Our reviews of MI-5: Volume 5 (published March 12th, 2008), MI-5: Volume 9 (published July 6th, 2011), MI-5: Volume 10 (published March 12th, 2012), and MI-5: Volume 2 (published March 2nd, 2005) are also available.
They search for the truth. Their lives are a lie.
A BBC-produced import from across the pond, MI-5 (known as Spooks in the U.K., but retitled for American audiences for reasons of political correctness) takes its place alongside the adventures of James Bond and George Smiley in the proud tradition of British spy dramas.
Facts of the Case
Set in the national security agency of the title (MI-5 is Britain's equivalent to our FBI), MI-5 follows the adventures of a team of counter-terrorism agents as they battle the forces of evil in an unending covert war. The cast of characters is led by Tom Quinn (Matthew MacFadyen), a dour young man with the demeanor of someone bearing the weight of the world. Tom's life is a constant conflict between the demands of his job and the needs of his girlfriend Ellie (Esther Hall) and her daughter Maisie (Heather Cave), from whom Tom hides his true identity.
Backing Tom up are eager neophyte agents Zoe Reynolds (Keeley Hawes), an analyst who gets pulled into the occasional undercover assignment; Danny Hunter (David Oyelowo), a bright but overanxious surveillance expert; and fresh-faced new recruit Helen Flynn (Lisa Faulkner). Rounding out the main cast are veteran character actors Jenny Agutter (of Logan's Run fame) as cynical, morally ambiguous section head Tessa Phillips; and Peter Firth (The Hunt for Red October) as Harry Pearce, Tom's boss.
MI-5: Volume 1 collects all six episodes of the show's first season, in their original, uncut versions (episodes airing in the U.S. on A&E are trimmed significantly), spread across three discs:
"Thou Shalt Not Kill": MI-5 investigates the disappearance of 20 bombs in Liverpool; meanwhile, an infamous American pro-life extremist is loose in the countryside. Adding to Tom's worries is a budding romance with a woman he met during an undercover job.
"Looking After Our Own": Tom and Helen go undercover to root out a man suspected of provoking race riots throughout the country. What looks to be a slam-dunk operation becomes complicated when the suspect turns out to be far cannier than expected.
"One Last Dance": Zoe is inadvertantly caught in the Turkish embassy when it's taken over by Kurdish extremists, an incident that results in the uncovering of dark secrets from Tessa's past.
"Traitor's Gate": A legendary agent, Peter Salter (played by Buffy's Anthony Stewart Head), comes in from the cold after an undercover assignment in an anarchist group goes awry. Has Salter gone native? MI-5 must find out before tragedy strikes.
"The Rose Bed Memoirs": When a disgraced former member of Parliament is released from prison, he reveals the existence of a memoir he wrote in prison that contains damaging revelations about a prominent minister. But is the document for real?
"Lesser of Two Evils": An infamous Irish terrorist surfaces with information about an impending attack, and the team must decide if he can be trusted—and if his information is worth the steep price.
In a world living as never before in the shadow of terrorism, intelligence agencies have been thrust into the spotlight as their activities have taken on a frightening relevance. Although MI-5 (which began airing in May of 2002 and is about to enter its third season) was conceived prior to September 11th, 2001, the events of 9/11 profoundly shaped the tone and direction of its development.
The result is similar to Fox's counter-terrorism series 24, down to that show's stylistic gimmicks (such as the use of split-screens and extreme angles), frantic pacing, and glossy sheen. But MI-5 goes further in presenting an unvarnished glimpse into the front lines of the war against terrorism, venturing into territory that American television would never approach. It's unlikely, for instance, that a domestic show would talk frankly about an assassination attempt against President Bush; and most American thrillers prefer to play it safe by utilizing fictional terrorist groups of indeterminate nationality rather than name-dropping Al-Qaeda or the IRA. This firm grounding in the real world lends MI-5 a realism and immediacy that flashier shows like Alias can't match.
Unflinching candor is the guiding philosophy of MI-5, and moral ambiguity the order of the day. Agents don't always do the right thing, and their actions sometimes lead to tragedy for innocents caught between them and the bad guys. Any sense of conventionality in MI-5 is swiftly dismissed with the second episode; to discuss it in any detail would diminish its impact, but suffice it to say that the resolution of this story is as brutally shocking as anything I've seen in years. Series TV rarely gets this raw.
Performances are generally excellent, with Jenny Agutter and Keeley Hawes particularly effective in two of the series' more complex, shaded roles. MI-5 also has a knack for casting distinctive, memorable guest stars, many of whom (like Anthony Stewart Head as a character very unlike Giles) will be familiar to American viewers. My favorite MI-5 actor, though, is Hugh Laurie (Stuart Little, Sense and Sensibility) as Jools Siviter, the hilariously arrogant and condescending chief of MI-6 (MI-5's "big sister" agency). Jools is such an over-the-top character that the realism of the show suffers, but it's worth it.
