When is the time to let TV go?
Some shows run out the clock, reaching their natural conclusion, however unsatisfactorily (see: Lost). Others are wrenched away from us before they seem to achieve their full potential (see: Firefly). Some, though, have that procedural element which allows them to run more or less forever, in one form or another.
One such procedural was Spooks — tagline “MI-5, Not 9-to-5” — a workaday spy drama that, during its ten year run, killed off more leading characters than EastEnders. The show’s only enduring constant was Harry Pearce, the crusty but amiable head of Counter Terrorism, played by Peter Firth. His presence in Spooks: The Greater Good is the only immediate selling point.
After a high-profile terrorist is broken out of MI-5 custody, Harry is left in disgrace. A complex, layered title sequence comprised of overlaying acetates and snatches of conversation implies that he has gone to ground. When Harry’s own operations begin to interfere with the service’s, his former protege, Will Holloway, is dragged in to track him down.
If that sounds formulaic, it’s certainly in-keeping with the show’s ethos. Spooks was never hugely groundbreaking in what it did with the spy genre so much as how it did it. The feature format, however, is not ideal in this regard. Unlike with six to ten episodes, there’s no room to develop characters amidst the machinations of the plot. Simply put, things get lost.
Will Holloway, for instance, has the makings of a classic TV spy; a young but talented washout who has an issue with authority figures and some unresolved daddy issues. Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington brings gruff RP and simmering charisma to the role — not weighed down by the accent of Jon “Snoo” —but the character isn’t given the room to breathe.
Harry’s search for a mole in MI-5 certainly provides a reason to put the old war dog out in the field, such as the show rarely did, but the Cold War spycraft on display feel a bit underwhelming in the context of a feature. Firth is both stoic and pugnacious, just as he was four years prior, but Greater Good never capitaliszs on the character’s inherent sense of loss.
Bharat Nalluri is an able enough director — he directed several of the show’s early episodes — but never succeeds in making it feel like more than just a feature-length episode. Scenes set at Heathrow and London Bridge, meanwhile, simply reinforce the limitations of the budget. In a genre characterized by fistfights, jet-setting, and shootouts, Spooks: The Greater Good can barely manage a punch up in an apartment corridor, a day trip to Berlin, and a sniper on the roof of the National Theater.
Like the recent London-bound series of 24, the film might as well be called Spooks: European Co-production. It also never fully embraces the mythology of the show that preceded it; even Matthew Macfayden gets left out in the cold.
Amidst the terrorist threat — Elyes Gabel plays your run-of-the-mill empathetic bad guy; mole hunt — less Tinker, Tailor than MacGuffin; and a notable lack of interesting female figures — Jennifer Ehle and Eleanor Matsuura get roughly one character note each; there’s a single ray of light. Returning show antagonist Tim McInnerny seems to have a wonderful time as the delectably slimy Oliver Mace, an adversarial bureaucrat with a smug yet menacing smirk. Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent’s script even gifts him a little monologue that is simultaneously spiteful and self-sacrificing.
Ultimately, though, the film is best characterized by Will’s philosophy about the service, that “You can either do well or do good”. Unable to do either — to do real service to either the characters or the genre — Spooks: The Greater Good ends up just so-so, disposable. Perhaps it were better left alone.