TV series review: Vigil – season 1 (BBC, 2021)
td;dr: A chilling thriller decidedly not made for people who find submarine narratives claustrophobic.
After Chief Petty Officer Craig Burke (Martin Compston) is found dead after a suspected drug overdose in his bunk aboard the HMS Vigil, a Royal Navy nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, standard protocol means the police have to come and investigate. It should just be a routine mission, over and done with in a couple of days or so. Unfortunately for Detective Chief Inspector Amy Silva (Suranne Jones), who suffers from PTSD after surviving a car accident that drowned her fiancé, it means she has to helicopter out to the open sea and be on board for those few days, with no surface contact due to the secrecy of the mission. She soon suspects Burke was murdered, but Commander Newsome (Paterson Joseph) and the other higher-ups (Shaun Evans, Adam James) are sceptical. Why would someone want to kill their sonar mapping guy? Even the Surgeon Lieutenant (Anjli Mohindr) takes some convincing.
On shore and under the watchful eye of Detective Superintendent Colin Robertson (Gary Lewis), Detective Sergeants Longacre (Rose Leslie) and Porter (Reuben Joseph) are looking into who Burke was. Could he somehow be connected to the sudden disappearance of a Scottish fishing boat? Is there a connection to the environmental protesters (Lauren Lyle, Cal MacAninch) who want the UK’s nuclear deterrent moved out of Scotland? The Scottish Police Service soon find themselves embroiled in a conflict with the Royal Navy (Stephen Dillane, Lolita Chakrabarti), being threatened the the MI5 (Therese Bradley, Parth Thakerar), and on the trail of a cover-up of epic proportions.
First of all, I’m not a fan of narratives taking place aboard submarines. I find the concept of being trapped in a metal tube deep underwater where you’ll die in the dark if you run out of air inherently claustrophobic. I have no desire to watch Gravity for the exact same reason, only it’s in space instead of underwater. (Paradoxically, perhaps, I’m fine with airplanes, although I didn’t like walking through a grounded Concorde. The cabins in those were tiny!) This is not a show I would have chosen to see, but Mr T recorded it and I can get through The Hunt for Red October, so it might be okay. Reader, Vigil doesn’t have Sam Neill in it as an incentive, and Vigil takes claustrophobia and turns it up to eleven. So if you’re claustrophobic enough to find The Hunt for Red October unwatchable, please stay as far away from this show as possible or you will have a panic attack. I wasn’t far off having to remove myself from the room to get away from it.
It’s not enough that it’s set aboard a submarine with a potential murderer on the loose, they also lose power, which in order to get the reactor back online means they risk a nuclear meltdown in order to get it going again. And that’s just for starters. It gets so, so much worse as the episodes go on, but I won’t get into details. Heck, even if you’re not claustrophobic you might still find it really uncomfortable. So, y’know, buyer beware and all that.
Aside from the main issue being that it’s set on a submarine, is it any good? We found it a suspenseful thriller, solid edge of the seat stuff with a great cast. Is it true to life? Apparently not, with some reviewers (who I take it actually know about these things) finding it ludicrous and implausible. I guess if you have no actual knowledge of submarines or the military you’re good? Sure, there were times where even we went “umm, really?” but we were too busy watching to be bothered by it for very long.
I applaud Suranne Jones for this role, as she’s the one who has to act out having panic attacks. It’s fun to see Endeavour‘s Shaun Jones as something other than Young Morse as well, and for those enjoying The Good Fight Rose Leslie is playing another lesbian here. It’s like an episode of a gritty British crime drama, except it plays out in six hour-long episodes instead of the usual one 1.5-2 hour format. To quote Wikipedia, Swedish tabloid newspaper Aftonbladet called it an “underwater Line of Duty” (it’s made by the same people, I think?), but that’s a show I’ve never watched so I don’t know how accurate that is.
All in all, Vigil is great as a standalone six-part miniseries, but apparently it’s been renewed for a second season due in 2023, which I hope will not involve a bloody submarine, because to top the first season’s anxiety, they will basically need to make it so panic attack-inducing it will genuinely be unwatchable for a part of the prospective audience. And the first season does a pretty good job of that as it is.
As some kind of enjoyment rating, I’m everywhere between a strong 4 out of 5 because we really enjoyed it, it’s a good thriller, but at the same time it’s a strong 1 (or less) out of 5 because NOPE, NO THANK YOU, and GOOD DAY.