COBRA: Cyberwar, review: a political thriller that's more muddled than the Labour Party

Robert Carlyle as Prime Minister Robert Sutherland in COBRA: Cyberwar - Sky
Robert Carlyle as Prime Minister Robert Sutherland in COBRA: Cyberwar - Sky

Within nine minutes of COBRA: Cyberwar (Sky Max) cranking into action, the political drama deliberately undermines its own premise. “It’s Briefing Room J, actually, but don’t tell anyone,” Prime Minister Robert Sutherland tells a new cabinet colleague. “Destroys the mystique.” Well, I suppose COBRJ isn’t nearly so snappy or snaky.

After last year’s debut series saw solar flares leave Britain without power and plunged into plane-crashing chaos, Robert Carlyle’s PM returns to steer the country through another crisis. All too timely, with the current fuel shortages, empty supermarket shelves and threats of another cancelled Christmas. Perhaps that could be the pitch for series three. “COBRA: Pigs in Blankets. It’s an offal shame but is someone telling porkies?”

Anyway, back to series two. After a massive underwater explosion wipes out a chunk of the Kent coastline and causes widespread flooding, Sutherland assembles his emergency committee to respond. Did an earthquake detonate a sunken wartime munitions ship? Is deep-sea oil drilling to blame? Or perhaps it’s those pesky Russians.

After the obligatory “24 hours earlier” flashback – virtually compulsory in TV drama nowadays – we’re thrown into a tangled web of interconnected calamities. There’s a hit on a Ukrainian oligarch’s helicopter. A lorry sneaks through Dover carrying radioactive cargo. Then comes a flurry of cyber attacks on the UK’s critical infrastructure from an anonymous group calling themselves “Ruin Britannia”.

Who are they? What do they want? Couldn’t they come up with a better name? And can the country, not to mention Sutherland’s precarious Conservative government, survive? Over six schlocky but somehow gripping episodes, viewers will find out. Although be warned: they might be none the wiser by the end.

David Haig as Archie Glover-Morgan - Sky
David Haig as Archie Glover-Morgan - Sky

There are some fine set pieces here. The Kent rescue mission is taut and visceral, even if it does involve some shonky CGI seascapes. Street-level espionage recalls the halcyon days of Spooks. There’s a cute sequence when the communications network goes down, so local mods mobilise to carry messages between disaster sites on a fleet of scooters.

There are terrific performances among the classy ensemble cast. David Haig chews scenery and spits one-liners as power-hungry grandee Archie Glover-Morgan. Marsha Thomason makes a worthy adversary as Labour MP Francine Bridge, while Andrew Buchan’s slick opposition leader puts Keir Starmer to shame. Lisa Palfrey is pleasingly hard-bitten as the head of MI5.

Two of the younger generation also impress. Karan Gill, last seen as a predatory writer in I May Destroy You, plays a charismatic political hack who gets in over his head. White House Farm’s Alexa Davies adds heart and humour as a Civil Contingencies officer.

Best of all is Victoria Hamilton as Downing Street chief of staff Anna Marshall. Professionally powerful but personally vulnerable, she acts her boss Carlyle off the screen at times. With her silver crop and cut-glass tones, she’s reminiscent of a younger Dame Judi Dench. That isn’t hyperbole, Hamilton truly is that good.

The trouble is, COBRA is unsure what it wants to be. Is it a cheesy disaster thriller, a 24-style hi-tech race against time or a treatise on the corrupting nature of political power? It can’t decide, hence its uneven tone. Trying to be all three at once, it ultimately succeeds at none.

Victoria Hamilton, Robert Carlyle, David Haig and Richard Pepper in COBRA: Cyberwar - Sky UK/Matt Squire
Victoria Hamilton, Robert Carlyle, David Haig and Richard Pepper in COBRA: Cyberwar - Sky UK/Matt Squire

The script slips in buzzwords to fool us that it’s smarter than it is. There are trolls on Twitter and incels on 4Chan, fake news and flat whites, podcasts and white privilege, mentions of George Soros and Greta Thunberg. When the show wants to assert its intellectual credentials, the PM suddenly quotes Jeremy Bentham or Anna is shown reading Dostoevsky.

Then there’s the insurmountable matter of muddled plotting. A chain of disasters means the series feels disjointed, more like three two-parters clumsily welded together than a coherent whole. Russia, China and the US all take turns as the enemy. Shock murders are forgotten within minutes. A mental health subplot is abandoned annoyingly swiftly.

Such a thriller is structured around cliffhangers but too many of COBRA’s are gratuitously contrived and never resolved. Several times, the PM seems to undergo a complete personality transplant between episodes. His lawyer wife, Rachel (Lucy Cohu), is briefly implicated in a front page scandal. She goes on holiday to escape media scrutiny and isn't mentioned again.

The political landscape is also painted in patronisingly broad strokes. Anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists and anti-immigration activists are lumped together as a sort of baying brainless mob, prone to arson and dystopian rioting for no good reason. Carlyle’s PM is a Blair or Cameron-type moderate, feeling like a throwback in the era of populism. Neil Stuke arrives in episode five as a thinly disguised Nigel Farage clone, then gets fired off-screen after a handful of scenes.

By the time it limps to its confused finale, the series has become a frustrating mess. It starts solidly enough but badly loses its way. If there’s another series, perhaps it should be titled COBRJ and about pigs in blankets after all.