Just for a change, here's a television mystery. Why are lots of really good actors (Benedict Cumberbatch, Geraldine James and David Harewood, to name just three) performing in this terrible load of old tosh on BBC1? I have to admit a low tolerance for TV drama as presently constituted, with or without crinolines, and I am totally allergic to all forms of soap/cops/docs with the possible exception of Inspector Morse. I admire Paul Abbott and enjoyed his State of Play, but I am otherwise not very keen on thrillers. I only watched the first episode of this one because it's about the growth of the database state, the loss of privacy and our slide into all-round surveillance, a subject I also researched a year or two ago and turned into a TV treatment. When the answer came back from an independent production company that they were very sorry, but they had heard on the grapevine that the BBC had already commissioned something very similar, I have to admit I wasn't totally surprised, as the subject matter was so compelling. But I was curious to find out what kind of drama the one that pipped mine to the post would be. Well, The Last Enemy's writer Peter Berry and I both wanted to tell a story set a year or two in the future, with lots of people calling up personal profiles on computer screens, so technically we shared some common ground. But my drama would have been more of an Ealing comedy than a thriller, about a government minister who is put in charge of 60 million identities and then loses his own, ending up as a non-person. I was thinking of something that might be a successor to the wonderfully anti-authoritarian Passport to Pimlico, in which the residents defy the men from Whitehall and tear up their hated identity cards.
The problem with The Last Enemy is that the characters are flat as cardboard, the plot is fiendishly complicated and totally implausible and the whole thing seems to be inspired not by the real world or real people but by other television dramas. It's hugely derivative and totally humourless. Cumberbatch plays a mathematician who has spent the last five years in seclusion in China working out his theorems. He's nerdy, almost an Asperger's case, washes his hands obsessively, and blinks in confusion on his sudden return to London for the funeral of his brother, an aid worker blown up by a landmine near the Afghan border. But his nerdiness and inability to relate to other people doesn't stop him instantly bedding his brother's shapely widow, a Bosnian doctor of whose existence he was previously unaware. Robert Carlyle plays a pantomime villain who slips in and out of shot, there's a blonde bombshell ex-girlfriend who has mysteriously become a government minister (don't laugh), there are strange ailments floating around in the ether, disappearing bodies and people tracking other people on handheld devices. The technology on display is completely plausible, but the people aren't and neither is the plot. By a strange set of jaw-dropping coincidences, the mathematician is invited into the heart of the government's sinister database project, known as TIA (Total Information Awareness) and given a computer in the basement from which he can call up personal profiles on all of us. In two shakes of a duck's tail, the nerdy mathematician is taking part in top-level Whitehall committees and summarising the threat posed by the all-powerful database state in lucid terms which make a nonsense of his bumbling, stumbling character. None of it adds up. One might argue that Doctor Who, Pennies from Heaven and Father Ted aren't realistic either, but all these three have a certain coherence and plausibility that The Last Enemy lacks. It's a pity, because the theme of surveillance and privacy is a really important one. Peter Berry has researched the biometrical gizmos for his script, but he just hasn't got a clue how politics works in Whitehall and Westminster, or how to create convincing characters. It's a real shame to realise that everyone in BBC television drama (which once used to put on work by Pinter, Bennett and Stoppard) no doubt thinks this programme is really landmark television.