Spides review – sci-fi flop that proves international cooperation isn't always a good idea

·4-min read

After Swedish-Danish collaboration in The Bridge and British-American espionage in The Night Manager, international TV co-productions have developed a reputation for cosmopolitan sophistication. Not this one.

As Buffy the Vampire Slayer settles into a new home on All4, the Syfy channel needs a different lure for audiences unsatisfied with endless reruns of Star Trek: Voyager. Auditioning for that role is Spides, an original commission, set in Berlin, with an English-language script, credited to the German showrunner Rainer Matsutani and featuring a cast of German, American and indeed German-American actors. The result is often clunky. But then sci-fi’s B-movie heritage means it can get away with a certain amount of clunk … right?

Young Nora Berger (played by former Game of Thrones Sand Snake Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) dreams of walking on the surface of a fiery alien planet, then wakes in a hospital bed, attended by a creepy, white-coat-wearing neurologist (the Austrian Susanne Wuest) and remembering nothing about who she is or how she got there. Meanwhile, in a nearby strobe-lit nightclub called Rapture, revellers dressed in PVC and dog collars (is this a fetish night? Or are they just German? It’s unclear) grind up against each other and pass around a new synthetic drug called Blis, which seems to work by inducing audio-visual hallucinations, as well as the occasional coma. That’s some bad trip.

Observing it all from a spot at the bar, like the narc he so clearly is, stands Det Leonhart (Falk Hentschel). He too wants a hit of this eye-drop-administered drug that all the cool kids are talking about. “You’re ghosting,” Leonhart is informed by a friendly dealer, when he begins to see the face of some lost love everywhere. “Ghosting” sounds like an intriguing sci-fi plot device. If only it was developed further.

So drugs are bad, got it. But despite various aesthetic similarities to a Nancy Reagan-era after-school special, the anti-drugs message isn’t really at the forefront here. Spides’ most overt influence isn’t even sci-fi, it’s gritty cop drama, especially once Leonhart teams up with Nique Navar (Black Panther’s Florence Kasumba), a strikingly beautiful detective from the missing-persons division.

You have to admit these two look good together, screeching around the city’s most graffiti-covered warehouse districts in a vintage Mercedes, with the Berlin television tower providing a suitably extraterrestrial backdrop. Sadly their run-arounds are interrupted by the demands of a hokey plot that requires the regular bumping of heads with superior officers over protocol, and the menacing of surly suspects using unconventional interview techniques.

Kasumba is particularly let down by the script’s insinuation that her character’s chief investigative skill is being a total fox. If the blunt delivery and tight trousers initially put you in mind of Saga from The Bridge, all such flattering comparisons evaporate by the time Navar starts purring at lab technicians: “I thought we were friends, Arjan” and getting the reply: “Well, we could have been … if you hadn’t unmatched me on Tinder.”

The acting is uniformly wooden, but when the direction has so many inexplicable choices (why would he be standing there?) it seems unfair to lay the blame for this with the onscreen talent. Take Nora’s “bratty” little brother, for instance; these wise-ass adolescents are disappointingly common in otherwise quality TV shows and always unwatchable, even if the actor involved is capable of delivering a natural-sounding line of dialogue.

It’s the science fiction, though, that Syfy viewers come for – intriguing ideas, whether startlingly original or simply well-executed. Spides does have some of these. The suggestion that police corruption might be caused by alien invaders is particularly comforting at the moment, while Nora’s screams (accompanied by her eyes turning pitch-black) lead to some thrillingly chaotic gore, involving an ambulance ambush and a possessed jogger.

There’s a nod to Invasion of the Body Snatchers here, a touch of The Matrix there. Just enough so that, if you had never seen an episode of Stranger Things, you might be able to convince yourself that this is what a respectful genre homage looks like. I’ve watched ahead and there are more entertaining moments as the series gets into its stride. The question is whether you can be bothered to wade through all the dross to get there?

Perhaps you’re a more dedicated sci-fi fan than me. I’ll probably just stick with Star Trek: Voyager.

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