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Review

The eyes have it

The Last Enemy on BBC1

Bill Hanage 23 March 2008

www.lablit.com/article/364

Under scrutiny: a near-future dystopian drama

This plot set-up, rather than suspending disbelief, seems determined to dress disbelief in lead underpants and drop it over the Grand Canyon

How silly is The Last Enemy, BBC1’s latest contribution to the emerging genre of surveillance thriller?

Very silly indeed. Imagine a government trying to push through sweeping new surveillance powers in the face of considerable public scepticism and against a backdrop of sporadic bloody terrorist violence. C’mon, it shouldn’t be that hard. How would you try to sell this to the voters? How about the idea of getting a public face for the idea, someone to push it on the 6 o'clock news? Brilliant! Who shall we pick? I know, how about a reclusive mathematician who owns only three sets of identical clothes and has been living out of the country for years? Genius! But wait, we can go one better: a reclusive mathematician who owns only three sets of identical clothes and has been living out of the country for years, and happens to be the brother of a mysterious subversive we just had to off in a ‘landmine accident’. This gets better and better.

The plot set-up, rather than suspending disbelief, seems determined to dress disbelief in lead underpants and drop it over the Grand Canyon. And to be frank, it just gets increasingly unbelievable as the story unravels, bringing in as it does so backstreet autopsies, a young and highly attractive home secretary (who happens to be an ex-girlfriend of our mathematician hero), and Robert Carlyle as a man of mystery. Carlyle is such a good actor with such a range of regional accents under his belt that it is quite nice to hear his original Scottish tones. Unfortunately, it kept reminding me of his previous Sunday night incarnation as cuddly west coast cop Hamish MacBeth, and his character was hence Hamish Macbeth gone bad and with a new profitable line in ‘wet jobs’ (that’s secret squirrel speak for ‘assassination’ in case you were wondering).

The 'lab lit' interest is not limited to Steven Ezard, the central mathematician character, but draws in mysterious epidemics, a whiff of nanotechnology and a marked plunge in the life expectancy of infectious disease specialists. These are, however, mostly window dressing. The real plot involves the introduction of TIA – Total Information Awareness and the resulting pervasive surveillance. Everywhere and everyone, it seems, is constantly filmed. The footage so obtained is, for some reason, predominantly viewed over mobile phones. It also inexplicably lapses, such that Ezard and his sister-in-law can wander across London clad only in disposable bright blue boiler suits and not be noticed by the CCTV cameras which litter the streets. Did I mention that Ezard and said sister-in-law get down and dirty mere moments after he discovers her existence upon returning from her husband’s funeral? Let’s take those lead underpants and replace them with plutonium ones. For all that Ezard is a caricature, he is at least no more of one than most of the other characters. And he does get to be the romantic lead. He is played, rather well, by Benedict Cumberbatch (whose name, incidentally, would not sound out of place in a Dickens novel).

For all that we are told Ezard is a genius, for example the youngest ever Fields medallist (hmm, I wonder if the Home Office have thought of employing Tim Gowers?), he doesn’t actually do much maths. Mostly he sits in front of computers running the sorts of programs which TV shows make computers run. You know, the kind where instead of just displaying “Searching Database”, the screen flickers with the images and details of the things in the database being searched. The one exception occurs in the first episode, where he finds his work being dumbed down for a corporate sponsor and reacts with magnificent dudgeon: “It’s not ‘like music’, it’s mathematics”.

I must confess that I am still not sure what was going on in the overall story. While there are some fairly big twists towards the end, I am pretty certain they don’t explain all that went on before. But this is to miss the point. The Last Enemy is in many ways preposterous, but its vision of the near future is shockingly believable. On the day the last episode was broadcast on terrestrial TV, the news in the UK was full of plans to collect DNA samples from children deemed to be at high risk of becoming criminals later in life. Barely a week passes without proposals for further intrusions into our privacy. The peculiar consequence is that, on balance, The Last Enemy seems more believable than not. It frightens me what this means for the world that we actually live in. Watch this space. If you don’t, there are thousands of eyes that will.