The Last Enemy

Well, I thought the first episode of The Last Enemy wasn’t bad at all. A near-future political thriller, the first episode sees mathematician Stephen Ezard returning to the UK for his brother’s funeral, after several years working in China, where as far as possible he lived the life of a recluse. This is of course conveniently creates plenty of opportunities for other characters to explain to him the developments in the UK political landscape that he’s missed — although pleasingly it’s assumed that some events, such as the “Victoria bomb” that killed 200-odd people and seems to have been a motivating factor behind the rapid introduction of ID cards, penetrated even Ezard’s veil of seclusion.

On his return, Ezard is recruited as a spokesperson for a private firm developing a system (known as TIA) that links up all the existing population databases to allow total surveillance. We’re told that the legislation needed to introduce TIA is pretty much a sure thing, and that Ezard is just wanted to smooth things over; after initial reluctance, he’s persuaded to help out, not so much because he thinks TIA is a good thing, or even because he’s mercenary enough to do it for the three years’ funding he’s offered in exchange, but because he wants to use TIA to do some searching himself. Specifically, he needs to find his brother’s wife, who’s vanished in mysterious circumstances; she may be connected to the appearance of a deadly (possibly weaponised) virus in Afghanistan.

That’s an extremely top-level summary of a rather twistily-plotted ninety minutes of television, and it’s fairly obvious we don’t yet know where all the connections being set up are really leading. What’s good about The Last Enemy as a drama is the direction, which manages to make any amount of staring at computer screens interesting, and the acting, particularly from Benedict Cumerbatch as Ezard — he’s convincing as a man distinctly uncomfortable with much social interaction, yet nuanced enough to avoid cliche. And what’s good about The Last Enemy as science fiction is that it doesn’t try to do too much, that it follows the implications of its idea through quite thoroughly but (for the most part) doesn’t try to sensationalise them. Whether this will last is an open question: the producer has described the series as a “cautionary tale”, which rather suggests the ending will be exactly what you expect it to be, ie that the introduction of TIA is thwarted at the last moment, while recognising the irony that it’s helped to stop whatever dastardly plot is afoot. We shall see.

Tangentially, in the same press release I linked above, writer Peter Berry says that The Last Enemy is “predictive, rather than science fiction”. This is clearly rubbish, but I’m not noting it in an as others see us way per se. What interests me is that (I assume) Berry said it because he felt the potential audience for his show was those who watched State of Play, not those who watch Doctor Who, and the question of whether or not that justifies his comment. I want to compare it to something John Jarrold said elsewhere, regarding publicity materials that pushed a debut sf novel (by one of his authors) as worthy of attention because the author is a woman (which is apparently rare and sure to see the book appear on sf award shortlists). What Jarrold said is:

most of these proofs will go to people who do not know the genre and its history as well as you and I do; they are largely meant for the general bookshops and mainstream reviewers. And I can tell you from my own experience that if you have ANYTHING that can be used as a hook to interest the Head Buyer of SF at W H Smiths, who purchases every SF and Fantasy title that appears in WHS across the UK, and can also gain interest in the world outside the SF coterie, you use it. Both those points — Jaine’s gender and the possibility of awards — are exactly that.

To me, what this attitude says, in both cases, is that it’s ok to say dumb, or misleading, or outright insulting things about a work if they result in attention being paid to the work itself. It also says that the people who are annoyed or insulted don’t matter, because they’re not the target of the remarks in question, and they’ll watch or read the work anyway. I can believe this is true — after all, I’ve just watched The Last Enemy, and I plan to read Principles of Angels — but I can’t help finding it a bit depressing.

6 thoughts on “The Last Enemy

  1. I haven’t seen THE LAST ENEMY, so I don’t know how close a Brit scriptwriter’s version hews to the reality. But you are aware that TIA is not at all science-fictional and arguably not even predictive? It’s a recent historic fact in the U.S.A. TIA was what everybody called John Poindexter’s office.

    I knew several folks in the data mining community — because it sought out and threw money at the best and brightest of those — who worked on TIA and are now at places like Google.

    I presume a British scriptwriter’s version of TIA will play upon all the currently topical bugbears in the UK about ID cards and biometrics, while presenting a comic-strip version of data surveillance. In fact, it’s hard to determine how effective the real TIA would have been because, ironically, Poindexter and his crew tried to be as open and un-spook-like as they knew how to be about what they were doing and the thing still turned into a political/PR disaster. Thus, now it’s impossible to get most scientists who were involved to go on record in any way about how effective the technologies actually were.

