A classic - perhaps the classic - British Conspiracy Thriller. Troy Kennedy-Martin — of Z Cars and The Italian Job fame — wrote the screenplay as a cry of anguish against the contemporary political situation, and was rather startled when The BBC decided to produce and broadcast it.
On its original broadcast in 1985, it proved so popular that, immediately after it finished its run on BBC Two, it was repeated on BBC One, a unique occurrence in the history of British Television. It was praised, and awarded, for its acting, scripting, and direction, and launched the career of Martin Campbell, who would later go on to direct GoldenEye and Casino Royale for the James Bond franchise - and who cast Joe Don Baker as a cheery CIA agent in GoldenEye in direct reference to his role in this series. Oh, and Eric "Slow Hand" Clapton collaborated with Michael Kamen to write the show's distinctive, haunting score.
Ronald "Ronnie" Craven (Bob Peck, who won a BAFTA) is a Detective Inspector in the Yorkshire Constabulary; he was decorated for bravery in the line of duty during his time in Northern Ireland. His wife died of cancer, roughly a decade ago, since when he has brought his daughter Emma (Joanne Whalley) up single handed. As the story opens, she has grown up to be a politically radical student, who seems to be the only remaining person on the face of the planet who can make him smile. Ronnie drives her home from a political meeting — trying to keep her out of the rain, which has become absurdly and suspiciously heavy — whereupon she is shot dead by a balaclava-clad thug wielding a sawn-off shotgun. Later, a grieving Ronnie is going through Emma's belongings; he finds a loaded gun, a geiger counter, her vibrator, and her old teddy-bear.
Craven encounters, on his travels, the bullish, beaming CIA agent Darius Jedburgh (Joe Don Baker), two extremely affable men who might - or might not - work for British Intelligence, a host of other twilight figures who might be good or bad or both or neither, and - frequently - Emma herself. Emma's post-mortem appearances are not explained; she could be symbolic of his obsession, a useful stalking horse to let the writers exteriorise Craven's inner dialogue, an on-screen symptom of Craven's mental breakdown, or an actual ghost. The series doesn't ever commit to any of those, although there are elements of mysticism in the rest of the story that mean that even the ghostly explanation - ordinarily unlikely in the context of a deathly serious modern thriller - cannot be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, as written, the original ending featured Craven turning into a tree. Thankfully, the production team were willing to tell even Troy Kennedy Martin to think again.
Some of the following tropes may have been identified wandering the rain-swept hills above the Northmoor facility:
- Action Girl: Clementine has her moment.
- Artifact of Doom: Jedburgh describes plutonium in damn near these terms.
- Artistic License – Physics: Averted, mostly. An expert came on board to ensure that all the science depicted was accurate; initially, he didn't want to do it because he was convinced this trope would come into effect and embarrass him, but the production team managed to convince him that they wouldn't mess it up. They didn't. However, two instances play the trope straight:
- The first involves bars of plutonium with which Jedburgh, having stolen them, creates a criticality incident at the nuclear weapons conference. The plutonium bars have insufficient mass by themselves in that shape to become critical, even when brought together. Doubly so if there's still airspace between them and no tamper to reflect neutrons.
- Secondly, when Jedburgh is explaining the homebrew nuclear device he made to Craven, there's a significant failure in the design described: fission-based nuclear weapons don't have the high explosives in the core; it would just cause the fissile material to spread in the explosion (closer to a dirty bomb). Putting the explosives on the outside and microsecond-precise detonation of them is what causes a high-grade detonation. Even shooting a plutonium bullet the size of a .22 into the former won't trigger a proper detonation. It is possible that this was a deliberate choice just in case some lunatic decided to try and use the series description as the basis for a real attempt at a homebrew nuke.
- As Himself: Two BBC newsreaders, a weatherman and Labour MP Michael Meacher (at this time Shadow Health Secretary) all appear as themselves.
- The Bad Guy Wins: While one particular bad guy does get irradiated for his trouble, they seem at worst unperturbed by the events of the series.
- Big "NO!": Ronnie Craven after a marksman kills his daughter's murderer at the moment that Ronnie feels - as said murderer holds him at gun-point - he will confide in him the identity of his employer.
- Blown Across the Room: When Emma is killed by the shotgun, it knocks her feet off the ground.
- Byronic Hero: Craven.
- Determinator: Craven. Also Jedburgh. Even after he's exposed to lethal levels of radiation.
