“How are you with confined spaces?” one steely naval officer asks Suranne Jones’ DCI Amy Silva in the opening scenes of Vigil. If, like Jones’s character, your honest answer is “pretty dreadful, actually,” you might find some moments in this superbly executed thriller, set partly on a nuclear submarine, to be borderline intolerable - like when Silva rolls into her allotted bunk and looks up to see just inches between her and the ceiling. Or when she has to wiggle her way through an escape hatch after one officer decides it’s best if she’s locked into a tiny office, from the outside. Or when the nuclear reactor that powers the vessel goes on the blink.
Even if you think you’d deal well enough with the challenges of being confined deep underwater, Vigil’s prevailing mood is one of queasy, unsettling claustrophobia. DCI Silva has been airlifted onto HMS Vigil at the navy’s grudging behest after a crew member dies in suspicious circumstances; the official line is accidental drugs overdose, but the signs screaming foul play are manifold.
The ship’s crew, led by Paterson Joseph’s Commander Newsome and Adam James’ Prentice (smarm incarnate), quickly close ranks in the face of Silva’s questioning; she might be a respected officer on land, but has little to no authority at sea (“I take my orders from the Chief of Staff and the Prime Minister,” Newsome huffs, with shades of Joseph’s Peep Show megalomaniac Alan Johnson).
Back on terra firma, Silva’s lieutenant DS Kirsten Longacre (Rose Leslie) is tasked with doing background digging on the submarine and its crew, as well as the local anti-Trident protesters. She and her colleague clearly have some sort of shared history; exactly what that is, though, looks set to unspool over the course of flashback sequences, which also illuminate a tragedy in Silva’s past. The disappearance of a fishing trawler just hours before the death onboard Vigil, which plays out in a stress-inducing opening sequence, adds another dimension of intrigue, and could have catastrophic implications.
In essence, Vigil is a locked room mystery. If the death Silva is investigating really is a murder, then the killer must be still on board - it’s pretty hard to flee the crime scene when you’re several hundred metres deep in the ocean, and almost as difficult to dispense with incriminating evidence. They could be in the next bunk along, separated only by a flimsy curtain.
No one is above suspicion, even amiable coxswain Glover, the boat’s “walking HR department” played by Shaun Evans, though if he turns out to be whatever the underwater equivalent of a bent copper is, I’ll be thrown; perhaps it’s the afterglow of a decade spent playing young Inspector Morse in Endeavour, but he seems to almost radiate decency. It’s nice to hear his actual accent (Scouse) for a change, too - the same goes for Martin Compston, allowed to be Scottish again after another stint reeling off acronyms as Line of Duty’s Steve Arnott every Sunday this spring.
Like LoD, Vigil is made by World Productions (who also brought us Bodyguard) and has its share of impenetrable technical terms, this time specific to the world of submarining, which are especially disconcerting when they’re constantly being announced over a booming loud speaker. Allusions to the day-to-day compromises of life underwater are fascinating (Glover carries mugs of tea wrapped up in clingfilm; phones are allowed on board, but only without SIM cards) and episodes are shot with a reverence for the Scottish coast that surrounds the naval base: directors James Strong and Isabelle Sieb have previously worked on Broadchurch and Shetland respectively. Even scenes set in the depths of the sub are visually striking, lit up in reds and blues.
Add in some jump scares, a handful of near-catastrophes and a couple of cliffhangers and you have all the makings of a taut mystery with intriguingly murky depths. Sunday nights are stressful again - I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Episode two of Vigil airs on Monday August 30. The series then continues Sundays at 9pm on BBC One and BBC iPlayer