    Furthermore, of course, once the political stink arose, everything got turned into black projects and moved to places like Fort Meade to be continued with absolutely no public oversight.

  2. Mark, thanks for the link. I knew about the Information Awareness Office, but somehow had missed (or forgotten) that it was called TIA. I still say The Last Enemy is sf, because the system is much further advanced than the version described on that page. (And they could still go for a more sfnal ending, after all.)

  3. I agree that Cumberbatch was excellent – I’m always astonished by the intelligence he brings to his work. My prediction is that it all ends in misery and tears with TIA taking on almost a life of its own which can no longer be controlled.

  4. Its tempting to read too much into this thriller in the hope of getting some factual insight into how surveillance technology is being used currently; certainly this aspect of the drama interested me. I always assume that some writers have close enough connections within certain political circles to use their creative skills as a kind of breakout box for sensitive information and the heavily layered device of sf thriller provides an ideal medium.
    I’ve heard disturbing rumours about the TIA and its link with other highly intrusive agencies around the world so it would be interesting to read an authoritative view of this drama from the perspective of a political scientist or researcher; whether the references are all based on sf for example.

  5. Sheesh, talk about coming late to the party. The Last Enemy, I THOUGHT, just started here in Boston three or so weekends ago (I figured that it was new, because the only on-line videos they had, a week delayed, were, #1 after that aired, #2, and so on. Now we’re up to #3.

    I’d have to say that so far, the only thing that seems to’ve been fetched from Far Far Away is the nano-tech robotics that (so I’m anticipating in #4) were supposed to go into the bloodstream and build a unique, all-body-pervading ID tag (I assume it’s meant to be one that cannot be eliminated by hacking off a limb or two, given that the trial bunnies are all dying) — what do they call injections in this thing? A shot–poke, what? I know it’s idiomatic Brit, but I can’t make it out. Nor can I figure out what the accents are supposed to be–as on the wee ferret of a lad–is that an Irish accent? Talks so fast I’ve no hope in ‘ell of making it out.

    I have the distinct impression, having stumbled upon the phrase Total Information Awareness in Eric Lichtblau’s “Shrub’s Law: The remaking of American Justice” out this year–wish they’d put month/day somewhere, either on the © page or dust jacket or — that this is just so not very far away, though it was a very blunt instrument a couple of years ago.

    Lichtblau recounts the tale of a private school kid in Manhattan who was searching “parking lots” and “Manhattan” and TIA (thanks in advance, total information awareness–it’s time for a full-scale launch of XIVA, my organization) and the FBI, CIA, NSA, whomever, did a full court press on the lad, figuring that parking garages in Manhattan were just the places more bombs would be placed. .

    I suppose there’s a Moore’s Corollary now by which to gauge the delta between the Sci Fi work and the implementation “wings in the clouds” or “flippers under the water” or “boots on the ground.”

    Jules Verne, nuclear submarine, predicted 1887 or so? First was the Nautilus in Jan, 1955. 68 years .Rockets to the moon? Then Orwell, in 1948-9 with 1984; pretty much realized now in 2008. Say 59 years. Compression of time isn’t so much.

    What’s the time-cycle on the RFID chips, human-implantable? Hand-held GPS merging w/ iPhone/web-connector.

    If memory doesn’t fail, I recall a presentation Paul Saffo (then of the Institute for/of the Future?) gave on ubiquitous computing back maybe, gads, 20-plus years ago to the American Newspaper Publishers’ Association tech conference. The example he used (as there wasn’t anything quite like what he was talking about) were the emergency call boxes along some California superhighway. They had solar-powered charging stations, and were, I think, cell phones, not “black-wire” based.

    The grim, absolutely chilling thing about all the stuff in the Last Enemy isn’t that there have been several movies on the topic already–woman gets her digital identity erased from the universe, man is tracked by satellite with homing devices stuck in his shoes, belt, shirt, pants, t-shirt, skivvies… and Gene Hackman, I think it was, had his own “RF-blocking cage” in a tumble-down warehouse, much like in this BBC Contemporary “drahmer”. But rather that our experience in the US with the so-called “USA PATRIOT Act” (anyone remember the absolutely obnoxious title as it’s spelled out?), the illegal NSA data-pipe hookups, the Extraordinarily Illegal Kidnappings and Torture of humans from all over the world by our ever-so-patriotic-yet-criminal spooks has demonstrated that our public officials have hardly the tiniest qualm about taking over every bit of information about a person, breaking and entering homes without search warrants, local cops harassing people who look “odd” or who are driving while beige or black, local cops beating the beJesus out of would-be “petitioners for the redress of grievances” — now pre-emptively (that good ol’ Shrub Doctrine), rather than “on the day of the marches” as it was in the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

    I just reflect on how profoundly gutless the 535 members of Congress have been for the eight years of the Cheney/Bush administration. The ONE thing they promised–took an oath, even, and signed a written version, in duplicate–was to “support and defend the US Constitution against all enemies, both foreign and Cheney”.

