Is there a scarier location for a supernatural thriller than an offshore oil rig? Arguably the most isolated man-made structures in the world, oil rigs are sometimes as many as 200 nautical miles from land and can usually only be accessed by helicopter. The UK’s are nearly all located in the bleak North Sea; crew members stay for up to three weeks at a time, working 12 hour-on, 12 hour-off shifts – a suffocating concept for most people.
The show’s inspiration is a great story itself. First-time scriptwriter David Macpherson grew up in the Scottish town Alness near the North Sea facing coast; his father worked on oil rigs, returning with stories of inexplicable happenings. The trailer, which dropped last month, shows a sky-scraping cloud of thick fog billowing towards the rig, further cutting off, and stifling, its crew members. Danger is everywhere, communication lines are cut off, and help – if they could call for any – is hours away.
Things go from bad to worse when a cloud of ash starts swirling around the rig. Though those onboard don’t know it, this contains a deadly bacteria that starts affecting the crew. There’s a nasty accident (or is it?) and hysteria starts to grow.
The series focuses on a number characters, including scientist Rose (played by Schitt’s Creek’s Emily Hampshire), and crew members Fulmer, Magnus and Lars (Line of Duty’s Martin Compston, and Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen and Owen Teale). Some are friends; others don’t get along. As the story develops so do the relationships, and friendships are tested as the pressure increases.
But despite The Rig’s fantastic concept, or perhaps because of its hugely exciting potential, the show falls short of being truly terrifying. It’s partly due to production values: sometimes, locations are very obviously sets, and the show’s special effects could be better. Director John Strickland (The Bill, Line of Duty) has chosen to pull back on the music, and often the stark scenes are crying out for a bit of soundtrack: The Rig has all the same winning elements as shows such as HBO’s stomach-churning Chernobyl, or Robert Eggers’ psychological pressure-cooker shocker The Lighthouse, but fails to worm itself into the mind as those nightmarish productions did; the atmosphere just isn’t there.
It’s also partly because the relationships between characters are not always believable (sorry, but there’s zero chemistry between Rose and Fulmer, who are romantically involved), and partly because some moments are a bit simplistic. At one point, for example, Rose puts a piece of ash under a microscope. She realises that there are bacteria in the ash, then later realises that the bacteria exactly match the fossils in a rock she has nearby, and works out that the rocks date back to the last time there was a mass extinction, some 300 million years ago. This scene is evidently supposed to be chilling, as imminent mass extinction is added to the agenda, but viewers are smarter than that; spelling things out to the smallest degree makes them less, not more scary.
The Rig does have its good points, particularly in its exploration of workers’ rights (some vital information has been kept from the crew about their jobs), environmentalism (how could a series set on an oil rig in 2023 not do this?) and the value these impossibly difficult jobs offer dozens of British communities (approximately 11,000 people work on the North Sea’s platforms, most of whom live in Scottish coastal towns).
Lots of the acting is good too: Teale is particularly persuasive as a hardened rigger and Line of Duty’s ever-reliable Mark Bonnar pops up as one of the more thoughtful members of the crew. On the other hand, Hollyoaks’ Calvin Demba goes a bit overboard as a tormented soul – but this is less his fault, and more his character’s unconvincing storyline (even for a sci fi thriller).
With just three of the six episodes provided for previews, there is plenty of time for The Rig’s horror to develop, and really get inside your head. But from what I have seen, it’ll need to start digging deep to really make waves.
The Rig is available on Prime Video from January 6