Note: I am not about to reveal any secrets about Spooks: Code 9 or its production. A dedicated fan of Spooks could have written this, and while I’m not one, I did spend a lot of time thinking about, and watching, the show. These are my own opinions, and not that of Six to Start.
Last year, I worked on the online extension of a BBC 3 TV series called Spooks: Code 9. When I tell people this, they’re often excited and impressed when they hear the word ‘Spooks‘, and I have to explain that it wasn’t the long-running BBC 1 spy thriller that many know and love, but a spin-off.
Except Spooks: Code 9 (SC9) wasn’t a spin-off of Spooks. It was set in 2013, a year after a nuclear bomb had blown up London, and there was no continuity of events or characters from the original series (set during the present day). The only thing in common it had with Spooks is that it involved MI5 and it shares the same name (originally, it was just going to be called ‘Liberty’).
It’s easy to understand why SC9 was made; the BBC had a successful and popular thriller in Spooks, and the production company, Kudos, was clearly smart and reliable (they’d also made the excellent Life on Mars). Why not try and extend the formula to the younger end of the market? After all, the CSI brand had two spin-offs, so who’d begrudge the BBC just one?
But it wasn’t that simple. As the show neared launch, ‘Spooks’ was tacked on to the name, and ‘Liberty’ turned into the impenetrable ‘Code 9’, which meant absolutely nothing except for being a codeword in the show. Tying the show to the Spooks brand was a risky move – it helped raise its profile and increased the chance that fans of the original series would tune in, but it also set the expectation that it would be just like (or at least, similar to) Spooks. This was bad, for two reasons.
The first was that the show clearly wasn’t like Spooks – it was aimed at a far younger audience, and so it had younger characters and younger themes; anyone expecting the sort of characters and interactions from the original, decidedly middle-aged, series, would be disappointed. Secondly, anyone who didn’t like Spooks but might have tuned in to a younger, edgier show might now be turned off because they’d think that – yes – it’d just be like Spooks.
So what happened? Firstly, many criticisms of SC9 mentioned the fact that it wasn’t Spooks – and it got worse:
Spooks Code 9 is an utterly cynical venture and a damning indictment of the lack of imagination at work in commissioning new drama … Moreover, given its patronising awfulness, SC9 actually damages the Spooks brand. And that’s what it’s about – the brand.
The unthinkable had happened – the branding plan had backfired and SC9 was now dragging the golden goose down with it! Sadly, I think that if SC9 had a different name (i.e. not Spooks), everyone would have given the show more of a chance.
Not that that would’ve helped much, because regardless of it was called, SC9 was bad. Really bad. I couldn’t find a single positive review of the first episode, and believe me, I looked; reviewers criticised the script, the absence of anyone over 40, and the show’s consistent focus on the youth market through various club scenes, drinking, and romantic angst. What should have been the opening to an intriguing and exciting new world had emerged as a bland show that used tired tropes, like newsreel montages and all six main characters explaining why they thought they should become a secret agent.
After the first two episodes, which were shown back-to-back and were equally painful to watch, the audience numbers plummeted. Ep1 had 810k viewers, Ep 2 had 703k viewers – and Ep3 had 447k viewers. In a week, the show had lost almost half of its audience. By the sixth and final episode, SC9 had a mere 245k viewers.
I thought this was very sad, and not just because we were making the online extension. Episode 4 wasn’t bad, Episode 5 was pretty decent, and Episode 6 was really quite entertaining. In fact, the first minutes of the finale are captivating.
We open with a man (of apparent Arabic descent) pacing around a room in agitation. He’s throwing things into a bag while dialling the same number again and again on his mobile, and it’s always engaged. The man jumps into a car and drives out of the city, still dialling without success. Finally, on the motorway, instead of getting an engaged tone, he gets nothing at all; and then the radio turns to static. The traffic all around slows, then stops, and everyone gets out, because there’s a mushroom cloud behind them.
That’s how SC9 should’ve started – with a bang.