    The way honoring their oath of office would look “on the ground” (or from whatever vantage point one chose) would be full bore impeachment proceedings against most of the members of the Cheney/Bush administration. First the House investigation (though it could be done in the Senate, as it was back in the Nixon Watergate days–Sen. Sam Ervin’s committee held the hearings), then the vote on the resolutions of impeachment, then the trial in the Senate, the findings and the votes. It’s pretty straight-forward legislative/parliamentary procedure.

    These officials of ours, all 535 of ’em members of The American Incumbent Party, care not one whit about their “solemn oaths,” so I figure now that we just ought to repeal the statute that applies to oaths of office for members of Congress and all other federal (state and local too, might as well) officers, judges, etc. and float a constitutional amendment to strike the president’s oath (“preserve, protect and defend…the constitution…to the best of my ability.”) from Article II. (Bush’s ability in this regard was certainly de minimis.)

    If these wretched cowards want to have some “little something” of a ceremony, they can all stand up and say, “Hi. I’m [name of official], and I’m feeding in the public trough for the next [2, 4, 5, 6 years, for life, whichever term applies].” If they have this little ceremony in their “district,” they could add the Chevy Chase line: “And you’re not.” For good measure. (I didn’t know his real name was Cornelius Crane Chase. Man, that’s almost as bad as Admiral John Sidney McCain, Admiral John Sidney McCain Jr., Captain John Sidney McCain III and John Sidney McCain IV. The other is James Sidney McCain–at least he got to keep the same dynastic initials, right? And I do hope voters can tell that a politician who has 8 or 9 houses, private jet planes, who buys another “beach house” when the first one gets “too crowded with the kids”, who hails from a dynasty of four generations feeding at the public (military) trough–free education, health/sickness care (does Johnny Three have PTSD?), pensions, whose spouse is worth millions and millions and millions of “monies” is the member of the “elite,” the richest of the rich, and NOT the cat with just the one house–nice, to be sure, but only one (so far), not all that much in the federal reserve notes department, no big gambling habit like Johnny Three–son James could have been Johnny Five; that’d’ve been soooo cool. Guess we’ll have to wait for generation V.

    Was it Hannah Arendt who posited “the banality of evil”? That’s how it seems to me that these abuses of human rights, the shredding of the Constitution, of international treaties, the murder of POWs, the violations of criminal law were undertaken by our minions of government. No biggie. Just doin’ what we’re told to do. Gotta pertect alluh you ‘Murricans. First duty of government, dontcha know! (Actually, it is the FOURTH duty, as set out in the Preamble to the US Constitution. It slides right in behind the first three “mission priorities”: 1) form a more perfect Union, 2) establish Justice, 3) insure domestic Tranquility, and then 4), provide for the common defense….”

    But then, who cares, anyway? The Constitution’s just “a goddamned piece of paper,” as I believe Shrub was heard to describe it. And he certainly didn’t abide by it, in any way, shape or form. Our Congress didn’t defend it. The public seems not to care one whit about the subversion of the very foundation of this little two-century-old experiment in self-government. (And I’d say it looks like the experiment has about come to an end. There’s hardly anything left in the Treasury to give to the rich folks, the war profiteers; our phones, financial accounts, library accounts, internet connections, medical records have all been piped into the current incarnation of the TIA or the so-called PROMIS (Prosecutor’s Management Information System) database. Our homes, offices, apartments, vehicles can be broken into by our home-grown “black-bag” operators. What’s left?

    Meanwhile, the only remedy We the People seem to have left, as I’ve heard from waaaay too many congressfolk, state legislators, even a state governor who ran for president this time around, is this very dubious one of elections. And I can see the election of 2008 turning into another procession of broken laws, rigged voting machines, thrown-away “provisional” and “absentee” ballots. The lead up, of stripping registered voters from the rolls, of creating “fear, uncertainty and doubt” about the fairness of the elections, has been going on for months already.

    On November 5th, we can probably expect another London tabloid headline like:

    “How Can 58 million Americans Be So Stupid? For the 3rd Time!!”

    (Yes, the 2004 headline wrote out the vote total, and used the word “Dumb”; there wasn’t enough space on the page for “Stupid,” but I like it — it’s more euphonious.)

    (This is way too depressing; apologies.)

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