While I don’t yet know whether The Undeclared War is BAFTA magnet Peter Kosminsky’s best work, after watching the opening episode, I am prepared to say it is his most intelligent and timely. Cybersecurity is a major subject in modern society as technology relentlessly marches on and changes the nature of warfare to include digital fields. New media tends to be less policed and cyber warfare is a battle most of us aren’t aware of outside of the occasional times it hits headlines. It is unseen, hard to understand, and fought daily by brilliant tech minds that often remain faceless. The characters here may have been called ‘nerds’ in school. It’s this combination of ‘ordinary heroes’ and the often-understated subject of digital crimes that make the show’s premise engaging.
We meet the leading team of analysts in the dark nestled walls of GCHQ where 21-year-old intern Saara Parvin (Hannah Khalique-Brown) is swimming her way through her first day in code land. At the same time, a stress test designed to check the telecommunications infrastructure for security is occurring. During the testing, a significant part of the UK’s internet collapses, and the team begins to engage in a takedown where each keystroke is a bid to anticipate their opponents’ (assumedly Russia) hidden moves similarly to a high-stakes, high-tech game of chess. Not only is the office populated with characters that very maybe throw six-sided dice around game boards in their spare time, their work, their vital to national security work, cannot be discussed in the outside world. This level of secrecy means that the vast majority of the characters here are quiet and introverted.
From the moment Parvin enters the building and meets her bosses Danny Patrick (Simon Pegg) and David Neal (Alex Jennings) the audience is treated to external and internal perspectives of her intellectual stubbornness to understand the malware she is investigating. It’s a brilliant sense of direction and as the different nodules of code are explored, the imaginary doors unlocked, and the digital mousetraps escaped there is a degree of tension to each cinematic frame that is both surreal in context and firm in delivery. This is a brave commission by Channel 4 as it doesn’t shy away from the serious risk cyber-attacks pose. In a TV landscape filled with crime thrillers, this is a thriller which feels all too real.
Kosminsky has always written about current events as seen through his previous works such as No Child of Mine, Britz, and The State, The Undeclared War has a great sense of the space it occupies. Taking inspiration from today’s world the show is set in 2024 as Prime Minister Andrew Makinde (Adrian Lester) takes over from a fictional version of Boris Johnson. He is a public-school Conservative whose ratings are rock bottom and he and his cabinet are rather unpleasant. In fact, his right-hand man Richard Marston (Ed Stoppard) is painted as a country club snob no one wants to talk to. These two seem to be the contention of the show and their bright wisdom in solving the problem is to suggest a counterattack. Alike our Age of Incompetence, where the government does not seem to know how to protect or honour the country they govern, the disaster will inevitably cause further problems. Kosminsky is not afraid of pointing the finger at controversial socio-political themes, I think we will see harder criticism in the remainder of the series, and I am here for it.
While the cast is strong, the standout performance comes from Simon Pegg in his first properly dramatic role. Those familiar with his character in the Mission Impossible franchise might think they know what to expect but the tone of the show is far more muted than those films. It’s no less tense though. Newcomer Khalique-Brown and Alex Jennings are also wonderful, and it’s refreshing to see a woman running the show in something so heavily tech-focused.
It is so easy these days to make a dramatic production chock full of OTT explosive moments but less so to make a gripping story about software code munchers who use technology to fight for our everyday infrastructural freedoms. This is the stand-out thing about this series. We aren’t watching Batman and Superman save the day – yet again! We’re watching the Alfreds who command the technology making it possible to fight another day.
The Undeclared War is intelligent, refreshing, and vital and one of those programmes that feels uniquely Channel 4. Long may Channel 4 support programmes as unique as this one.
The Undeclared War is all available on All4.