- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
They say GCHQ is an intelligence agency, but take The Undeclared War (Channel 4) as gospel and you’d have to conclude there’s more intelligent life in a bag of peanuts.
The Russians have launched a cyber attack to cripple Britain. GCHQ’s finest minds are on the case, combing through the code to find clues. Can they bust this thing wide open? Can they heck. There is only one person in the building who can crack it: the work experience girl, on her first day in the office.
Writer Peter Kosminsky (Wolf Hall, The State) spent years researching the murky world of cyber warfare and the damage that a bunch of state-sponsored hackers could do to a nation’s infrastructure. It is disturbing to learn how easily we could be brought to our knees – an attack that takes out the internet and cash machines, grounds planes and shuts down the rail network, and that’s before we get to the disruption of gas and water supplies. This is all, Kosminsky assures us, entirely plausible. He also delves into online disinformation campaigns and “troll farms”, where an army of Kremlin-funded workers adopt fake identities to manipulate public opinion.
It’s interesting stuff. But first you need to swallow the ludicrous idea that the only person capable of staving off World War Three has been in the job for two hours. You haven’t seen anything as implausible since those Novichok suspects claimed they were just on a sightseeing trip to Salisbury Cathedral.
The intern is Saara Parvin (Hannah Khalique-Brown) and the daftness surrounding her character keeps on coming. She so impresses the GCHQ boss, Danny Patrick (Simon Pegg), that he takes her with him – again, on her first day – to a COBRA meeting with the Prime Minister. When she finds a message hidden in the code, for a rendezvous at a cyber conference in Harrogate, does he scramble a high-level response? No! He tells her she can pop up to Harrogate if she fancies it, and when she returns with some more bombshell information from a Russian whistle-blower they casually discuss it in the canteen.
Anyway, things improve by episode three when we move to Russia to meet the whistle-blower. Although maybe it just seems better because the dialogue is in Russian and the set-up is less familiar – for all I know, Russians might think these episodes are hilarious. But the plot moves along with a nice sense of urgency. You will find yourself frequently wondering if these things are really possible, as when someone in British intelligence suggests that they could send Putin a warning by remotely taking control of his plane mid-flight and dropping it 20,000ft.
By this point we’ve also been introduced to Mark Rylance as John Yeabsley, a veteran GCHQ man who has been around since the Cold War and is roundly ignored by the agency’s bright young things. It’s a lovely characterisation of a solitary figure, and you may find yourself wishing Rylance was in more scenes.
Later episodes move the action back to Britain and the offices of a Russian news agency – well, a fake news agency, which stages demonstrations and broadcasts doctored footage to give the impression that Britain is on the brink of collapse. Kosminsky says he has done his homework here too, although the British woman running this operation (Kerry Godliman) feels like a crude caricature.
The drama is set in 2024 and includes plenty of real-life references. Adrian Lester is the fictional PM who recently ousted Boris Johnson. Putin is still in power, but of course this was written a while ago, and Kosminsky didn’t foresee that Russia would be waging a more traditional sort of war against Ukraine at the time of transmission.
Identity politics also comes into play. Saara is a British Muslim and the first person she meets at GCHQ says semi-apologetically: “As you can see, we’re hideously male, pale and stale.” Saara has a long-term boyfriend but when she’s thrown together with an attractive American woman (also good at her job – not English, pale, male or stale, you see) you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll be romantically involved before the episode is out.
Kosminsky, who also directs, has found a way to make people staring at screens while talking about malware strings seem less boring: we go inside Saara’s head, where she works out problems in the manner of a video-game character tackling obstacles. It’s as good a way as any of conveying this stuff visually.
After six episodes, you’ll be gripped by the idea that a real-life enemy wouldn’t have to drop bombs – they could do untold damage simply by taking us offline. You may also want to send your CV in to GCHQ – it looks like they could do with the help.
The Undeclared War is on All 4 now and on Channel 4 at 9pm, Thursday 30 June