The creators of MI-5 are blissfully unconcerned with audience expectations; if you're as tired as I am of shows that punch the well-worn reset button at the end of every episode and only besiege their characters with life-altering events during "very special" sweeps-week stunts, you'll love the way MI-5 regularly and casually pulls the rug out from under your feet, with constant twists and turns that make it impossible to predict where the story's going to go. It's disorienting at times, and the show's fast pace and rapid-fire dialogue can leave a viewer grasping for the rewind button on the remote, but that unpredictability is a welcome change of pace from the kind of show where you can guess the entire plot of an episode from its opening act.
MI-5: Volume 1 is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, transferred from 16mm film, and image quality is generally good, if a little soft and grainy. I didn't notice any significant compression artifacts, though the nature of the source makes some image noise inevitable during darker scenes. Colors are vivid and lush, serving the show's slick, high-tech aesthetic quite well. Overall, the show looks fine, and shouldn't disappoint fans of the original broadcasts.
Audio, in the form of Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo tracks, is excellent, clear, and bright; the 5.1 track is of course superior, packing a muscular punch even if the surround channels are used mostly for ambient sounds or the occasional gunshot or explosion. Dialogue is clearly reproduced—though that doesn't mean it's necessarily understandable, given the rapid pace of conversations, an unfortunate tendency of certain actors to mumble, and occasionally thick accents that had this Yank more than once availing himself of the English subtitles (proving once again that the US and Britain are indeed two countries separated by a common tongue).
MI-5: Volume 1 comes loaded with extra features. All six episodes offer audio commentaries with various members of the cast and crew, and all are worth a listen, though some of the commentators do come across as a bit awkward and dry. Equally informative—but a trifle droning—are the interviews spread across the three discs, featuring actors MacFadyen, Hawes, Firth, Oyelowo, and Agutter, as well as various producers, editors, and writers (most prominently series creator David Wolstencroft). Something I've noticed while watching interviews included on DVDs of British titles is that Brits must have much longer attention spans than average Americans; the interviews tend to be lengthy, minimally edited blocks of monologue, and when the interviewee is subdued and soft-spoken, as many of the participants on these discs are, the result can be a little trying for viewers used to the jazzier pace of American P.R. fluff.
Each disc also includes several featurettes, covering aspects of the show's development and production, as well as profiles of the main characters. (Of note is a five-minute segment entitled "The Terror Question" that examines the influence of 9/11 and heightened awareness of terrorism on MI-5.) You'll also find text-based character bios (usually leading into featurettes), deleted scenes, image galleries, and DVD-ROM content (scripts, wallpapers, and web links); and on Disc Two, a glossary of spy terminology. Finally, there's a "Secret Credits" feature on each disc that serves up cast and crew credits, which, for some odd reason, are omitted from the episodes themselves. This is a more than substantial set of supplements that will keep you busy for hours (though much of that time will be spent hunting these things down).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
MI-5's habit of sprinting off the line and directly into high gear, giving only glancing attention to explanations of the situation at hand, can be forbidding to viewers who prefer a little expository foreplay before the action kicks in. At times it takes the entire length of an episode to figure out precisely what's going on. While that frenetic pace makes for challenging viewing, it might prevent the show from reaching a broader audience. But the tough sledding pays off magnificently if you're willing to hang on for the ride.
While unpredictability and inscrutability are usually good things when it comes to drama, they're very, very bad things when it comes to DVD menus. In an attempt to reflect the "spy" theme of the series in its navigation, the menus are designed in the most annoying manner I have seen to date. Upon loading the discs, you're presented with a tableau of a darkened room and an office desk with items like a telephone, a stack of DVDs, and files arranged across it. Nothing is labeled, and few of the items can be associated by common sense with their function. The telephone leads to a list of language options: why? The DVDs lead to a list of episode titles, some of which link to episodes, others of which do nothing at all. Again: why? An offscreen voice chimes in to explain what everything is, but that's obviously useless to a hearing-impaired viewer or one who misses the info because they're too busy raging at the atrocious usability. This menu isn't just user-unfriendly, it's downright user-hostile.
This is solid, gripping entertainment that pulls few punches. While it's a little talkier and more reliant on suspense and mystery than trigger-happy American action shows, MI-5 should please any fan of cloak-and-dagger antics.
MI-5: Volume 1 is to be escorted immediately to a safe house, and all record of its existence will be expunged from official records. In fact, you didn't even read this review.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Audio Commentaries with Cast and Crew on All Episodes
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