The shows and movies that take place in submarines give us anxiety, but in a good way. The anxiety that comes with the claustrophobia of working and sleeping in a metal tube hundreds of feet underwater helps the tension of on-screen drama. Can that tension be added to what on the surface (pun intended) is a standard murder mystery miniseries? Read on for more information.
WATCH: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening shot: A fishing trawler is shown in the middle of the vast Atlantic.
The essence: As the trawler does his thing, his net gets caught in something that pulls it extremely fast and begins to drag it down. It is more than likely a submarine. The HMS Vigil, a British Trident submarine in the area, sees that the trawler is being shot down. One of the helmsman, Petty Officer Craig Burke (Martin Compston) insists that they must surface and help the fishermen who are destined to drown, but Captain Newsome (Paterson Joseph) tells them that their orders are to stay submerged and not give away your position. The captain relieves Burke of his post and tells him to freshen up in his bunk.
Burke is soon found dead out of his bunk, with powdered heroin around his nostrils. Because the submarine was in British waters, the Royal Navy must bring in local law enforcement authorities to investigate. In Glasgow, her boss calls DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) to speak to naval authorities. They tell you that it will be embedded in the Vigil for three days to complete your investigation. Here’s the twist: Due to the ship’s mission, it cannot dock and communications with the department will be limited to incoming messages.
Silva agrees to do so, despite some reservations about being in tight spaces underwater. She asks her boss to have DC Kirsten Longacre (Rose Leslie) as her eyes and ears on the shoreline, investigating Burke’s friends, family and colleagues ashore. Why? Because Longacre knows Silva intimately, until recently, they were in a relationship.
After being lowered into the submarine, he submerges again. Petty Officer Glover (Shaun Evans), the ship’s helmsman, takes her where she needs to go. Already dismayed that Burke’s body has not been removed from the sub for an autopsy, she begins to speak to the crew, but meets a lot of resistance. When he examines the body with the help of the ship’s doctor, Tiffany Docherty (Anjli Mohindra), he sees that there is trauma to Burke’s neck and there is no evidence that the heroin in his nose was actually inhaled by him. In other words, he was assassinated.
When she presents the theory to Captain Newsome, he tells her not to give that theory to the crew and to follow their orders. With Glover, the captain privately tries to figure out how to handle Silva’s activities without exposing her suspicions. One reason is that they weren’t the submarine that dragged the trawler, meaning one was right next to them, posing an unprecedented national security threat.
On the ground, Longacre interrogates a woman claiming to be Burke’s girlfriend, who was seen outside her accommodation on the base with her key and identification. She knew Burke was dead, but when Longacre tells her how, she says that can’t be the case. He sends Longacre back to base, where he finds a USB stick containing a video of Burke explaining how to carry the Vigil below. Just when that is happening, the sub mysteriously loses all power.
What shows will it remind you of? Think of a British police drama serialized as Wide church, combined with the confined underwater environment of The boat.
Our Take: Just because of the nature of the show’s setting, Vigil creator Tom EdgeStrike CB) has made a show that, at least, has a unique setting. Putting a police detective in the confined sensory deprivation environment of a submarine automatically adds a layer of tension that other UK detective series sometimes lack. We just hope the series doesn’t get sidetracked by elements of the story that feel a bit superfluous, at least at first glance.
A secondary issue is what happened between Silva and Longacre. They were together, but there was what seemed like another relationship there, Silva’s husband and son. Were they a throuple? What was the relationship? It’s unclear from the first episode, and questions about it detract from Silva and Longacre trying to solve Burke’s murder.
We know that a tragedy suffered by Silva and Longacre not only separated them, but also contributes to the anxiety Silva feels, as he will likely be trapped in the Vigil. A flashback looms in which a car she was in with her husband and son plunges into the water, and the three of them try to get out. Surviving such a tragedy would affect anyone, so the longer Silva is trapped in the sub, the more trauma will surface.
If examining Silva’s past relationships is the key to explaining his behavior on board, then the side story won’t be as much of a distraction as we think. But there’s also the fact that Longacre is likely to uncover a major cover-up in the Scottish government, and that will complicate matters too. We just hope that the stamina Silva gets from the crew, coupled with the growing claustrophobia of being aboard a sabotaged submarine, is the main dramatic boost from Vigil, not the usual conspiracy plot.
Sex and skin: None.
Farewell shot: Like the reactor in the Vigil shuts down, Silva begins to panic. Naval police point their guns at Longacre as Burke’s video plays on his laptop. “I have some things to tell you,” he tells the camera.
Sleeping star: Shaun Evans, who plays Glover, does a good job playing both sides. As the ship’s helmsman, what he calls the “human resources department,” has the best interest of the crew and the captain’s ear in mind, definitely more than the executive officer, Prentice (Adam James). But he’s also there to help Silva as much as he can without compromising the crew or the ship’s mission.
Most of the Pilot-y line: When he gets on the sub, Silva tells the XO that Burke’s body should have been removed. Too late for that. Welcome to the Vigil“He says informally. Yes, it is the first sign that he is not going to have it easy, but it was also a difficult line to understand after a couple of listens. It had important information, but it was said so quickly that it passed by at first sight.
Our calling: STREAM IT. The unique environment of Vigil makes it stand out from the many UK-based police procedures out there. We just hope the show focuses on the submarine’s claustrophobia and doesn’t get bogged down in other elements of the story that might prove to be distracting.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting, and technology, but he’s not fooling himself: he’s a television junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and other places.