When the country is in trouble, the government meets in Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, which in acronym is known as Cobra (Sky One). Like the snake! Hissss. Lobby hacks never tire of reminding us of this, because it’s the closest politics gets to sounding cool, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this new six-part drama is basically about a meeting room. The premise is to show the inner workings of government and the emergency services as a catastrophe unfolds, in this case solar flares that disrupt power and electronics. How will a handful of dedicated public servants juggle the demands of their office with their own messy personal lives? Only time will tell.
Six hours, to be precise, including a few merciful ad breaks. In true British style, the threat to the nation’s security is the weather. The sun is playing up, shooting out solar flares that could take down the whole power grid and disrupt plane travel. In this universe, the Met Office appears to have a network of satellites observing our home star. Even less realistically, their predictions are accurate. The prime minister, Robert Sutherland, is played by Robert Carlyle, last seen contending with a mysterious threat from space in the BBC’s sorry Christmas adaptation of The War of the Worlds. He must look to the heavens again.
In the cold open, a passenger jet, diverted from failing French air-traffic control, tries to find a landing in the UK before it runs out of fuel. Eventually, it is diverted to RAF Coningsby but it doesn’t make it and the pilots decide to put her down on the A1. Nobody asks why it was sent so far north, although it’s entirely believable that if I fiery crater had to be created somewhere, the government would prefer it was north of Watford.
The action cuts back to the events leading up to the situation. One by one the major characters introduce a complication in their personal lives. Hard-nosed chief of staff Anna Marshall (Victoria Hamilton) comes home to find an old flame on her doorstep. Sutherland’s daughter goes on a post-graduation bender that ends up with her friend in a coma. (In TV land, a politician’s child doing drugs is one of the most certain auguries of catastrophe.) Disaster-planning expert Fraser Walker (Richard Dormer, one of the few actors to emerge with dignity) has a father in a care home and an estranged wife.
There is a political threat, too, in the shape of Sutherland’s home secretary, Archie Glover-Morgan (David Haig, struggling manfully), a Brexiteer who sees opportunity in the chaos. Naturally, the baddie is a Brexiteer, in a world where the prevailing political energy is pure centrist dad. “You voted to leave the EU, Archie, not the human race,” Sutherland snaps when he’s wondering whether to ground air traffic. “This is a hard decision but we do have to decide, there’s no middle ground here,” he adds, for the hard of comprehension.
The message is clear: Sutherland is a decent man, doing his best in the circumstances. Despite being a Conservative, he is not above reaching out to a former Labour MP, Francine Bridge (Marsha Thomason), when Hamilton thinks it’s a good idea.
Nobody expects Cobra to be The West Wing or House of Cards, but it might aspire to Jack Ryan or Designated Survivor. It ought to be well-oiled nonsense. Instead, it creaks and clunks along, its rusty machinery visible at every turn. It looks cheap, too: in particular the aftermath of the plane crash, which seems to have been put together in a car park with a few leftover fireworks. The toe-curling expository briefing about the solar storm will linger in the memory. (“There will be just 30 minutes before we know if this storm will fuse a few kettles or send us back to the Stone Age.”) By the end, an extreme weather event that disrupts electronic devices doesn’t seem so bad.
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