Sub culture: 'Vigil' every claustrophobe’s worst nightmare

Suranne Jones plays DCI Amy Silva in Vigil. Photo: Supplied
Suranne Jones plays DCI Amy Silva in Vigil. Photo: Supplied
Ben Allan climbs aboard for a tour of duty of the submarine-set UK murder-mystery/political thriller Vigil.

AH, police work. Some days you spend a day catching up on paperwork, and some days you’re flown out to a mystery location in the middle of the ocean to investigate a death on a nuclear-armed Royal Navy submarine.

That’s the reality for DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones, Doctor Foster) of the Scottish Police, who is shoulder-tapped for the job after sonar operator Craig Burke turns up dead in his bunk on board the HMS Vigil, the ballistic missile “boat” that’s fulfilling the duty of being the one submarine the UK has at sea at all times as its nuclear deterrent.

Vigil can’t just drop what it’s doing to return to port and unbalance the delicate international “mutually assured destruction” equation, so DCI Silva is choppered out to its location and lowered into murky waters, both figurative and literal, to get to the bottom of matters.

Once on board, she finds some very impressive sets — although one suspects the ceilings on a real submarine aren’t nearly that high — and a lot of questions. Burke’s death seems not as simple as she has been told (surprise!), and no-one seems to have much liked him. She launches straight into her investigation, very much isolated and butting up against a crew that would rather just sweep the whole thing under the rug.

Meanwhile her police colleague — and something more besides? — DS Kirsten Longacre (Rose Leslie, who may be familiar to viewers from repeatedly informing Jon Snow about his general levels of ignorance on Game of Thrones) is left on land to connect various dots to do with Burke’s girlfriend Jade, the nuclear disarmament movement, a local politician, and a brusque and shifty-seeming Royal Navy establishment headed up by Rear Admiral Shaw (Stephen Dillane, also back from Westeros). Intrigue abounds.

After this cracking set-up, the middle episodes do get a little bogged down as the patrolling Vigil ploughs through entire schools of red herring. Here’s where believability gets stretched a little, and as a viewer you may find yourself asking a few incredulous questions like “Why is internal security on a nuclear submarine seemingly based on the honour system?” or “Who breaks up with Rose Leslie?”.

The spectre of nuclear annihilation (briefly) raises its ugly head, submarine systems go mysteriously on the fritz, and geopolitical questions are lobbed around. What are the Americans up to? Could the Russians be involved? The Chinese? The Belgians? (No OK, not them.) Then there’s the matter of the Scottish fishing trawler dragged beneath the waves with the loss of all hands in the series’ harrowing opening scene. Try to keep up.

Fortunately the acting is strong and the characters interesting enough that we can cling to them to ride through all the twists and turns without being thrown off. Bad guys turn out to be not so bad and good guys turn out to be not so good because hey, people contain multitudes.

Silva deals with personal demons of her own — thematically convenient ones, at that — with steely determination as things get increasingly difficult and dangerous on board. And Longacre, not confined to those submarine sets, charges around Scotland with a winning cop-who-gets results attitude, dealing with reticent bureaucracy and balaclava-wearing goons with equal aplomb. All the while the backstory of both characters is being slowly filled in, shedding more light on what makes them both tick.

One by one answers are ticked off until focus has properly resolved in time for a tense finale that will be every claustrophobe’s worst nightmare.

With everything either wrapped or covered up at the end (and one imagines the PR arm of the actual Royal Navy were not well pleased with certain aspects of the series), blame is assigned, things make at least a kind of sense, and we’ve all been given a briskly entertaining reminder of the number one lesson of all submarine-based fiction: never, ever get on board a submarine.

  • All six episodes of Vigil are now available on TVNZ On Demand.

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