This spoiler-free review is based on the three episodes made available to preview.
Between Christmas specials and twinkly festive ads, TV can get cloying at this time of year. What’s needed to cut through the Baileys truffle eggnog of it all is a show from the ice-cold ‘Send a Team to the Perimeter’ genre. Action! Intrigue! Explosions! Cliff-hangers! A formula that keeps us alert while while the rest of the season gently cosies us to sleep.
Vigil is exactly that show. Airing on consecutive nights and available to stream in three-episode chunks released a week apart, it’s a shot in the arm for the Christmas TV schedule and makes a solid binge-watch.
It’s a couple of years after DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) closed the case on HMS Vigil – the nuclear submarine beset by a Russian-sponsored saboteur – and she’s in a better place now. Well, it’s still Glasgow, but instead of being alone and traumatised by the car accident in which she lost her fiancé, she’s back with girlfriend DI Kirsten Longacre (Rose Leslie) with whom she has custody of her stepdaughter and a baby on the way.
When an incident involving a military drone – or to use the correct lingo Remotely Piloted Aircraft System or RPAS – leads to murder, Silva has to shift her RPAS to a local air field, and then to the fictional Middle Eastern country of Wudyan. After her success on series one’s boat of lies, this time the Ministry of Defence asked for her by name (and will presumably pass it on to NASA for series three).
There’s a new guest cast including Dougray Scott (Snatch, Crime) as a smarmy Air Force boss with apparently no compunction about selling arms to regimes with dodgy human rights records, and Romola Garai (Becoming Elizabeth, The Miniaturist) as a stressed Wing Commander struggling to keep her squadron in check.
It’s very much business as usual for anybody who watched the first series – or indeed, anybody who’s ever watched a TV crime thriller. A big, tense set piece leads to no-nonsense Silva conducting a series of suspect interviews in which she’s is treated with varying degrees of hostility and quickly sorts the liars from the pack.
Each of the three episodes available to preview ends with a cliffhanger and the next one picks up immediately that the last left off. It’s a well-designed twist delivery system that borrows the plot-gobbling fast pace of its production company’s sister show Line of Duty, as well as that show’s ear for fun-sounding acronyms and official jargon. You’ll need to focus if you want to keep all the names and bullet-fast information straight in your head, but if you’d prefer to switch into dog-mode (following mostly facial expressions, tone of voice and mentions of your own name) then you’ll likely end up in the same place by the final episode.
There is a lot of plot, and there are a lot of names to sort through, but thankfully, a lot of action too. It doesn’t feel as claustrophobic as last time on account of the investigation not playing out in an underwater tin can, but the increased scope is used well. Think Homeland rather than base-under-siege.
Not being on a sub is a mercy for anybody frustrated with the repetition of series one’s case revelations (which Silva and Longacre had to arrive at independently but at the same time on shore and at sea). The pair being able to chat freely though, does lead to some jarring shifts in tone as they swap between being colleagues and being a couple. It takes some getting used to the cosy domesticity of two expectant mothers interrupting moments of tense global intrigue, but then again, what a refreshing thing to have to get used to in this genre.
About the tone: the plot may be deadly serious and Silva may be no-nonsense, but Vigil is not. As a viewer, you can either choose to get annoyed by the inherent silliness of a detective – whose day job should keep her on cold and uneventful Scottish soil but who last series was almost drowned, exploded and poisoned on a nuclear submarine – getting caught up in another outrageously perilous murder case with global ramifications, or you can choose to enjoy it.
Vigil has clearly chosen to enjoy it, to almost a trolling extent. The new series even includes a scene of Silva telling her stepdaughter Poppy (a girl, let’s remember, whose biological mother and father both died traumatically before series one) that she’s silly to worry about her ma flying to the Middle East because she’s “been away lots for work before and it’s been fine”.
Was it fine when that lunatic locked Silva in a torpedo tube and filled it with seawater? Was it fine when she was swimming in nerve agent, or when she took a knife to the neck? It was not. But it was very good fun and pretty gripping to watch, as is – so far – series two.
Vigil series 2 starts on Sunday December 10, on BBC iPlayer at 6am and on BBC One at 9pm in the UK.