Hurray, another major prime-time thriller on BBC1, by a hugely talented writer. Happy days… right? (Spoiler alert)
I really really wanted to love Hard Sun. I really did. I’m craving a good thriller, yearning for another box-set to get lost in, and hungry for powerful writing that shows us there are good people battling the bad in these tough times.
And I had high hopes — a big, powerful premise, and the writer, Neil Cross, is the huge talent who also created and wrote the amazing Luther. Wow. Great potential.
But then I started watching, and it was quickly revealed to me — the result of something terrible that happened outside the BBC last year…
The BBC car park is a strange place, an interface between the real and the unreal. On this occasion, a warp in the space-time continuum was opened up by the remarkable misfortune of the secret activation words being ‘soy vanilla latte’ repeated ten times on the exact spot where, it turns out, the refurbished BBC coffee bar had just opened. Three vehicles were suddenly transported from the same place in different years, to the same place at the exact same time.
One carried Neil Cross from 2015, the writer of Luther, carrying the script for a new series. The second carried Neil Cross from 2012, before he had his own big-name series, proudly delivering a new episode of Doctor Who. And the third carried Neil Cross from 2007, delivering a new episode of Spooks.
The collision was instant. The car and the people were identical, so merged seamlessly again as if they had simply been different shadows cast from the same original.
But the scripts had been different in each vehicle. A merge was impossible. Plots and dialogue and directions from Luther, Spooks and Doctor Who were smashed together randomly onto the same number of pages. Cops and spies and ending worlds, knives and guns and supernovas — and an accent that was part cockney, part Eton, with an awkward bit of (maybe?) Australian (perhaps because it’s sunny there?).
If that had been the final effect of this opening up in the fabric of time, it might well have been repairable with a good script edit (and a dialogue coach). But a fourth vehicle was dragged to almost the same spot from just one month earlier — a security van delivering the BBC drama department’s entire almond croissant budget for the year, in cash. Such a large number of fifty pound notes weighs a lot, and though the driver skidded to a halt on seeing the car, it wasn’t enough to stop the momentum of the huge wads of cash. They flew from the van and, as paper met paper, also merged with the script — causing explosions and bloodshed and death on a massive scale.
And, as everyone knows — once money has been applied to a script on such a scale, it’s difficult to dial things back.
But while the man holding the script felt a vibration in the pages in his hand, he attributed it to the slight dent in the bonnet caused by the surprising appearance of a G4S van from nowhere.
“It’s okay,” said his driver, “it’s just a little dent. You go in to your important script meeting. It’s hardly a full-on car crash.”
And so my criticism is an odd one: there are too many good ideas rammed into this script. It means none of them really gets to shine and we just watch a wall of plot noise.
A great TV series could have been made out of any ONE of these, but they were ALL crammed into this one six-parter:
- Cop killed his old partner and his new partner is secretly investigating him
- Cop was nearly murdered by her own son who she put up for adoption
- Cop investigates murder of a teacher who raped her when she was at school
- A serial killer is bumping off people with suicidal thoughts and there’s a cop with suicidal thoughts on the case
- A former aid-agency worker who has seen too much brutality in the world has lost his religious faith and feels compelled to kill good people in the world to try to draw God out from hiding. The only person who can bring him to justice and stop the killing is the priest the killer confessed to — but can the cops persuade him to break his sacred vow?
- Cops stumble across a state secret and MI5 will do anything to silence them
- Oh, and the world’s about to end. Sorry, almost forgot to mention that bit. Something about the sun. Y’know what — we’d better put in lots of shots of the sun with moody music so people don’t forget about that bit.
And that’s the weird thing. This big, HUGE, amazing premise that the sun is about to destroy life on earth feels like a minor background thing. Sure, we’re reminded of it from time to time, but we don’t feel it. You’re watching a cop show, and suddenly there’s a long lingering shot of the sun — oh yeah, the world’s about to end, I forgot about that. The worst example of that was at the end — a big confrontation between police and MI5, what will happen, who will win? Oh, look, wait, the sun’s exploding on a green screen.
It feels like a team at the BBC (and a big indie producer) wanted to make a major HBO/Netflix style box-set drama, but had a bit of an inferiority complex about it. There’s a lot of over-compensation.
