(BBC) Benedict Cumberbatch, in addition to possessing a formidable name, has had quite a bit of success recently. He's had supporting roles in two Oscar-nominated films: Tomas Alfredson's highly acclaimed remake Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Steven Spielberg's War Horse.
For American audiences, his breakout role was probably that of Sherlock Holmes in the modern update Sherlock, created by Doctor Who writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Cumberbatch is perfect as the arrogant, brilliant, and vulnerable Holmes; in fact, he's so good that he will likely have viewers hunting for their laptops in order to figure out where they've seen him before.
What they'll discover is that he was in 2007's excellent Atonement, and also in a paranoid little drama called The Last Enemy, which ran on PBS's Masterpiece Contemporary in 2008.
The Last Enemy begins with the release of a falcon — a form of ancient communications technology. It then proceeds into a near-future world of linked databases, retinal scanners, ID cards, and total surveillance. It's the story of Stephen Ezard, a germophobic mathematics genius who returns to London from self-imposed exile in China. His brother Michael (Max Beesley), a foreign-aid worker, has been killed by a roadside bomb, and Stephen returns for the funeral out of a begrudging sense of family obligation.
Stephen is immediately thrown into a Britain that's very different from the one he left. Government ministers have used the 7/7/05 London Underground bombings, as well as a more recent attack on Victoria Station, to push through anti-terrorism measures that verge on totalitarianism.
He then finds a woman (Anamaria Marinca), staying at his brother's flat, who claims to be Michael's wife, although no one else seems to have known he was married. She's caring for another woman (Alina Ioana Serban) who is dying of a mysterious illness she contracted while working with Michael.
Stephen is soon reconnected with his ex-girlfriend, Eleanor Brooke (Eva Birthistle), now working for the government, who wants him to be the public face of a program called "T.I.A.," or Total Information Awareness. Meanwhile, he's pursued by a shadowy operative named David Russell (Robert Carlyle).
As a character, Stephen Ezard shares many qualities with Holmes: he's highly cerebral, averse to most human interaction, and determined to solve any puzzle that's put before him. It's almost as if Cumberbatch were doing a dry run before playing the Great Detective. However, Ezard is less arrogant, and far less dramatic; he's got a kind of crushed naiveté that suggests he's suffered for his intelligence.
The atmosphere in The Last Enemy is claustrophobic in the extreme, and it's all the more unsettling for its realism. The technology used by the government to track its citizens is nothing we don't already have; it simply hasn't yet been implemented to this extent. The scenes in which politicians argue over the effectiveness — and seldom the morality — of such technology will ring true to anyone who has been paying attention over the last decade.
The Last Enemy may be telling a fictional story of intrigue, and the twists and turns of its plot may be designed to entertain above all, but it provides a lot to think about for viewers interested in a political drama that goes beyond the usual cloak-and-dagger theatrics.
For Fans Of: 24, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Bourne Identity, The Constant Gardener, Sherlock
Why We Like It: realistic portrayal of near-future paranoia, Benedict Cumberbatch as an awkward genius, well-thought-out characters interacting in unusual ways