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.