The Rig review


A lot of modern tv drama attempts to be so meta or postmodern or over clever that its something of a pleasant change to find a serial so defiantly old school. The Rig, Amazon Prime’s new six-part series is very traditional while striving for some realism amidst the crisis. It’s a recipe that generally works and even though much of the plot seems familiar there is enough spark to keep the viewer intrigued. It’s a series that refuses to sit still and be one thing so elements of business, ecology, employment and technology are knitted together and the sci-fi aspect is kept believably shadowy. In short, it is a great yarn!

 Spoilers from here...

The boss of North Sea oil rig Kinloch Bravo, Magnus McMillan, isn’t having the best day at work. The power keeps cutting out, all modern communications are gradually lost, a mysterious fog descends on the area, two crew members die in horrific ways while a third appears to be possessed by something and warning about “the wave”. Ash is falling from the sky though it’s not really ash and is clearly dangerous and if all that were not enough he has just learned the whole place is being shut down soon anyway.

 Viewers of this sort of series, especially those old enough to remember the 70s and 80s will find much familiar material here harking back to any number of shows back then. The community under siege is a well worn tradition and the key to making it work is to add some quirk or other to differentiate from all the other similar dramas.

What The Rig tries to do, with success, is present as ordinary a portrayal of extraordinary happenings as possible. So the set looks and sounds very metallic, solid and authentic. In fact it looks like an oil rig!  Oddly in this day and age its only sometimes the backdrops which, on a large modern tv, give away computer generated seas rolling in the distance though close up the motion of the sea is perfectly represented. In terms of the characters there is also an attempt not to make anyone outrageously heroic rather they come with lots of flaws, lack of knowledge and plenty of guesswork. The balance between people panicking and trying to find a way out of the situation is well kept.

Like a good horror movie you can have fun guessing who is going to be despatched next though sometimes we lose people who have been an asset to the narrative particularly Mark Bonner’s philosophical  Alwyn Evans who goes in part 2 and who brought a near meta feel to the drama. He was after all reading The Kraken Wakes and seemed to have a literary mind that could have been wittily used later on. Then again it takes till part 5 for the big figure of Mark Addy to turn up, a welcome injection to the drama and whose character David Coake is the personification of the Company Man who sees everything from that myopic viewpoint and who is so brash he makes everyone else look polite!

Refreshingly the character whom you think is going to turn out to be the hero who will rise from the ranks to save the day- likeable Cockney Baz Roberts- becomes the first host and subsequent enabler for the unseen enemy giving actor Calvin Demba lots of opportunity and he pitches it just right. Its an interesting arc for this role in that Baz becomes something of a conduit. His horrific injures in episode one (and you really feel the bang when he falls from a great height) are hastily healed and he ends up trying to protect whatever the ancient power is deep in the bowels of the rig.  Though a little underused in the second half, Calvin Demba is  excellent as an ordinary man through whom an extraordinary being is trying to communicate. The character may also be something of an allegory for climate change activists and the way people see them as the enemy. Unlike the time honoured idea of some strange creature speaking in a weird voice, Baz retains his matey tones throughout and near the end when he desperately wants to protect the being it really brings emotion to what is in some ways an unlikely event.

Bringing his customary grizzled experience to the role of Magnus Iain Glenn finds much depth in a character who becomes more intriguing as the series progresses. Initially he seems authoritative enough to juggle the clear divisions between the company that owns the rig, Picta, and the people who work on it. