Last night was the most excited I've been about TV for a long while. Sod the Olympics, sod the World Cup, the MI5 drama Spooks was back on TV for a third series. I watched the first two series avidly and was gripped from start to finish. I bought series 1 on DVD, will probably buy series 2 on DVD soon, and bought the official Spooks book (written by BBC staffer Jim Sangster and with an acknowledgement to me at the front, though I hardly helped much). So, I've been looking forward to series 3 for a while.
Series 2 ended on a major cliffhanger. However, Series 3 started pretty much how I had worked out it would. I won't give away spoilers, but needless to say the first episode didn't disappoint with its mixture of drama and politics.
After the end of such an exciting episode I was all ready to sit down with a cup of tea. But a 'press red' sign intrigued me, and so I got unexpectedly sucked into the interactive game. What followed was the best interactive TV application ever seen in the UK...
As soon as the episode ended, the screen switched to a 60 second countdown timer in perfect synchronisation. Then the character Harry (Peter Firth) appears, telling you calmly that your 'MI5 training' is about to begin. Harry takes you through a series of training modules, which you 'play' using your remote control.
In the first module, 'Surveillance', you are shown video from surveillance footage, and are then asked questions about your observations. It's classily done, and involves a lot more than just memory - you have to interpret what happened. An innocent passer-by, or MI5 spy? It's tricky, and all happens fast...
In the second module, a meeting is taking place between a professional assassin and someone offering them a job. MI5 have bugged the place with video and audio surveillance, but you have to switch between audio feeds to get the best sound recording. It's a bit like being a live TV director. The trick is to remember that the best sound doesn't necessarily come from the camera with the best picture.
The third module, 'Garbology', asks you to select which items from someone's rubbish you'd like to look at. From these, you have to make an assessment about how best to try and persuade the person to become an agent for you. Again, it's tricky, and you have to think. I failed.
The next mission was similar to the second one, but you had to switch between CCTV cameras in order to follow a suspect through a car park as she makes a 'brush contact'. What's clever here is that you can see two cameras at one but only in grainy B&W. The camera you select (using a remote control) is displayed in a bigger format in full colour. As well as selecting the right cameras at the right time, you have to watch the screen to assess what's happening in order to answer the questions after.
The penultimate module, 'Adopting a Legend' is a memory test. Loads of information about your 'legend' (cover name) is flashed up on the screen and read out to you. You have to watch, listen, read, and assimilate the information fast. This was even harder for me, as I was temporarily stunned as the video revealed that your legend's surname was 'Roberts' but that he had changed this from the Italian version 'Roberto'. As my real surname is 'Roberts', and as 'Roberto' isn't actually an Italian surname but is a first name, this is either a completely spooky co-incidence, or else someone at the BBC who knows me is taking the piss... :-)
The final module in this exiting TV experience was a memory test involving questions based upon all the previous modules, which was also pretty tricky.
At the end of each module, you got a debrief from Harry, who either congratulated you or berated you depending on how you'd performed. At the end of the whole thing you got a summing up from Harry and scores for each modules in percentages. I did pretty poorly on most modules. The whole thing lasted half an hour, which is impressive, after which they repeated the whole thing once (I did it again, but still didn't win every module).
I cannot reap enough praise on the BBC for how impressive and well put together this whole interactive TV application was. It must have taken months of preperation involving whole teams of people, filming units and cost a fair chunk of money - congratulations to them all. Everything worked perfectly, and it's staggering to see how much can be done on such a limited platform. Most of the functionality consists simply of switching between two different video feeds, but it all works seamlessly and the calculation of scores was an unexpected bonus. Furthermore, the content was spot on, having been well informed by the TV programme and, presumably, having some of the same creative team behind it.
One thing which I think I should point out is that an unecpected bonus of the format is the need for the 'game' to be played in real-time. Unlike all PC, console or flash games, as a player you are forced to play the game as it happens, with no going back, pausing or re-doing sections. The real-time nature of the game creates urgency and really adds to the drama of it all - I was glued.
For those that missed it, check out the alternative Spooks flash game, which re-uses some of the training elements from the series 2 website, but which promises some new actual missions. I also really hope that the whole interactive TV application can be incorporated into a DVD at some point, but I'm not sure if DVD technology is up to it (though the 'My Little Eye' DVD comes close).
Will I be watching, and playing, next week? You bet...