- Downer Ending: Let's see... Craven is left to die an agonizing death from radiation poisoning while Jedburgh is killed outright. Neither man achieves what they set out to achieve. Northmoor has been exposed, but the agencies assigned to investigate it are revealed to in fact be complicit in its work as part of the quest for nuclear supremacy. Thus, the production of plutonium and the conspiracy behind it go on without much issue at all, pushing the world closer to nuclear armageddon. While Jerry Grogan is fatally poisoned, his lieutenant Bennet remains at large, with Pendleton bitterly noting that he might very well be praised by the government for publicly admitting to having ordered the cruel murder of the GAIA team, meaning Emma's death ultimately goes unanswered for. The only possible solace there is that Pendleton and Harcourt quietly vow to continue the fight as best they can, stating this was just “round one.” Oh, and just in case all of that wasn't enough, the very planet itself has apparently deemed humanity to be an imminent threat to the continued existence of life, so much so that it is engineering a climate catastrophe to kill them off before they take everything else down with them. So bleak are these circumstances that when asked to pick a side between the human race and the planet, Craven sides with the planet.
- Eagle Land: Flavor 2 is heavily leaned on. Jedburgh returns to London from a mission in El Salvador, dressed in camo gear, with a golf bag containing - aside from clubs - an assault rifle, grenades, and several empty whisky bottles; he mutters "I had to leave a man behind" in a fashion that suggests he is distraught but keeping up an implacable facade. He also refers to the UK as "The Third World" and that Grogan is "stirring up the natives".
- The '80s: And how!
- Fauxshadow: In “Burden of Proof”, the ghost of Emma urges Craven, as he undergoes a breakdown, to be strong, like a tree. This was originally meant to foreshadow the original ending where Craven turns into a tree.
- Gaia's Vengeance: The "proper" variety. Possibly.
- Harsher in Hindsight: with the end of the Cold War and the threat of global warming (caused by human pollution rather than black flowers) nuclear power has received a renaissance as it is far greener than fossil fuels and more reliable and efficient than renewables. As Grogan predicted plutonium has proven vital for the space programme providing the basis for atomic batteries to power satellites and spacecraft.
- Heroic BSoD: Ronnie Craven bears one for the duration of the investigation immediately proceeding his daughter's murder and for the rest of the night.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Grogan receives a lethal level of radiation from plutonium. Also A Karmic Death.
- Knight Templar: According to the writer, Jerry Grogan was intended to represent the original Knights Templar.
- Just Before the End: It's subtle, but the implication is clear. An apocalypse is looming, though what form it will take is left an open question. However, one thing is made obvious: If humanity doesn't destroy the world, the world will destroy them.
- The Last Dance: Ronnie and Jedburgh after they get irradiated at Northmoor.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It's never made clear whether Emma is actually speaking to Ronnie from beyond the grave. For most of the serial you can believe she's just his inner thought process made manifest. But in the last episode, she tells him about Gaia and the black flowers, something he didn't know before, but seems to be true.
- The Movie: Set in Boston, starring Mel Gibson as Tommy Craven. Still has a lot of British actors, though. One critic even pointed out that "the name Northmoor makes more sense in the original".
- Nature Hero: A psychologist who analyses Ronnie says he's the sort of person some tribal peoples say has the "soul of a tree". Later on, when asked whose side he is on, he says he's on the side of the planet.
- New Era Speech: We get one from a disreputable character.
- Newscaster Cameo: Television reporters Sue Cook and Kenneth Kendall, weatherman Bill Giles appear as themselves.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: To some extent, Jedburgh: by playing the part of the loud redneck Texan to the hilt, he conceals the fact that he is a highly determined, ruthless yet utterly moral and decent operator. At one point, he orders breakfast:"Black coffee and whisky.""We know you're Texan, Jedburgh, you don't need to remind us."
- Off-the-Shelf FX: It is rather amusing to discover, via the making-of documentary on the DVD set, that the plutonium containers shown on screen were just cheap storage bins bought from Woolworths, with nuclear warning trefoil stickers applied.
- Real Men Wear Pink: Jedburgh may play the part of a loud redneck, plus he's a highly skilled soldier, who is also a gourmet and devoted to watching a ballroom dance competition (the long running Come Dancing) on TV.
- Ripped from the Headlines: One of the major sources of inspiration for the story was Ronald Reagan's then-recent Star Wars speech.
- Storming the Castle: Craven and Jedburgh infiltrate the mine/storage facility ... and stop half way to enjoy a three course dinner with fine wine, cigars and classical music.
- Jedburgh also manages a one-man infiltration of a high-security conference - unleashing sheer chaos with nothing more than two bars of stolen plutonium and a screw-the-lot-of-you attitude, inspired by his imminent death from radiation poisoning.
- Shout-Out: A newspaper article is credited to a 'T K Martin"
- Supporting Protagonist: As the story goes on, Craven's role in the grand scheme of things seems more and more insignificant. Accordingly, he also plays a less active role in the plot as the series goes on.
- Suspiciously Apropos Music: Is there any incidental music in this series which doesn't hint of a looming apocalypse?
- Take That!: The Strategic Defense Initiative - or something that sounds rather like it - gets a fairly thorough rhetorical blast (well, flash, actually) from Jedburgh.
- Taking You with Me: Jedburgh fatally irradiating Grogan and an unknown number of other people at the conference.
- Those Two Guys: Harcourt and Pendleton.