Slow Horses

What’s The Show, JG? Slow Horses

What’s It All About? After screwing up a training mission, MI5 officer River Cartwright is kicked downstairs to the so-called Slow Horses of Slough House, a dumping ground for failed agents. This is a humiliation where instead of pretending to be James Bond, he’s stuck with tedious paperwork overseen by Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman!), his apparently-uncaring and uninterested boss. A British-Asian Muslim student is kidnapped by the Sons Of Albion – a right-wing fascist organisation – as a false-flag operation set up by Lamb’s boss, Diana Taverner (Kirsten Scott Thomas). MI5 have an inside man as part of the group but when one of the members goes rogue and executes the agent it’s a rush to find out where they’ve taken the student and rescue him before the Sons execute him. It’s down to the Slow Horses to come up with the answers as they go on the run to stop the fascist group and rescue the student.

Why Did You Give It A Go? The novel the series is based on, by Mick Herron, has a good reputation, so that’s a solid start, and really – how bad can a series boasting both Gary Oldman and Kirsten Scott Thomas be? Also the reviews have been very favourable and it’s been simply ages since there’s been a halfway decent TV thriller that was actually worth paying attention to (sorry, The Equalizer, that’s not you).

Is It Any Good? Yes. Yes it is. In fact, it’s great! Remember the show Spooks? Well, Slow Horses is basically that, but not quite with the top agents, and with Kirsten Scott Thomas playing the Harry role previously occupied by Peter Firth. They even have their own tech nerd, the appealingly unlikeable Roddy Ho, played with annoying intensity by Christopher Chung (who’s fantastic). Rogue agents, a mission gone awry, political stakes – the kidnapped student is the son of a Pakistani ambassador – and a hard-right fascist gang, all elements which have the potential to make for an explosive espionage thriller. And they do! There’s a huge sense of momentum to the series, and that helps a lot too. It’s incredibly addictive in that oh-stick-on-another-episode sort of way, and the plot moves like lightning. Yet it’s also clean and clearly written, so there aren’t a bunch of unnecessary hanging plot threads or things to get in the way of the story. It starts, it delivers six episodes of thrills, and it stops. That alone feels incredibly refreshing.

There’s plenty of time for slower moments, it’s not all-action-all-the-time, and a lot of the familiar tropes of espionage thrillers are in place here. There’s the boss whose apparently-foolproof plan goes awry. A late night meeting on a deserted bench, sharing information. Going on the run to escape oversight. An agent shot in the line of duty (kind of). All familiar beats, but all used in a way that really brings them to life. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything that qualifies as original here but then that’s not really the point. This is about using all the tools that a piece like this has to their very best advantage. They’re tropes of the genre, in other words, but even though they’re fairly obvious they also never feel like clichés.

At least part of that comes down to the performances. For the first couple of episodes it’s not entirely clear why Gary Oldman is in this – he’s great at playing the foul, uncaring Lamb but it’s not, you know, really a role that requires him. Then once things go south for Taverner’s operation and he needs to Sort Stuff Out it immediately becomes clear why he’s there. He simply inhabits the role with the sort of effortless ease you would expect from someone like Oldman, and the character is a repulsive delight. Even the sometimes-cheesy dialogue works coming from his mouth. “You really do care for them, don’t you?” asks Tarverner at the end of the aforementioned meeting on a deserted late-night bench. “They’re screw-ups,” replies Lamb, “but they’re my screw-ups.” Corny in the extreme? Absolutely, yet Oldman makes the whole thing work. Being opposite Thomas doesn’t exactly hurt either, and her role as an MI5 agent with balls of steel is one she completely inhabits too. She’s terrific, and such an asset to the series.

The rest of the cast are excellent too and indeed, this is an extremely well-cast show. Jack Lowden excels as the pretty-boy failure who nearly ended his career and only survived because his grandfather (a cameo from Jonathan Pryce, of all people) intervened. River is fairly straightforward as the “good guy” of the series but Lowden invests him with just the right amount frustration and derring-do to make the character work. His curiosity and his inability to just let things drop could, again, be a bit clichéd but he makes it work and is always a delight to watch. As the agent assigned to keep an eye on him, Olivia Cooke’s Sid Baker is a charming presence and they two have real chemistry together. Which makes her getting shot at the end of the second episode a real shock.

