In the wake of September 11, people have taken a noticeably greater interest in matters such as espionage, security and international diplomacy. It was surely a stroke of luck for the BBC, less than a year after the events of September 11, that they were able to pick up the rights to a spy-based drama ambiguously known as Spooks. Having recently completed its second season of ten episodes on BBC1, now seems like a good time to revisit the recent DVD release of the first six-part season.
Spooks is an independently-produced television programme from a company known as Kudos Productions, who were previously known for a Channel 4 drama based in a mental hospital called Psychos. In fact, Spooks was originally planned to be transmitted by Channel 4, although in a radically different format ("Teachers, but spies", according to one of the producers).
The show centres around the life of MI5 spy Tom Quinn (Matthew MacFayden), who leads several different lives while attempting to handle a rocky relationship with girlfriend Ellie (Esther Hall) who thinks he is a computer consultant named Matthew Archer. Each of the six episodes features a different storyline, although Tom's private life continues throughout the episodes as a standard soap opera element. It works well for the most part, although Ellie is irritatingly weepy, and she has in tow a daughter who could be perhaps the most annoying child on the face of the planet.
The show is far more successful when it deals with the various threats to national security that the spies (the "Spooks" of the title) have to deal with. Thankfully they make up the majority of the running time. These range from particularly ruthless anti-abortion activists to extreme right-wing nationalists to rogue agents. The variety of threats facing the Spooks is one of the show's greatest strengths, as is the ability of the writers to create intriguing plot twists that genuinely surprise the audience. By far the most memorable of these comes in the second episode, and to say any more would completely destroy its effect for those who have yet to see it. The production values also seem to be quite high, which is surprising given that this show was broadcast (and ultimately financed) on the notoriously conservative BBC1.
Unfortunately, Spooks is somewhat flawed in its execution. It has a number of notable problems, not least the fact that the lead, Matthew MacFayden (Tom), is not a very good actor. He seems to be in some sort of contest with Keanu Reeves to see how long he can maintain the same lifeless facial expression. The supporting cast, however, are generally very good, particularly Keeley Hawes, who gives an excellent performance as spy Zoe Reynolds, and a hilariously exaggerated Hugh Laurie in the role of MI6 chief Jools Siviter.
Furthermore, despite the often inspired plot twists, there is some dreadfully clichéd dialogue on display, with the writers often resulting to having characters use the irritating "I protect my queen and my country" rhetoric. Another repeat offender is the use of characters asking for a definition of some MI5 jargon or device -- definitions that, logically, they should know already. While it is definitely necessary for viewers to be aware of what is going on, such information should not be conveyed in such an obvious way.
The portrayal of the various villains also tends to be highly stereotyped. Rarely are they portrayed as anything more than cardboard cut-outs, as if the writers don't dare to let us go inside their heads. This is very much a "goodies versus baddies" series. The most intriguing villain is the "spy gone bad" who appears in the fourth episode, played by Anthony Head (better known as Giles in Buffy the Vampire slayer). This is one of the rare occasions where a character is presented as a combination of good and bad, although any possible sympathy he might evoke is promptly smothered with lashings of the usual "betrayal of the state" rhetoric.
The show makes semi-frequent use of split-screen effects, and it often comes across as purely gratuitous, serving no real purpose. Here I must betray my ignorance in saying that I have yet to see a single episode of 24, but I am led to believe that it employs a similar device to far greater effect. In Spooks, the use of split-screen is often so pointless that the individual windows show exactly the same thing happening, with minimal differences in camera angle.
At the end of the day, though, Spooks is one of the better television programmes to come out of the UK in the last few years. That may not be saying much, but it makes a change from the usual weekday lineup, and it is a pleasure to see a show that not only has some intelligence behind but is also willing to take some risks. Overall, it's an enjoyable and well-made show that has a few shortcomings. Nobody's perfect.
Spooks is presented with anamorphic encoding in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Having previously seen a number of the episodes via analogue television with its cropped 14:9 aspect ratio, viewing Spooks in all its widescreen glory was a treat.
Given that this is a television show (and shot on 16mm film according to one of the commentaries), the results are outstanding. The image is a little soft and grainy at times, but it looks noticeably better than the original TV broadcasts, and boasts excellent colour and contrast.
Given that the six one-hour episodes are generously spread across three discs, there are unsurprisingly no visible compression artifacts.
It certainly doesn't look as good as the latest blockbusters do, but it is probably the best-looking transfer I've seen of a TV show.
The DVD features a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 audio tracks. Given that this is a TV show, the inclusion of a 5.1 track might seem a bit unusual. It is unclear whether or not this is a remix or whether the show was created in 5.1 right from the start, but the results are very good. Although it sounds slightly hollow, it boasts quite a lot of dynamic range considering its TV origins. This is definitely a very front-oriented mix, with the rear speakers silent most of the time, only kicking in for music and the odd explosion. It certainly is not immediately noticeable unless you are actively listening for it, but overall it sounds more enveloping and natural than the 2.0 track.
Unfortunately, there are no subtitles of any kind.
