Written by: DAVID WOLSTENCROFT
Directed by: BHARAT NALLURI
To think it’s been close to fifteen years since Spooks–known as MI5 in the States–first aired. How time flies. It launched almost literally in the wake of 9/11, with creator David Wolstencroft turning in thirty different drafts of the pilot before the BBC green lit the series, keen for the opening story ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ to reflect the series’ edict of MI5 agents fighting terrorism on British soul, which of course even over a decade on sadly is as timely and relevant as it was back then (indeed in just one month Spooks, now gone from TV, launches into the cinematic universe for the first time). Wolstencroft doesn’t throw us headlong however into Taliban territory but rather starts with a universally thorny issue, that of militant anti-abortionists, which serves as a fairly straightforward story allowing him to nicely introduce the ensemble of spies, the ‘spooks’ of the title.
Arguably, our lead is Matthew MacFayden‘s Tom Quinn, and he’s almost archetypal; tall, dark, handsome, a proto-James Bond in looks but very quickly it becomes clear we’re in a far grittier, far more political and far less elegant world – plus Tom is hiding his espionage life from Ellie (played by Esther Hall), a single mother he’s romancing who are rapidly falling in love, even though she senses his secrecy – this immediately conveys the internal conflict of living a spy’s life and trying to have a normal relationship. Around him are, to a degree, younger free spirits – Zoe Reynolds, played by MacFayden’s real life wife Keeley Hawes; tomboyish, dedicated, but a bit all over the place in her personal life with living arrangements; and Danny Hunter, played by now Hollywood star David Oyelowo; he’s a rising star it seems, with confidence that may need tempering and enthusiasm to match. They’re an appealing trio with a natural rapport who work well together, overseen by series stalwart Peter Firth as Harry Pearce, a laconic, tough old spymaster who trusts Tom’s instincts and his belief in the team around him. As a main cast, they’re instantly likeable & quite immediately well characterised.
Their interactions are admittedly a little stronger than the plot, primarily set in Liverpool, which sees American pro-life activist Mary Kane (Lisa Eichhorn) arrive in the country with a lot of Semtex and a list of abortionist targets. Bharat Nalluri immediately gives Spooks a stylistic touch that would remain – an opening bombing uses slow-motion, while his camera uses split screen to convey the espionage ticks of the piece (which Nalluri swears wasn’t copied from 24, as they filmed this before that show was released). Wolstencroft’s script too gets right out the gates fast, not sparing the audience any exposition, forcing you to keep up as the team burst into action – it’s only really the mid-section where the piece takes a breath, the writer adding a layer of political complication over who gets to extradite Mary that speaks to the ‘special relationship’ between the UK & US that informs modern espionage; it’s nice to know that Spooks will tackle these underlying political issues alongside the moments of action.
In short then, a confident start for one of the BBC’s signature series of the last fifteen years. ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ doesn’t have the most exciting plot or interesting bad guys, but it does introduce strong main players, is written with a spry wit that keeps the narrative moving nicely, and establishes a series which isn’t afraid to balance gritty action with character moments and political undercurrents.
It feels almost American in execution, which is perhaps the biggest compliment to give.