And that’s another thing that Slow Horses is really good at. It’s able to deploy shocks and dramatic twists without them feeling cheap or like a lazy way of ratcheting up the tension. In particular, it’s fantastically good at cliffhangers, which is what drives that “put on another one!” feeling. Sid getting shot felt genuinely dangerous and unnerving. The third episode ends with one of the Sons of Albion going rogue, grabbing and axe and swinging it… cue credits! Did he kill the student? Someone else? Go for the old axe-misses-by-a-few-centimeters saw? Arrgh! Put the next one on and let’s find out! The show really knows how to derive a compelling hook from its cliffhangers and how to use them to really ratchet up the tension. The scenes of slow, tense investigation dovetail fantastically into the frenetic drive towards the end credits and the structure of the show is one of its greatest successes.

How Many Of These Did You Watch? Well, I’ve seen about a bajillion espionage and thriller series’, but in this case all six episodes. And it’s worth re-emphasising how refreshing that episode run is. Six episodes, no pointless plot diversions or side stories, and the right amount of material for the actual number of episodes commissioned. Fan. Tastic.

Would You Recommend It? Oh very, very much so. Everything in this show just works and it’s just incredibly compelling. There’s a whole sub-plot running about a right-wing journalist, previously respected but now rather toxic, who just can’t leave well enough alone and who might (or might not) have information about the Sons Of Albion. The whole plotline investigating the character – Robert Hobden played with slimy, sleazy presence perfectly by Paul Hilton – is really rather wonderful. He’s never quite the major player he so clearly aches to be, he’s really more of an inconvenience, but he still just keeps getting in the way and so never quite becomes an irrelevancy. He’s a thorn in the flesh that feels real. He’s also got links to a repellant yah-yah Tory-type who apparently has designs on Number 10, though this isn’t much explored and presumably is ripe for further development in future seasons.

The other thing that makes this show work is just how convincing even the smallest of characters are. As the abducted British-Asian student, Antonio Aakeel doesn’t get a lot to do beyond looking absolutely shit-scared that he’s about to be beheaded by a bunch of fascist nutters, yet he excels in the role and is worthy of praise. All the remaining characters in Slough House, the other agents who all get stuck there for one reason or another, feel like real people and have stories and lives going on which sometimes are relevant to proceedings and sometimes not – but the “sometimes not” just makes them feel like actual people, with concerns that don’t just serve a plot function. Even the reasons they get stuck there are pleasingly different. River’s there because he screwed up and, fair enough, that’s simple to understand. But Roddy is there not because he isn’t good at his job – he is – but simply because he’s unbearably annoying. Dustin Demri-Burns’s Min Harper is there because he left a disc with top-secret information on it on a train. They all have different reasons, but they all feel right.

And that’s the thing. Every time there’s a call that Slow Horses needs to make, it makes the right one. Every. Time. It’s all incredibly convincing. The casting is fantastic. The story is great. It’s completely gripping. It’s covering a hot-button topic but not in a stupid, crass way (the latter seasons of Spooks could be especially guilty of this), but in one that simply informs the story and gets on with the business of telling it. It’s well produced – not obviously high-budget beyond the cast, but it doesn’t really need to be. The direction is across-the-board fantastic and really knows how to wring tension from every single shot. This is just a straight top-to-bottom great series. A second season has already been announced. I cannot wait.

Scores On The Doors? 9/10

Star Wars – Obi-Wan Kenobi

Ewan McGregor returns to the role of Obi-Wan for his the first small-screen outing in the role. But can the series live up to the character’s oversized reputation?

