Warning: this review assumes that readers have already seen Seasons 1 and 2 and don't mind minor spoilers for Season 3.
Spooks enters its third season exactly where Season 2 left off: having shot his boss, Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), disgraced spy Tom Quinn (Matthew MacFayden) has fled into the North Sea and vanished without a trace. The news that Tom has seemingly gone insane sends MI5 into disarray, as his colleages Zoe (Keeley Hawes) and Danny (David Oyelowo) rush to get to the bottom of the confusion. Meanwhile, the government sees the perfect opportunity to rein in the intelligence services and sends in the brutal Oliver Mace (Tim McInnerny) to turn MI5 inside out. To combat the thuggish Mace's power play, Harry drafts in Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones), a "loose cannon" and quick-thinking spy, who sets about trying to get to the bottom of the chaotic situation.
One of the major elements differentiating British television series from their US counterparts, apart from the substantially lower number of episodes per season (Spooks is in fact something of an oddity in that, from the second season onwards, it has run for ten episodes rather than the usual six), is the faster turnover rate for characters and cast members. This is generally speaking not true for character-based series, of course, but in what are commonly termed "precinct dramas", where the characters play second fiddle to their occupations, British series seem to be unable to keep a hold of their stars. It took eight years for Anthony Edwards to hang up his stethoscope and leave ER, and yet in Spooks, lead actor Matthew MacFayden was bidding farewell in the space of just over two years, having only actually starred in a total of 18 episodes. By the end of the year, his co-stars Keeley Hawes and David Oyelowo were also gone, with only Oyelowo seeing out the entire 10-episode run, resulting in the complete decimation of the group around which the show effectively revolved.
As a result, therefore, Season 3's writers were in the unfortunate situation of having to write out three popular characters while at the same time drafting in replacements. Those involved might take exception to the use of the word "replacements", pointing out that the new characters are substantially different from their predecessors, and yet the mechanics of the precinct drama almost always require the newcomers to fill the void left by the departed. It doesn't help that the characters drafted in not only replace their predecessors in terms of their jobs, but also possess similar personality traits. Adam Carter might as well have declared "I'm the new Tom Quinn!" when he first stepped into Thames House since, despite ardent protests from both cast and crew, Tom and Adam are almost exactly the same character. The same goes for his wife Fiona, who more or less steps into Zoe's shoes (they even look similar!), and in the final episode, it becomes abundantly clear that, in the next season, Zafar Younis (Raza Jaffrey) will be taking Danny's place while ensuring that the "minority" checkbox remains ticked.
The psychology surrounding cast changes like these is extremely interesting. There seems to be an unwritten rule in television drama that a leaving character will be forgotten within the space of a couple of episodes, no matter the circumstances surrounding their departure. Spooks does, to its credit, attempt to throw a few bones to the audience (we get the impression that, throughout the season, the loss of Tom and Zoe is taking its toll on Danny), but even so it is noticeable that everyone involved very quickly begins acting like nothing ever happened. It's a necessary evil, I suppose, given that a show that looks backward rather than forward runs the risk of losing its audience, but at times it does become difficult not to view this as a betrayal of much-loved characters. Tom and Zoe's exits, which both involve them walking out effectively disgraced, are not particularly satisfying, with only Danny managing to go out still standing tall. To be fair, though, with this season the writers do attempt to flesh out some of the more under-developed side characters, most noticeably Ruth (Nicola Walker). This attempt to make the series more of an ensemble rather than relying on a specific character or characters is half-admitted in the bonus materials included in this DVD release, but it does seem suspiciously like a case of the writers being caught unawares and having to adapt the format in order to withstand the tide of departures.
Amid the hubbub of cast changes, the "problem of the week" storylines, always Spooks' greatest strength, often run the risk of being overshadowed. This is a shame, because although Season 3 fails to live up to the likes of the nuclear attack exercise that formed the basis of Season 2's stand-out episode, there are a number of fine moments. The opener, dealing with Tom's attempt to clear his name, is fantastic stuff, and a mid-season episode, which sees Danny struggling with his conscience when he is asked to go on an assassination mission, brings the moral and ethical dilemmas facing these characters to the forefront. A later episode, which features Adam resorting to torture techniques in order to extract information for a prisoner unwilling to cooperate because he fears reprisals, paints the British intelligence agencies in such a negative light that I'm amazed there wasn't some sort of government uproar (particularly given the scandal the BBC recently found itself embroiled in with the Hutton Enquiry). On the downside, though, we do have to contend with a thoroughly awful episode involving a rock star whose child is kidnapped. Not only does the whole thing seem to be nothing more than an excuse to showcase guest star Andy Serkis, the premise itself feels nothing like Spooks and would be more at home in a run of the mill detective drama.
