady who gives Craven a ham sandwich before tearing up, makes more of an impact in one short scene then anyone in The Last Enemy.

It also didn’t help that the first episode ran close to 90 minutes long with a lot of chat about nothing, very little happening apart from a boom and a bang and a scientist getting shot. As well as the implementation of Total Information Awareness, The Last Enemy set up a secondary story thread about some deadly contagion and the unsolved murders of numerous microbiologists.

Obviously the two are inextricably linked, that’s the nature of the genre, but the way the narrative stumbled from one plot to the other and back again without any fluidity suggested two completely separate storylines at odds with each other. (It doesn’t help that Fields of Gold featured a subplot about unlicensed antibiotic drugs being administered to unsuspecting hospital patients).

Once it was established, at the end of the first episode no less, that the dead brother was in fact alive, it became apparent that, whatever convoluted machinations come into play, the drama was eventually going to be about two selfish siblings fighting over the same woman. Which means that ultimately The Last Enemy devolves into soap opera.

Maybe I missed something because there were times where I wasn’t giving it my undivided attention. Surely that’s the fault of the drama. It might all come together in a perfectly realised finale. Frankly I’m more excited that in the hour before its transmission BBC2 are repeating the Top Gear: Botswana Special.


At 5:00 pm, Blogger Jaded and Cynical said...

There are two reasons why I love this bog, GD.

Firstly, you're perceptive.

That alone showed how The Last Enemy repeatedly undermined itself by inconsistencies and contradictions in plot and character. Stephen Ezard is initially presented as being anti-social and germ-phobic, with a little OCD on the side. Yet he’s happy to bang his new sister-in-law in an apartment that contains a sickly, dying stranger.

That was precisely the point where the programme lost me.

The difference between introducing some plausible chemistry between the characters, and having them simply fuck each other, is the difference between smart, subtle writing and clumsy bullshit.

Credit to you for sticking with it on iPlayer. But, like so many viewers, I have 200 satellite channels, unlimited DVD rental and a cheap broadband connection. If it's not appointment TV, I'm not interested.

As for Edge of Darkness, like yourself, I watched it as a young teenager and can still vividly remember the genuine impact it had.

Which of today's dramas have any chance of standing the test of time?

The second reason this is such a great blog is that it's incredibly literate and well-written.

Thanks for putting in the effort, GD.

At 2:10 am, Blogger Becca said...

Interesting post you have here. Social phobia is not easy to overcome. But you can learn from www.whatcausespanicattacks.comabout simple prevention methods. Can be pretty handy.

At 11:17 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


Thanks fella. I stuck it through to the end, although I didn't see the point. Top Gear was good though.




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