What’s the Show, JG? Obi-Wan Kenobi

What’s It All About? Well depending on how generous you’re feeling, it’s either about redeeming pretty much the lone good things from the Star Wars prequels (i.e. Ewan McGregor), or it’s yet another cynical ploy to wring yet more cash / subscriptions out of Star Wars fans by pandering to them with a big star returning to their old role but on the small screen. Either way, Obi-Wan is hiding out on Tatooine nominally watching over Luke Skywalker as he grows up. After Princess Leia – a precocious child with surprising parkour skillz – is abducted, Senator Jimmy Smits Bail Organa asks for Kenobi’s help to get her back. Meanwhile, there’s an Inquisitor on Obi-Wan’s tale, Third Sister Reva Sevander, who has set up the abduction and has her own agenda. After surviving the slaughter of the younglings at the hand of Anakin, she’s out for revenge and wants to kill Luke. The abduction of Leia is part of her absurdly daft and baroque plan to draw Kenobi out, but anyway, we get six episodes of escaping-from-planets, a few lightsaber battles along the way, and eventually Reva gets redemption, Kenobi finally accepts Anakin has gone for good and has subsumed into Darth Vader, and everything ends more or less where it began. Except for all those dead bodies, but oh well, omelettes, eggs, etc

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Strange New Worlds: Season 1, Episode 4 – “Memento Mori”

Let’s get the most obvious things out of the way first. Yes, as with the previous episodes of this series there is little here that could be called original. Yes, as with the previous episodes of this series, there’s a focus on a single character while giving the rest of the crew enough to do. Yes, as with previous episodes of this series, the question is whether the redux of familiar ingredients is enough to justify the existence of this episode. So… does it?

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Strange New Worlds: Season 1, Episode 3 – “Ghosts Of Illyria”

The whole “ban on genetic engineering” thing in the Federation has always seemed a bit… unthought out. Not in-universe, but metatextually. The logic of it is, “well, Khan was a super-evil dude, so maybe we shouldn’t do that.” And, fair enough, you can see the sense there, and for that being presented as the reason to avoid it. But also… to the point where other species can’t even be allowed in to the Federation? That seems a bit spurious — something which has been done for plot reasons rather than because anyone has sat down and gone, “well, do we really think the Federation would actually respond in this manner?”

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Strange New Worlds: Season 1, Episode 2 – “Children Of The Comet”

One of the most impressive things about Nichelle Nichols — among a great list of impressive things about Nichelle Nichols — is how she managed to do a huge amount with generally very little screen time. One of the the reasons that Uhura works as an actual character is because of what she invested in the role. She always went way above and beyond what what actually on the page, and in doing so brought her to life. Uhura developed into an easy-to-like character who had her own strengths and abilities far, far away from snide, ignorant jokes about how the only woman on the bridge of the original Enterprise was apparently a receptionist. 

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Strange New Worlds: Season 1, Episode 1 – “Strange New Worlds”

Star Trek is back for a 3rd 21st century show. But can Strange New Worlds succeed where Discovery and Picard have struggled? Welcome to an episode-by-episode review.

Star Trek, in all its various forms, has never really been away since The Motion Picture dragged the once-cancelled original TV from the syndication doldrums to the bright cinematic uplands of the silver screen. A series of six ridiculously successful movies (well, ridiculously success for a middlingly-liked but cancelled TV show at any rate) gave birth to The Next Generation. Then Deep Space Nine. Then Voyager. Then Enterprise. Alongside all that, there were the four Next Generation movies – noticeably less successful at the box-office than their TOS counterparts but keeping the flame alive nonetheless. Enterprise, ignominiously-if-deservedly cancelled in 2005, seemed to mark the end of one particular strand of the franchise, yet just four years of no-Star Trek lie between it at the show returning to the big screen with the sharp, expensive and alternative-timeline shenanigans of the 2009 movie. That’s spawned two further movies – with a third on the way – but in a very real sense Star Trek‘s home has always been the small screen, not the silver one. Anyway, you get the point – four years between Trek projects is nothing. Even if the gap between Enterprise and the franchie’s big return to television, Discovery, is twelve years they have not, in any meaningful sense, been twelve Star Trek free years.

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Picard: Season Two

Picard is back for a second season of time-travel, trauma and Q. But can Season Two correct the flaws of Season One while also juggling the Borg?

