A five-episode BBC miniseries, The Last Enemy (2008) is an intelligent, unique blend of conspiracy thriller and near-future, Orwellian dystopia. Benedict Cumberbatch, perhaps laying the “smart guy” groundwork for his eventual casting in Sherlock, stars as Stephen Ezard, a brilliant mathematician who returns to England from China to attend the funeral of his brother. A recluse who wants only to withdraw from the world and carry on his abstract research, Ezard finds that much has changed in the UK since his self-imposed exile. The surveillance society is in full gear, a police state advancing from ubiquitous CCTV and national ID cards to ever more intrusive government initiatives. One such project is T.I.A. (Total Information Awareness), a powerful central database of information on the citizenry. Stephen’s ex Eleanor (Eva Birthistle), the Home Secretary, wants him to lend his endorsement to the project in exchange for research funding. Stephen couldn’t be less interested until he meets and falls in love with his brother’s widow, Yasim Anwar (Anamaria Marinca). Yasim is a doctor who’s become entangled in an effort to expose a dirty government cover-up of a medical atrocity. When she goes missing, Stephen throws in with T.I.A. in order to investigate, and finds himself ensnared in the web himself.
It’s an engaging, gritty and well produced story, which starts and ends strongly; the pace falters somewhat in the middle stages, I think. The mystery is compelling, and the near-future SFnal trappings are low-key and convincing. Often the cautionary message becomes stridently didactic, and the world is relentlessly bleak, but in general its themes are well executed, and the resolution is chillingly sinister. I suspect its depressing, preaching-to-the-choir tone will put off some viewers, and it’s riddled with little missteps — such as Ezard’s inconsistent obsessive-compulsiveness. But fans of twisty spy thrillers will find plenty of tradecraft and suspense to sustain them, with an unusually immediate near-future vibe as a kicker.