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TV drama gets real

One of the few drama series worth watching over at the BBC (sharp intake of breath!) is the programme Spooks, which purports to show how M15, Britain’s secret service, operates. A short while ago, an episode featured how the various operatives dealt with radical Islamic terrorism.

What interested me was the very fact that such a controversial topic would be aired by the BBC at all. The series tended to start off with a decidedly politically-correct slant, so broaching the topic of Islamo-fascist terror was quite brave. Makes me wonder how the script-writers were able to get this episode on screen.

Well, as this story shows, the episide triggered a number of complaints, claiming the programme was racially stereotyped. But then it is a bit difficult to do a programme about spies taking on the likes of al-Quaeda and it not to encounter such an issue, I would have thought.

More broadly, though, this got me thinking about how television and movie dramas have handled issues like this over the years. In the early James Bond movies, for example, the bad guys were either Russians or former Smersh agents, but as the series progressed and got ever more silly during the Roger Moore era, the villains became less ‘political’, no doubt to avoid the kind of complaints that Spooks has encountered.

There have always been a few interesting exceptions, though. Some of the Tom Clancy books adapted for film touched on issues like Northern Ireland, although often not very convincingly.

Do I detect a change in trend? The American series “24”, for example, makes no bones about enormously contentious issues. I think people want a bit more hard-edged realism in their dramas, and if that means upsetting some people, so be it.

However, I am not sure whether 007 will be staging his next adventure in Bagdhad any time soon.

8 comments to TV drama gets real

  • R C Dean

    Well, the last Bond saga posited the North Koreans as one of the bad guys.

    Overall, though, relatively few of these kinds of movies use Islamo-nutters. The film industry seems to have settled on the agreeably pale Eastern Europeans, with the occasional Irish, as the bad guys of choice.

  • The most recent Tom Clancy adaptation was “The Sum of All Fears”, which came out last year. In the book, the villains (who blew up a nuclear weapon in Baltimore) were Islamic terrorists. In the film, the terrorists were changed to neo-Nazis, presumably to keep the film a little further from reality than the book.

    Also, the James Bond films went through a short lived “gritty reality” period when Timothy Dalton was playing Bond. The first film (the Living Daylights(1987)) was set in the middle of the war in Afghanistan, and the second (Licence to Kill (1989)) the villain was a latin American drug smuggler. These were two of the least successful Bond films on record, and after them the producers cast Pierce Brosnan in the key part and went back to more stylised films in which the villains try to take over the world with strange weapons satellites that they have somehow managed to have launched into space without the Americans having noticed. The last movie featured North Koreans, but they were North Koreans who somehow had remarkable technical abilities (including the said ability to produce state of the art satellites and launch them into space).

  • Dan

    What I recently noticed about the Clancy movie adaptations was the gratuitous PC-ifying of his casts of characters. A major figure in the novels, and Jack Ryan’s best friend (indeed his family’s best friends), is black. This wasn’t good enough for Hollywood, so they mutated the race on a few other prominent characters too. I find the changes interesting in that it’s good guys who mutate from white to black (near as I can tell). On the other hand, there is a very definite move in the other direction with the villains.

    I suspect when Hollywood gets around to doing the one where Japan invades Saipan that the villains will remain Japanese though. Asians aren’t an oppressed minorty according to PC-think.

    Rainbow Six offers Hollywood a fairly PC choice of villains (European terrorists, versus islamic, as in Sum of All Fears), it will be interesting to see what changes there should Hollywood tackle it.

    I think “Spooks” is MI-5 over here on A&E, is it not? I wasn’t very impressed. In fact, I had a hard time watching the first episode in which the terrorist was an anti-abortion American whacko. I thought the composition was too disjointed and scatterbrained. My attention span is longer than 30 seconds and I expect my media entertainment to respect that.

  • David Crawford

    Michael, I saw “Sum of All Fears” in my local second-run theater (I sure was going to pay full-price for something I thought was going to be lame). I had read about the villians being changed from muslims to Europeans. During the movie I kept thinking “…and exactly how many Americans have ever been murdered by European neo-Nazi terrorists?” Of course what I should’ve been thinking was “…do European neo-Nazi terrorists even exist –outside of Hollywood that is.”

  • Jeremy

    Actually, the last Bond movie just showed some North Koreans as bad guys. The bad guys were renegade North Koreans. Sort of like how in some of the 70s-80s films, the villains were renegade Soviet agents (the wonderfully titled “Octopussy” for instance)

    This was enough to spark a huge outlash in South Korea.

  • Maybe in the next movie Meesta Bond can save the world from radical PETA extremists bent on destroying the human race.

    Oh wait, he already did that in Moonraker.

  • “the Living Daylights” even featured an Osama-like character: on Bond’s side against the Russkis.

    Also, I don’t think Asians are fair game, thanks in no small part to our friends at the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans.

    They are current protesting the TV show Banzai (which I believe is lensed in England) because the characters are a bit too heavily-accented.

    Previously, they protested John Cleese being cast at Lucy Liu’s father in the artistic masterpiece known as Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. According to their whiny LA Times editorial on it, Lucy was obviously a “full-blooded” Asian.

  • The British series Spooks has recently begun appearing on American Cable TV, under the title MI5. It’s pretty good, although the accents take a bit getting used to. What I find fascinating is the mass house-breaking and wiretapping with no judge involved. Now, a recently canceled US series called The Agency involved much the same stuff in the US with the CIA, but somehow the same bugging didn’t hit me as much. Perhaps we Yanks are still gettting used to terrorists in our own backyard.

    The first episode of MI5 involved American anti-abortion activists blowing up British abortionists, being captured and shipped back to the US without an extradition hearing. Se second episode, this last week, involved British racists plotting a race war. No Islamists on the radar yet. It this the same order the shows ran in back home?