‘Vigil’ – Episode Five Review

Detective Chief Inspector Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) climbs down into the fictional Trident missile submarine HMS Vigil. Image: BBC/World Productions.

As the Executive Officer (XO) of a Polaris missile submarine during the Cold war I had to deal with numerous challenges when it came to the day-to-day running of the boat during many weeks under the sea.

One thing I did was visit the extremities of the submarine to make sure no crew members working in lonely outposts were suffering from poor morale, perhaps due to weeks of separation from their loved ones at home.

The family-gram was a brief message that each of us was allowed to have every week if he so chose – and some did not want them as it was potentially too painful to hear from home, about a life they were denied for the duration of the nuclear deterrent patrol.

Meanwhile, the Navy did its best to keep the worst of news edited out of a family-gram. After all, hearing that a relative had been killed or died in some terrible accident – when you were in a large steel tube, prowling the deep, dark ocean with no hope of return for weeks or doing anything to help, or even reply – would test the morale and mental health of anyone.

Our life at sea was sedate for the most part. Yes, we were in a boat carrying weapons that could wipe out cities if that terrible day ever came to launch missiles, but our objective was to cruise at walking pace, staying hidden and well away from even the slightest sonar contact.

Not so for the submarine in the fictional ‘HMS Vigil’, the titular star of the BBC One Drama series that has gripped millions as it presents ‘Line-of-Duty-at-Sea’. For ‘HMS Vigil’, life on deterrent patrol is full of incident – murders, reactor shutdowns, near collisions with merchant vessels, not least troublesome Russian and even American submarines trailing the  palatial British boat (the dimensions of which suspend belief).

Even by the end of episode four – in a six-part series – there had been enough going wrong to freak out even the most steely of sailors. Just as well their families back home do not know what is going on!

Messages do frequently arrive aboard ‘HMS Vigil’ for Detective Chief Inspector Amy Silva (Suranne Jones), who was put aboard to investigate a murder for a few days and has found herself along for the ride during an entire deterrent patrol.

Angry HMS Vigil senior rating Craig Burke (Martin Compston) has a row with the XO in the submarine’s vast Control Room. Image: BBC/World Productions.

These messages are plot devices, and sent by a lover and Police workmate who both keeps her appraised of developments in an investigation ashore – and through use of a code only they understand – prompts flashbacks to their troubled love affair. Perhaps DCI Silva should have put ‘no messages’ on her family-gram permissions slip?

But, let’s dive into episode five, ahead of the series finale this Sunday (September 26).

For a while it looked like the over-arching conspiracy that explained all the weird events aboard ‘HMS Vigil’ was a Scottish National Party (SNP) plan, assisted by Russian intelligence operatives, to undermine the credibility of the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

The aim seemed to be showing the Continuous At-sea Deterrent (CASD), as it is also known, is vulnerable to sabotage and hence not fit for purpose. So, better to scrap it and get those rotten nuclear-powered-and-armed submarines out of their base in Scotland?  In real-life evicting the Trident missile submarines is a SNP objective but such collusion and extreme dirty tricks is unthinkable.

But, back in the pretend world of ‘Vigil’, it transpires the SNP-Russians conspiracy is merely one of several mini plots in an overall story arc that Alice in Wonderland would surely say gets  ‘curiouser and curiouser.’ Even China is creeping into the frame as its consulate in Scotland becomes a refuge for a fugitive anti-nuclear weapons activist named Ben Oakley.

The increasingly improbable, but still riveting story line – in a series that may be better named ‘HMS Kitchen Sink’, in reference to all the mishaps and disasters chucked into it at once – continues to be matched by an equally improbable representation of how to run a submarine.

On a minor level doors, hatches & valves are never ‘closed’ but always ‘shut’; this being a sharp, clear and unambiguous order the script writer failed to observe in his dialogue. It is but one instance of un-naval terminology being used by sailors in the series. More serious is that the crew still treat each other in a disrespectful fashion that would never be tolerated in a real submarine.

Episode five also saw an unlikely plan for the Trident missile compartment to be cleansed of a nerve agent, seemingly as potent as Novichok, that some saboteur had placed within – the Salisbury poisoning was bound to be referenced sooner or later!

Bizarrely, DCI Silva – surely the least qualified of all people in the submarine, but who nonetheless seems to be an instant expert on everything – was required to don a hazmat suit, as was the Coxswain, in order to make a clean sweep and identify the poison in question.

The rest of the submarine crew made themselves scarce – presumably hiding in their capacious cabins and bunk spaces – as the dynamic duo made their way from the missile compartment to the torpedo room.

A mystery figure was discovered by DCI Silva fiddling with the torpedo tubes, which does not seem odd to her until she is knocked out and somehow shoved inside one of them.

A real-life Vanguard Class submarine – a Trident missile-carrying vessel of the kind fictionalised (and somewhat enlarged) by the set of the BBC TV drama ‘Vigil’. Photo: Tony Roper.

While Special Boat Service (SBS) commandos can swim out of torpedo tubes on their clandestine missions, the claustrophobic DCI Sylva – who is also deeply scared of water having nearly drowned in a car that plunged into a loch – is unlikely to manage such a feat. Episode five ended with her in a state of panic as the tube filled up. In reality, surrounded by all the freezing Atlantic water even for a very short time, she’d be dead from drowning or hypothermia…but will she indeed expire?

What I also found disturbing in this tale of a submarine on a trouble-strewn patrol was that the torpedo tubes were not loaded. A major mistake by the captain, or deliberate? ‘Vigil’ is a cliff-hanger that will need abseiling gear to land safely and with any shred of credibility in the finale.

  • Cdr Forsyth is a regular contributor to WARSHIPS IFR.  The story of his life under the sea in command of diesel-electric and nuclear-powered submarines is told in ‘Hunter Killers’ by Iain Ballantyne, the Editor of this magazine. See also Cdr Forsyth’s previous blog on ‘Vigil’ https://www.warshipsifr.com/features/a-periscope-view-of-vigil/
Seafarers UK

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