Imagine if a writer had pitched this series to HBO:
A mafia don who is seeing a psychiatrist discovers he has cancer and turns to making crystal meth to fund his treatment, coming up against a power couple who have been willing to do anything to become president. They’re all being tracked by a bi-polar CIA agent who gets imprisoned part way through the series for a crime she didn’t commit and spends the rest of the series wearing an orange jumpsuit and fighting with the tough lesbian who runs the prison kitchen. Meanwhile the mafia don converts to Islam… is he a terrorist?
It wouldn’t happen. Somewhere along the way they’d have the confidence to pick one premise and run with it, leaving the plot to be woven around that with a focus on character. Many of the plot twists in any of those big American dramas are surprisingly small if analysed on their own (go on, try doing a beat sheet for an episode of Breaking Bad)— but they are amplified by the reality of their impact on the characters.
How powerful could Hard Sun have been if there had been a relentless focus? A single, simple, clear premise? One big plot on which everything revolved?
Then there was a major issue with what was supposed to be the key plot — as a viewer I didn’t really understand whether I was supposed to be rooting for:
- EITHER The cops and a journalist to leak the truth about the end of the world being nigh to the public who had a right to know.
- OR MI5 preventing that leak because it would result in anarchy. There’s nothing the public can do, so why not just let them live in blissful ignorance and an ordered society a bit longer?
And what was worse — even the cops didn’t seem to quite know which of these two they were supposed to be rooting for, and they didn’t spend much time arguing/worrying about it. It just turned into a lot of running around chasing a USB drive. Strangely unexciting for the impending doom of the end of the world.
Then there was the issue of how naff the contents of that USB drive looked whenever someone plugged it into their phone (and of course, everyone always had a connector handy that allowed them to plug a USB connector into the connector of whatever phone they happened to have — everyone carries those, right?). It was a computer-game-style animation of random graphs and pictures of the sun that looked very unofficial, and I don’t think would have convinced anybody that the world was actually about to end.
So the main premise was dreadfully under-powered.
Then it’s as if they are scared we might stop to think for a moment and spot all this, so they throw a huge effects budget at explosions and fights and stabbing and shootings and car chases and exploding suns.
But all the action draws away from the potential for an emotional impact. Why don’t we feel the stress and worry the main characters have, knowing about the end of the world and wondering what to do about it? Why don’t we worry about the devastation, the anarchy?
Because whizz, bang, another shot is fired, another knife is bloodied, another punch is thrown.
I’d have liked all this to be dialled down a bit to reveal the power in the premise, let it shine through.
Would it actually be more powerful if it was two normal cops, people like you and I? Good cops, stable, conscientious, happy families, trusted by their boss. Buck the stereotypes. 'Ello, 'ello, 'ello — we’d think at the start of the show — what’s going on here then? No affairs? No psychological problems? No rebelling against their corrupt boss? No over the top violence? None of them have somehow killed their last partner? What kind of cop show is this going to be? Bam — the world’s about to end. Woah, how are two normal cops going to deal with that?
You don’t need MI5 to be the baddie — the sun is the baddie! Keep the dramatic tension within the two main characters responding to the most invincible baddie of all time. There is no way they can win — so what does that do to them?
What if the cops, after seeing how the conspiracy theorists and psychos respond to rumours of the news, are the ones who wrestle with what is the responsible course of action — to go public or hush it up. What if they are the ones who have to try to go about their normal lives and stay sane while knowing what is coming? What if we see two normal cops slowly start to come apart, lose their sense of risk, of proportion? What if they start to feel somewhere inside that they need to be some kind of superheroes, but are really still just human. They are the only ones who know the truth and are fighting a losing battle to keep normality in the world, and in their heads? What does that do to people who are used to having power and control. How do other people around them, who don’t know their secret, respond to that?
That’s the thriller I’d have liked to see. Sharp, focused, challenging. Different.
Not just Luther crossed with Spooks crossed with Doctor Who crossed with a big pile of cash.
That’s not to disrespect any individual involved in this — everyone behind this has great talent and creds—it just didn’t work for me as a viewer, and I really really wanted it to.
More thrillers please BBC — but just make them with your usual quiet confidence, and they'll be more thrilling.