Spooked by Sacher-Masoch

MI-5 (Spooks), Kudos, 2002-2011

By Peter Hulm

Spooks, MI-5 in the U.S., (2002-2011) gained notoriety in the U.K. by killing off a main female character in a grisly murder in its second programme.

This aroused the largest number of viewer complaints to the Broadasting Complaints Commission in 2002. Since then, the violent death or scandalous departure of leading characters has been a hallmark of MI-5's ten seasons.

The U.K.'s senior spy novelist John Le Carré described the series as crap. It has often been laughable, sometimes veering towards Charlie's Angels or The A-Team and relentlessly self-important.

At the same time, the first season gained an average of over seven million viewers per program, keeping five million and more of them in later years. It has counted as a critical and commercial success, with The Guardian devoting a weekly blog to its episodes, though it has failed four times to gain enough ratings in the U.S. to justify renewal.

The enemy without

Its U.S. failure might have be expected, given MI-5's consistent anti-Americanism, though created by a U.S.-born writer David Wolstencroft. And since Russian secret service thugs and Islamic terrorists are other items of its staple fare, it's not surprising that Wikipedia does not report sales to the Russian Federation or Muslim countries.

Its main Muslim character (2004-2007), Zafar Younis (Raza Jaffrey), dies after being abducted by a rogue gang of former secret service agents, but he is not depicted as devout and despises those who use their religion to justify terrorism. He disappears without the usual mournful orchestra strings to mark his passing.

It did have another "Arab"-Asian character in the team, Tariq Massoud (Shazad Latif, a British Pakistani who is also of English and Scottish descent). He was never allowed to develop any interesting traits before being bumped off.

He functioned like Data in Startrek, without even an attempt to build him a role or relationship (apart from office nerd) with other colleagues. Perhaps an unspoken sign of Coalition cutbacks, he suddenly starts going out on "field missions" without explanation before he is murdered.

I'm not counting the tragic story of a Pakistani intellectual who is forced into terrorism to protect his daughter. He acts almost like a child, and the concern in MI-5's D section is not so much to mourn him but to close around each other after the killing.

Masochistic paranoia

Read within its own narrow sense of Englishness, however, MI-5's paranoia towards foreigners is not straightforward racism.

As the series moves on across a decade, it does build a middle-class, professional (i.e. bureaucratic) ideal of something close to a family, to which Tariq certainly does not belong. At one point he complains that in contrast to others in the team, he has had to fight all the way to make his mark in the culture. It is one of the few occasions in which he has anything to say that does not relate to his surveillance work.

The paranoia is, if anything, masochistic. The series projects an image of the U.K. as a small, declining nation whose options are disgusting cooperation with brutal former (and potential) enemies or subservience to an equally indifferent United States.

At the same time, its vulnerability and openness leaves it prey to all kinds of extremists.

You may find somewhat disgusting this picture of a Britain whose democratic freedoms (largely eroded in this century) are treated as leaving it open to threat from dissidents at home and violence from abroad. It hardly matches the recorded situation we know from the newspapers. The real record of official abuse of prisoner and suspect rights should make any self-respecting libertarian red with shame.