One of the immense frustrations of Picard‘s first season was just how much good will the show had going into it, and just how much of that good will was completely wasted on go-nowhere plots, a bunch of who-dat side characters that never really cohered into anything, and wasting Patrick Stewart in a series named after his character but which only occasionally gave him anything to actually do. The conclusion to that season, especially, was simply dreadful, with Picard apparently becoming a robot but for no good reason, and the series going out of its way to point out its own irrelevancy. Everyone flew off into the sunset at the end of the season, a crew together for plot expediency rather than any other reason, and speculation inevitably mounted as to whether Season Two would have the ability to course-correct in any meaningful way and address the issues that Season One so glaringly failed to.

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Doctor Who – Legend Of The Sea Devils

What’s The Show? The second-last Jodie Whittaker Doctor Who story, Legend Of The Sea Devils.

What’s It All About, JG? The TARDIS is pulled off course to 19th Century China, where a statue has been convincingly attacked by Madame Ching (Crystal Yu) who’s searching for treasure, only to reveal… a Sea Devil! Excitement? Er… anyway, Dan encounters Ying Ki (Marlowe Chan-Reeves), whose father was killed by said Sea Devil back in the day aboard the ship Flor de la Mar. They sneak aboard Madame Ching’s pirate ship and are immediately captured. She reveals that she needs the treasure from the selfsame Flor de la Mar to get her crew back – they’ve been kidnapped and are being held to ransom. The Doctor and Yaz slip back in time to the 16th century to try and find the treasure, unsuccessfully, and are taken to the Sea Devils’ underground lair. It turns out the Sea Devils are looking for the Keystone to execute their plans and flood the Earth, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s currently hanging round the neck of Ying Ki, passed down from his father. The captain of the Flor de la Mar, Ji-Hun (Arthur Lee) has been kept alive in stasis by the Sea Devils and had tricked them by getting the Keystone safely away. There’s a battle on the Sea Devil-converted wreck of the Flor de la Mar, and Ji-Hun sacrifices himself so the regular cast can escape and the Sea Devils are foiled. It all wraps up with a scene between the Doctor and Yaz, where the Yaz confesses her feelings and the Doctor gently, but firmly, turns her down. And then we get that trailer…

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The Book Of Boba Fett

After more than 40 years since his first appearance, Boba Fett gets his own show. But does it work, or will it be a Fett worse than death?

What’s the Show? The Book Of Boba Fett

What’s It All About, JG? Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison), bounty hunter extrordinare (it says here) escapes his ignominious Return Of The Jedi fate of being swallowed by a toothy hole, and has a series of mildly diverting escapades until The Mandalorian shows up for no readily apparent reason and makes everything better. Or, if you want to be sightly more specific, Fett survives his encounter with the Sarlacc and learns wisdom and weaponry from a tribe of Tusken Raiders. In trying to help them, he gets them all killed so instead he pisses off to Jabba’s old palace and tries to become a crime lord / Daimyo. This goes… less that well, though he manages to recruit Fennec Shand (a criminally wasted Ming-Na Wen) to his cause,and a gang of modified teenagers on Vespa’s (for some fucking reason), then ends up defending the town of Mos Espa from spice traders so we can have a big, drawn-out shooting match in the final episode. Meanwhile, The Mandalorian does a bit of Mandalorian-ing, is reunited with Grogu / Baby Yoda, and pisses off for hopefully more engaging adventures elsewhere.

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The Silent Sea

Korean sc-fi, an abandoned lunar research base and a lurking secret in the dark… a recipe for success?

What’s The Show? The Silent Sea

What’s It All About, JG? In the near future the Earth is running out of water, turning into a desert for… reasons. On an abandoned research station on the moon that’s been untouched for five years there’s the possibility of a solution, lunar water, which can apparently self-replicate. That means a dangerous, secret mission to the deserted base to try and retrieve the samples of water for a Korean space exploration force. But on arriving, they discover things aren’t as straightforward as a near-lethal rescue mission might otherwise suggest! For there is also something lurking on the base, and the water itself might not turn out to be quite as benign as was hoped… Can the crew get a sample safely back to Earth and get rescued? How many will survive? And just who is Luna and what does she represent?

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