Spooks' third season, therefore, is something of a step down from both its predecessors. Given that the problems seem to stem mainly from the sense of it being a show in the middle of a major transition, it remains to be seen whether or not future instalments will see the series regaining some of the ground it has lost here. Certainly, as the new characters become more fleshed out, and the actors become more accustomed to their respective roles, it is to be expected that things will improve. Whether they will ever manage to live up to the show's first two seasons, however, remains to be seen.
Viewers who bought the previous two Spooks box sets will know what to expect in terms of presentation: two episodes per disc, each in in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen with a choice of stereo or 5.1 audio mixes. The transfers do a good job of representing the 16mm film elements, which understandably can get a bit grainy in places. As with the previous releases, some softness can be observed at times, but all in all the quality is impressive for a TV series. Subtitles have been provided for the episodes themselves, but sadly not for the extras.
If, like me, you hated wrangling with the cumbersome menu system used in the previous two sets, worry no more: Season 3 features a completely new menu system, with menu choices that are actually labelled and organized in a sensible manner. Like the previous sets, live action footage has been shot specially for these menus, which tends to look a little tacky and go on for too long, but this is a big step up from what we had to contend with for Seasons 1 and 2.
Once again, there is a mammoth array of extras to wade through. First up is a series of audio commentaries covering every episode. Each track features a range of participants - usually the director of the episode, and the series' producer, Andrew Woodhead, although on half of the episodes they are joined either by Olga Sosnovska (Fiona) or David Oyelowo (Danny), and on occasion executive producer Simon Crawford Collins makes an appearance. Unfortunately, these commentaries tend to be a bit dry, especially when the writer of the episode is not around, as the discussions tend to lean on the anecdotal side rather than offering any real discussion of the plot or the ideas behind it. This is at its worst on the commentary for Episode 6, which features director Justin Chadwick on his own, attempting to discuss only the technical side of the production and therefore spending a great deal of time with nothing to say.
Directors Johnny Campbell (episodes 1 and 2) and Cilla Ware (episodes 3 and 4) are interviewed, covering not only the Spooks experience but also their careers as a whole. It's certainly interesting to hear what they have to say here, and I personally found this format, which allows them to speak directly to the camera and cover everything at their own pace, more worthwhile than their contributions to the various commentaries. Particularly intriguing to me were Ware's discussions of how directing for a drama series differs from her roots in documentary filmmaking, and Campbell's discussion of just how much work goes into preparing each episode: he quoted a figure of six months per episode, which sounds like an eternity given the blisteringly fast turnaround of American shows. They continue to elaborate on these topics in the longer Directing Spooks.
Rupert Penry-Jones (Adam) and Olga Sosnovska (Fiona), the two principal additions to the cast this season, are each the focus of two featurettes (making four in total), one discussing the actor and the other getting into the nitty-gritty of the character. Sosnovska provides some fairly frank titbits, including an admission that she was headhunted for a role in Season 2 but turned it down, as well as an observation that her character, as initially introduced, seems to have become a completely different person by the end of the season. Hellos and Goodbyes, meanwhile, discusses the arrivals and departures during Season 3 in broader terms.
If all that sounded like a pretty inclusive package, then it was only the tip of the iceberg. Further featurettes, of varying length, tackle different aspects of the show in considerable depth. Resolving Season 2 discusses the problems raised by the fact that, just like Season 1, the writers had essentially written themselves into a corner, upping the stakes and providing a shocking cliffhanger without any idea of how to resolve it. In particular, the news that Matthew MacFayden would in fact be coming back for the first two episodes, after the episodes in question had been written with the assumption that his character would be dead, threw a fairly large spanner into the works.
Writing Season 3 interviews writers Ben Richards, Raymond Khoury and Rupert Walters, covering their careers and their experience working on Spooks in depth. Season 3, meanwhile, discusses this year's episodes in a broader context, including the aims the writers had for it as a whole. Relating to the Real World expands on the writing process, covering the importance of depicting current affairs and maintaining objectivity while still delivering exciting drama. A few comments are also made about Season 4, although not much is said beyond a few very vague hints which, given that the fourth season began airing on BBC1 at almost the same time that this DVD was released, almost seems a bit pointless.
Also, a series of featurettes briefly discuss each episode, including its main themes and its overall purpose in the grand scheme of the season arc. Deleted scenes and image galleries are also provided for each episode, in addition to the cast and crew credits (Spooks is one of the few television series in existence to have no credits at all). Scripts are also provided in the form of DVD-ROM content.
Contender have once again delivered a fine package for Spooks' third season, and if this collection of episodes is not quite up to the level of those that preceded it, the quality of the presentation and exhaustive nature of the bonus materials almost make up for this. While the majority of the commentaries are really not worth bothering with, there is still plenty of interest here and fans of the show should be served well by this release.