Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Last Enemy: A Future That Feels like the Present
If you think you’re being watched, you’re not paranoid. If you know you’re being watched, you’re a realist. In our digital world, every move you make is being tracked by somebody who laughs at the notion that crosscut paper shredders enhance out personal security. In a universe of 1’s and 0’s, paper trails are replaced by bits and bytes colliding in cyberspace. You’re being watched all the time, from red light cameras to surveillance systems that rival Vegas planted in your neighborhood grocery to instantly accessible street view pictures of your domicile to every yahoo with a cell phone.

The Last Enemy, the debut entry of Masterpiece Contemporary (premiering on PBS Sunday 5 October, 9P EST) is a chilling, all too real cautionary tale about our devotion to security at the cost of personal identity. Originally broadcast earlier this year on BBC, the five-part miniseries is theoretically set in a near future, but its theme of a society underscored by personal surveillance strikes unnervingly close to home.

Stephen Ezard (Benedict Cumberbatch, Atonement) returns to Britain from a four year stint in China, where he was researching the mathematical structure of the Universe, to attend his brother Michael’s (Max Beesley) funeral. Michael was apparently killed in a roadside bomb n Afghanistan, and to Stephen’s surprise, he’s mourned by numerous acquaintances due to his relief work in the region. Even more surprising to Stephen is that he finds himself in an affair with his brother’s widow, Yasim (Anamaria Marinca) the same night. He was late for the funeral—she didn’t attend it.

If all that sounds a bit convoluted and more than a little murky, it’s because it is. It’s also the foundation around which most of the events in The Last Enemy revolve. Stephen is a stranger in his own land, which has instituted more stringent surveillance on its citizenry after a terrorist attack on London. He barely recognizes the England he left years ago, rife as it is with biometric ID cards, security cameras virtually everywhere, and the implementation of the “Total Information Awareness” program, which gives the government unfettered access to personal data of every citizen. It isn’t long , however, that Stephen finds himself the media spokesman for TIA.

In the first episode, the viewer may come away feeling as confused as Stephen Ezard. He’s reintroduced to an old college flame, Elinor Brooke (Eva Birthistle, The State Within), who is now the minister responsible for pushing through Parliament. He’s also kidnapped and terrorized by a rogue government agent played by David Carlyle (The Full Monty), determined that the bewildered Ezard knows all about a conspiracy.

The Last Enemy looks at the side effects of a society trading personal freedoms in favor of heightened security, and the corruption that inevitably ensues when bureaucrats are imbued with power owing as much to corporate interests as it does to national security. In the end, it asks if the individual must be trampled, revealed as “the last enemy” of a secure state.

Throughout the miniseries, The Last Enemy holds that proposition close to its sleeve, and forces us to look at our willingness to sacrifice personal liberties in the name of the State’s greater good. That it does so as a taut, action-mystery only enhances its message. It's to writer Peter Berry's (Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness) that it's a tale that is so in tune with reality that it never comes off as obvious. In fact, nothing is as it seems at first glance. It’s not a series to watch casually, requiring the viewer pay attention to the clues it drops haphazardly along the way. But for the viewer willing to invest five and a half hours to unravel its mystery, it’s ultimately a satisfying, if often unsettling, experience.