There are a lot of classic spy series on television. But when it comes to a consistent level of full-on thrills, you’re not going to top Spooks. For over a decade it served up a steady stream of sinister threats, jaw-dropping twists, and “I can’t believe they just did that” moments without once taking the foot off the accelerator. Each episode made sure to deliver at least one scene that guaranteed you’d be back for the next, but if we listed eighty-odd separate reasons why it’s a classic we’d be here all day. So we narrowed it down to just five.
There’s a great cast
In the first two seasons of Spooks, the team at Section D was headed up by steely section chief Tom Quinn (Matthew Macfadyen):
He was followed by the smouldering Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones):
Then finally the mysterious Lucas North (Richard Armitage – yes, the guy from The Hobbit) stepped into the job:
Clearly MI5 has some kind of “you must be this hot to lead this unit” requirement.
But while they were the pointy end of the spear (until their inevitable disillusionment with the system or murder of a co-worker or a shock reveal that they’re their own evil twin), it was often their underlings that had the really juicy subplots.
In the first few seasons it’s David Oyelowo’s Danny that often grabs the spotlight, thanks in part to his long-running unrequited relationship with co-spy Zoe (Keeley Hawes). Reliable (and reliably meek) data analyst Malcolm Wynn-Jones (High Simon) was a highlight of the office staff for much of the run, while a solid roster of field agents and analysts like Ros (Hermonie Norris), Jo (Miranda Raison) and Connie (Gemma Jones) were equally adept at chasing people across rooftops and handling briefings about global threats.
Above it all running MI5 is Sir Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), a boss whose grit, determination – and long term flirting with Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker) - provided a steady hand on the wheel across all ten seasons. Well, apart from that time everyone thought he’d murdered Princess Di.
There’s Big Name Guest Stars
It didn’t take long for Spooks to become known as the home of the high profile cameo, but it’s actors who were just starting out that really provided the star power early on. David Oyelowo we’ve already mentioned; a young Benedict Cumberbatch is another one to watch out for (he’s in the first episode of season two) as a government employee who makes the mistake of coming up on MI5’s radar.
Early seasons also feature Hugh Laurie as a stuffy MI6 chief, Andy Serkis as a rock star (named Riff), and Anthony Head as a double agent trying to save (or possibly kill) George Bush at the height of the Iraq War. Other highlights from the extensive list of often uncredited guest stars include Benedict Wong, Oona Chaplin, Iain Glenn, Alexander Siddig, Santiago Cabrera, and Ian McDiarmid (sadly not as Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars). Even Australia’s own Matt Day made a guest appearance.
There’s Topical Topics
Spooks has stayed remarkably fresh for a series conceived at the height of the War on Terror. That’s largely because the production team never met a terror organization or sinister conspiracy they didn’t like, so rather than a bland parade of generic Middle Eastern extremists, the team at Section D are up against everyone from Irish Terrorists (you didn’t think the IRA just packed their bags and went home) and environmental groups to home grown fascists looking to start a coup and rule the UK by committee. And while Al-Qaeda and Iran made inevitable appearances as bad guys, the Russians and the CIA were both reliably sinister, and Section D taking on white supremacists is a grim reminder that some evils are always with us.
But it doesn’t get more topical in 2020 than tackling a deadly virus: you’ll be wanting episode five in season two for that, as MI5 HQ (aka “The Grid”) is locked down following a viral outbreak that might be a training exercise, or might be the end of civilization as we know it. And if you think you can guess the outcome, guess again: this is Spooks, and if there’s one thing Spooks is known for its…
Big Twists You Won’t See Coming
It’s fair to say that Spooks only really had two main plots: the bad guys are out to do some terrorism in London, or the bad guys are looking to do something internationally sinister that involves a lot of running around in London. But there’s an awful lot you can do with those basic plots, and Spooks delivered just about everything possible (and occasionally impossible) to keep viewers nailed to their seats.
Shock twists and cliffhanger endings rapidly became a trademark, as Spooks established itself as a series unafraid to deliver plots that closely resembled roller-coasters put together by somebody unaware of how gravity works. Anyone could be taken hostage at any time; Chinese hit squads, coded messages, murderous ex-husbands, atomic bombs and exploding cars turned up in the most surprising places. But there’s only so much suspense you can wring out of shock twists and reveals. Eventually you’re going to have to follow through on the threats. Which was no problem at all, because if there’s one other thing Spooks is known for it’s that…
Anyone Could Die at (almost) Any Time
Let’s put it this way: this is a series that in its first few episodes killed off a main character by sticking their face in a chip fryer than shooting them in the back of the head. It was so shocking a moment that despite the late night time slot the BBC still received numerous complaints from horrified viewers.
After that all bets were most definitely off; the series had made a promise to viewers about the expendability of cast members that it was more than willing to back up. So while it’s safe to say MI5 chief Harry sticks around for all ten seasons, everyone else? It’s probably best to not get too attached. Spying is a dangerous game, after all.
Spooks seasons 1 - 10 are now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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