Looking Back At BUGS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At BUGS

Something’s bugging Tony.
Whenever people try to explain Bugs to anyone who’s never seen it before, there’s one reference point they always use.

“It’s like The Avengers with 90s technology,” they say – meaning the 1960s British spy show, rather than the Marvelfest, because the Marvel Cinematic Universe is very much a 21st century phenomenon.

The reason they always use that reference is because – well, because that’s what Bugs is, in a nutshell. Three interestingly-written, vibrantly-played characters, each with their own specialities, standing together against the forces of naughtiness – but in the case of Bugs, with as much up-to-date or even just slightly futuristic technology as possible either at stake or in use.

Here’s the thing about that.

There’s no bad there. None whatsoever.

What’s more, there’s some solid TV pedigree in evidence in Bugs, and some budget, too – at least initially, the show seems to cross the line from “90s Avengers” to “Classic Bond” in terms of where you can see the money being spent on-screen – and viewers in the mid-to-late 90s lapped it up.

Importantly, over 25 years later, it still delivers what might be thought of as “popcorn TV” – the stuff you’re glued to, munching through a favourite snack because of the tension, the action, and the banter. If Bugs were a book, it would be described everywhere as a “page-turner.”

It was the brainchild of TV genius Brian Eastman, the man who gave us the impeccable David Suchet Poirot series, the simply spiffing Fry and Laurie Jeeves and Wooster adaptations, and the highly memorable Tom Sharpe adaptations, Wilt and Porterhouse Blue. It’s fair to say that Eastman knows how to make TV gold, and in Bugs, while there may have been an initial formula to follow in the idea of The Avengers, he did several important things.

He updated the idea and bedded it within the more gritty contemporary spy fiction genre. He kept it within that genre, but ensured the series was always within reasonably easily understood scientific concepts. And – most crucially of all – he ensured the characters were never stock adventure cliches, which they could easily have been.

Bringing in veteran adventure series writer Brian Clemens was another stroke of genius, because not only was Clemens a huge driving force behind the original Avengers series and The New Adventures, he also had a lot of gritty TV drama experience in his resume, including work on The Professionals. Fans of the 1970s version of Survivors know he also sued Terry Nation for the right to be known as that series’ creator. While that suit failed, grit and spy adventure were in Clemens’ blood and soul. Give him a budget and he would give you the goods.

And in Bugs, he did. Again. While it’s also notable for the inclusion of some hardcore science fiction writers in its raft of creatives across its four series (Paging Stephen Gallagher…), it’s fair to say that the highly-skilled fingerprints of the two Brians, Eastman and Clemens, are all over Bugs, and that they help to make the show as eminently bingeable as it is.

The core team of three that deliver the action on screen are are Nick Bennett (Jesse Birdsall), Ros Henderson (the ever-watchable Jaye Griffiths), and Ed – just Ed (played by ex-Neighbour Craig McLachlan for the first three series, and Steven Houghton for Series 4).

If you wanted to break them down into archetypes, you could say that Beckett is the strategist of the group, Ros the tech-brains, and Ed the action hero, but that would be to oversimplify the characters, their interconnections and arcs. While the three only originally come together due to a dangerous corruption in the super-duper secret government spy organisation for which Beckett works, “The Hive,” Ros and Ed have lived in the same apartment block for some time, and are already friends before Beckett crashes into their lives and drives them on to save the world.

While Beckett is much more a traditional Bond archetype but with the sociopathy, the sexism and the cheese removed, Ros could be said both to come from the Avengers school of heroes – clever, empowered, more than a little reckless, and with a sense of amusement at her own skills – and to inspire future British science fiction heroes like Tosh in Torchwood and Clara in Doctor Who (in which Jaye Griffiths was also to star).

She’s an Avengers woman significantly updated for the age, and, unlike any of the trite “screaming women” who had been a staple of adventure fiction for decades, she’s quite capable of getting herself out of 90% of the sticky situations in which she’s placed.

Ed is a thrillseeker long before Beckett arrives in his life, and if you’re looking for him in prior adventure fiction, you’d think Mike Gambit (Gareth Hunt) from The New Avengers more than anyone else. While he has a reckless streak in him, he always does what he does very well, often saving lives by making split-second decisions and acting on them.

Many people in Britain were used to McLachlan playing Henry Ramsay in Neighbours, so his three-series stint as Ed opened up a whole new audience for him, and showed he had significant range in adventure drama.

As with the likes of The Avengers, Bugs evolved over time. Originally, the three got together when The Hive was found to be riddled with corruption and their combined skills helped save the world from “the biggest protection racket of all time” – albeit destroying a highly technical piece of slightly speculative science fiction geekery in the process.