All in all, Contender has done an excellent job transferring Spooks to DVD. The audio/visual presentation is noticeably superior to that of the original TV broadcasts, making this a worthwhile purchase even for people who previously made high-quality digital recordings.
Now, here's my rub with this DVD. The menus are exquisitely designed, very nicely tied into the espionage theme of the series. However, they are so intricate and "realistic" that they are virtually impossible to navigate successfully. The transitions are over-long but are at least skippable; however, the greatest problem is the fact that none of the menu options are labeled. The whole thing is set out like an office desk with various objects such as sound tapes, files and a telephone scattered across it. Each item selects a different option, but because they are not labeled you have to guess what they do. Some are relatively sensible: for example, a stack of CD-Rs selects episodes. Others, though, are downright obscure, such as a telephone being used to switch between 2.0 and 5.1 audio tracks.
This feels really hard to say, because a great deal of care and effort has obviously been put into the creation of these menus, but (not to put too fine a point on it) they suck when it comes to user-friendliness.
The packaging for this release is exquisitely designed, with a fold-out cardboard digipack containing the three discs, and a transparent outer sleeve holding it shut. The artwork is simple yet striking. It's just a shame that no real documentation is provided. Fox's DVD release of The Simpsons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, include booklets listing each episode along with writer and director credits, but none of that is found here. With only six episodes, this is not too much of a problem, but some documentation of some sort would have been appreciated.
On to the special features. Contender has crafted a nice array of bonus material for this release, but due to the inhospitable menu design it's a matter of hunting them down. They are spread across the three discs and the majority of them can be found by selecting the stack of files on the desk on the main menu.
Commentary - Each episode features commentary from various people who were involved with Spooks: usually the episode's writer and director, producer Simon Crawford Collins, and one of the actors. The commentaries are for the most part dry but informative. The participants don't always seem to quite know what to say, but generally manage to keep the conversation going. Unfortunately, the commentary on Episode 3 can be a little hard-going unless you are willing to exert some patience. One of the commentators is actor Keeley Hawes (Zoe), and she spends most of the commentary giggling at just about everything. She comes across as drunk (or perhaps she's just a very hyperactive lady), and is does wear on one's nerves after a while. By and large, though, the commentaries are reasonably good.
Interviews - Various interviews are dotted throughout the three discs, with participants including actors Matthew MacFayden, Keeley Hawes (who continues her giggling act here as well), David Oyelowo, Peter Firth and Jenny Agutter, producers Simon Crawford Collins, Jane Featherstone and Stephen Garrett, editor Colin Green, director Bharat Nalluri and writer/creator David Wolstencroft. All of these interviews are interesting, covering various subjects such as how the actors got into the business and the purpose of the various characters. By far the most interesting of these interviews is "The Origins of Spooks", located on Disc 1, which features the three producers discussing how the show came about.
Most of the interviews are carried out in a fairly formal, dry style, without too many clips from the show interrupting the proceedings. However, in a number of the interviews, the names of the participants are not displayed. While this is not a problem for the actors, it seems a little sloppy and is slightly confusing in the afforementioned "The Origins of Spooks" feature, where three people are featured without any form of identification.
The Look of Spooks - This featurette is comprised of various cast and crew members discussing the influences on the visual aspect of the series. Most of them seem to agree that its look is far more American than most UK-produced television shows. It's clear that everyone involved wanted to create a visually striking programme from the outset, and they would appear to have succeeded.
The Terror Question - Various crew members discuss the impact of September 11 on the show and the way it was perceived. We learn that four scripts had been written before the attacks, and although they ended up not being changed too much there was initially talk of not going ahead with the show. Evidently, the attacks were ironically something of a bonus as far as the show's success was concerned, given that ordinary people became more interested in security as a result of September 11.
Deleted scenes - Deleted scenes are found on all three discs, and they seem mostly to be filler material that was cut simply because of time contraints.
Secret credits - Bizarrely, Spooks has no on-screen credits apart from the title of the series and logos for Kudos and the BBC, along with a URL directing viewers to the web site. As part of a ploy to make the show seem more "mysterious", the credits were instead relegated to the web site. They are presented on the DVDs in text format. This is frankly quite bizarre, and it makes me wonder how the people involved in the series feel about the fact that they are essentially not receiving any credit for their work.
Galleries - On each disc, there is a collection of promotional photographs (mainly the actors posing for the camera), worth flicking through once but not of much use beyond that.
Character biographies - Text-based biographies of most of the main characters are provided, spread across the three discs.
MI5 terminology explained - This text-based feature is a glossary of terms used by MI5.
Scripts (DVD-ROM) - Scripts for each episode are provided in Adobe PDF format, and generally they do not differ substantially from the finished show. Two wallpaper images in various resolutions are also included on each disc.
Spooks may not be perfect, but it is an imaginative and intriguing series, and this DVD release certainly does it justice. It offers more in-depth bonus material than most releases of television shows, and despite its highly exasperating menu design, it is well worth the purchase. Hopefully by the time it comes for Season Two to be released on DVD, the designers will have created a better menu system.