Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Thoughts on spy stories

There's something about the genre of espionage that has always attracted me. In hindsight, I think the first time I realized I had a thing for stories about spies was, oddly, due to Focus on the Family. They produce a radio show for kids called Adventures in Odyssey.* When I was in late elementary school and junior high, sometimes my siblings and I would listen to the show before bedtime or during long car trips. One particular two-episode story, "A Name, Not A Number," focused on Jason Whittaker, an ex-NSA agent who gets drawn back into the spy game to foil biological terrorist attack by a group called Red Scorpion. Not coincidentally, "A Name, Not a Number" was my favorite adventure in Odyssey of all time.

Recently, I've been watching Spooks, a BBC spy series that is marketed in the U.S. under the name MI-5. The agency in question, MI-5, is responsible for protecting Britain's interests at home and safeguarding the country in general. This means that the MI-5 operatives on the show don't make too many international trips, although they do get out of their London office frequently. In several respects, Spooks is the show that Fox's 24 wishes it could be, only minus the the real-time format. Moreover, Spooks manages to avoid feeling repetitive the way that the events at 24's agency CTU increasingly do. It also seems more realistic. Plus, the spies have British accents. I ask you, what's not to like about that?

I noticed an analogy that can be made between Spooks and another favorite spy drama of mine, ALIAS. The protagonists of each show work for a government agency. Spooks, as we've mentioned, centers around a group of top MI-5 agents. In the case of ALIAS, the protagonist, Sydney Bristow, is either working for the CIA or some U.S.-run black ops agency, depending on which season it is. Our protagonists and their home agency inevitably end up clashing repeatedly with at least one sister agency over the course of the series, and herein lies our analogy. MI-6 : MI-5 :: NSA : Sydney's agency. The rival agency proceeds to meddle in the affairs of our protagonists, leak information that foils their ops, be riddled with moles, get good agents killed, put on airs of superiority, and occasionally have operatives who engage in conspiracies against the state. Just about every time someone from the NSA shows up in ALIAS, the viewer immediately starts thinking "Nothing good can come of this," "Oh no, not those annoying people again," or both. This is true with MI-6 in Spooks as well — albeit with a few exceptions, such as when Harry Pearce (the head of MI-5) recruits a few former MI-6 officers to cross over to MI-5 during the third season.

*A little known fact outside the conservative Christian subculture in the U.S. (and to some degree within it) is that Focus on the Family produces some really good radio theater. For example, check out their adaptations of Les Misérables or any one of The Chronicles of Narnia, the latter of which is hosted by Douglas Gresham, C.S. Lewis's stepson.

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