As they went along though, the team worked more and more often within a government framework, the Bureau of Weapons Technology (and its successor, Bureau 2). The Avengers veering slightly towards The Professionals, you could say, although both while they’re independent and as they move more into government, the three are actually known as Gizmos, or the Gizmos team.

Similarly, as they moved more and more in-house with the British government, the regular team grew to include bosses (including the mysterious Jan, played by Jan Francis), secretarial staff (like Alex Jordan, played by Paula Hunt) and semi-regular contacts. The gradual move in-house also shifted the storytelling dynamic from one-off “Cataclysm of the Week”-style events to larger and longer story arcs, including the rise to prominence of one particular arch-villain.

But throughout the series, there was a sense of the show being anchored by technology that either was, or could soon be, available – and the nefarious uses to which it could be put. Covert assassination by micro-drones, destruction of commercial planes by stealth planes in non-governmental hands, the rise of AI as a targetable threat, the increasing impact of satellite signal networks etc – all these and more were featured in Bugs, and while there was plenty of humour to leaven each episode, the threats were played deadpan and for real.

That was both part of what made it such a must-see series, and what makes it slightly quaint on a rewatch with over a quarter of a century’s hindsight. Some of the technology that was cutting edge or futuristic in 1995 is the stuff of apps on your smartphone in this day and age.

There’s a particularly comical sequence in Episode 1 for instance, where Ros has to hack into The Hive’s software to realistically “age” a photo of a person from decades earlier. It will take “a couple of minutes,” she explains. Today, it’s the kind of thing people do in an instant through a free app, and then post all over social media.

Similarly with the episode about a potential AI ‘invading’ the internet, today, there’s hardly one of us who, knowingly or unknowingly, doesn’t have an Alexa, a Siri, a Google Assistant or a Bixby in our homes or about our person every minute of the day.

Does that ruin Bugs for the viewer, 25 years on? No, not at all – no more than the threats and plots and MacGuffins of Sixties sci-fi and adventure series ruin the experience of watching them. Some things are factored in to the kind of show you’re watching.

The thing with Bugs is that the technology is either relatively new, still here, or perhaps just around the next technological corner. And, like Bond rather than like the Avengers, the people behind the threats are intensely possible in our world, so the “just around the corner” tech still feels very relevant, even though we’re now in a world of selfies, Snapchat, filters and deepfakes.

One other thing that sets Bugs apart from many contemporary adventure series is that Bugs goes to some length to showcase its London location, particularly the then relatively newly refurbished Docklands area.

While in American TV, that had frequently been a built-in element that anchored shows snd gave them some of their flavour, British adventure series had rarely bitten the bullet anything like as hard as their transatlantic cousins (Mmm, OK, maybe The Sweeney), and in fact often delighted in not showing identifiable city locations, due to the ruinously expensive and horribly inconvenient process of filming in known London locations.

Bugs broke that mould, and many of the Docklands locations are almost instantly recognisable today. Bugs paved the way in London for what Russell T Davies was later to do in Cardiff with Torchwood, making the city a real, living part of the drama.

There are highly affectionate fans who play games with Bugs for its sometimes less than stellar direction – visible chalk-marks where actors are supposed to stand, odd filler shots in the middle of tense chase sequences and the like.

But the point is that these directorial slips, like the wobbly scenery and homemade monsters of the British science fiction of earlier decades, rarely if ever impinge on the drama, the pace, the pulse, the characterisation or the involving storytelling of Bugs.

The fact that the show pulled the “end on a cliff-hanger so we get guaranteed a next series” trick not once but twice means that towards the end there’s a sliiiight sense of over-inflated melodrama about a show that started off with grit and humour. And it also goes to show that that’s a 50-50 stratagem. Bugs was due to end at the end of Series 3, but its cliff-hanger was enough to pull it back onto screens for Series 4, even though that involved replacing Craig McLachlan in one of the three main roles.

But schedule changes and inconsistencies meant its future looked bleak again by the end of Series 4, which subsequently also ended on a what-the-hell cliff-hanger. But the decision was taken to pull Bugs at the end of that series, meaning it remains one of the great unresolved story arcs in British science fiction history.

Nearly three decades on, Bugs still delivers the characterisation, the intriguing plots, the focus on technology and the brisk storytelling that made it highly rewatchable adventure television in the mid-to-late Nineties. Now it’s arrived en masse on Britbox, it will keep you mesmerised through its four series. One tip, though – get the popcorn in. Get lots - you’re going to need it.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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