The absence of Jack Bauer has made this the longest television season of Appellate Judge James A. Stewart's life, but he'll accept a decent substitute.
Our reviews of MI-5: Volume 9 (published July 6th, 2011), MI-5: Volume 10 (published March 12th, 2012), MI-5: Volume 1 (published February 12th, 2004), and MI-5: Volume 2 (published March 2nd, 2005) are also available.
"We are officers of the state. We do not make moral or political judgments. We do not play God."
Remember MI-5 (known in England as Spooks)? Early seasons of the BBC spy series were seen on A&E. After low ratings knocked it off A&E's schedule, the show gravitated to BBC America. I'd watched the first couple of seasons, but irregular scheduling chased me away.
MI-5 is the British agency that handles domestic security threats, something like our Homeland Security (and television's CTU). However, if you've read a few spy novels, you know that it's got a longer, more storied history.
With 24, one of TV's most addictive dramas, on an extended break, it's time to take a look at MI-5: Volume 5. Can it provide an espionage action fix to tide viewers over till Jack Bauer's return?
Facts of the Case
"There's no petrol, the supermarkets are running out of food, we're being attacked by terrorists, and where's the Prime Minister? He's on bloody holiday, probably," an angry citizen tells a TV reporter as Series Five begins.
Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones, Match Point) is back at MI-5 after taking a "high-velocity bullet" at the end of Series Four. Right away, he's thrust into action, thanks to some mysterious poisonings, the shooting of a member of Parliament, and the possibility of a mid-air plane collision over London. It's a coup d'etat in the making, and MI-5 leader Harry (Peter Firth, Amistad) finds himself detained. By the end of the first part of the opening two-parter, you might be expecting some Guy in a Fawkes mask to wander in; you would be wrong, though.
As the season continues, MI-5 spies go undercover in a terrorist cell, learn of an assassination plot at an Africa summit, investigate a suspicious fire at a prison, deal with a hostage situation at the Saudi trade center, battle Christian fundamentalist assassins, protect witnesses in a war crimes trial, and stop a plot to flood London. Meanwhile, Adam deals with some traumatic memories, and the course of true love has a few bumps for Harry.
They also greet a new MI-5 team member and say goodbye to three others as Series Five continues.
In his review of State of Play, Judge Adam Arseneau remarked on the 24 tendencies in recent British action dramas. Those tendencies seem to have made their first appearance across the pond in MI-5. If you're looking for split screens, MI-5 has 'em. Heck, if you're looking for a hero dealing with the violent death of his wife, a shock Jack Bauer faced at the end of his first season, MI-5 has one of those, in the person of troubled Adam Carter.
MI-5 is a fast-moving, action-packed adventure series. The production team makes sure you know it, too, with shots that zoom in on the action from a distance, camera angles that come at you every which way, a lot of fast talk and overlapping dialogue, quick cuts, loud music, and those split screens. Just to make really sure the message comes across, the sky above London is always stormy when something's about to happen. Ominous, isn't it?
Abuses of power seem to be the theme running through Series Five. The coup attempt in the opening two-parter doesn't end MI-5's troubles with government cover-ups and amoral decisions. Of course, deciding what's right proves difficult, as every piece of new information changes the situation drastically. That's best exemplified in Episode 5.4, which seems inspired by John LeCarre's The Mission Song as it follows MI-5 on a surveillance mission to guarantee the signing of a treaty to help African farmers. At first, the spies are upset with American attempts to block the treaty, but by the end of the episode, they have their own objections. The ending shows the spies breaking their rules and making a moral choice. Since it's TV, they're right, of course, but it cuts too close to the shady stuff they're fighting in many of the other stories, and real life wouldn't give them justification in such a neat package. Still, it's an interesting examination of the morality—and uncertainty—of the spy game.
The most interesting thing about Series Five was a new character played by Hermione Norris (Wire in the Blood). I'm trying not to say too much about the characters, because I don't want to give away too much, but if you don't check IMDb, this one should be safe (the show doesn't name actors in the openings and closings).
The production's slick and showy, and the transfer does both the sights and the sounds justice.
The two commentaries, each of which teams a writer with a production team member, offer insight into the plotting of an action series and a look at the ways they create big action on a relatively small budget. They also point, less intentionally, to the fact that MI-5 is a writers' and directors' series rather than an actors' series.
The two behind-the-scenes featurettes, one on Series Five and one on Series Six, offer little in the way of actual information, even though one has a spoiler alert. Pointlessly, there's also a Series Five DVD release trailer—on the Series Five DVD release. Huh?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While MI-5 has a different plot every week, the character stories progress in serial fashion. While it's not essential, viewers might want to start at the beginning (or wherever they left off).
It also might be nice to have a "who's who" booklet so you can keep track of the characters. One 24 touch MI-5 doesn't replicate is that neat opening with the characters' back stories and motivations neatly outlined.
The slam-bang action doesn't leave as much room for character study as viewers might wish, but MI-5 has its thoughtful moments nonetheless. That's daring for the writers, since anyone really thinking might wonder what the difference is between MI-5 and some of the internal plotters the team fights, but it adds another dimension to the drama.
You won't quite forget about Jack, Chloe, and Tony, but if you like 24, you'll probably enjoy MI-5. It puts too much emphasis on style at times, but there's substance there as well. Power-watchers also should take note, because it's easy to get hooked on this one.
Is this set a good place to start? You might want to sample earlier seasons, but Series Five has one advantage: the last episode's action plot resolves itself neatly (although the spies' personal lives will probably never be pieced back together).
MI-5: Volume 5 is cleared of all charges, except conspiracy to
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Series 5 Cast Interviews
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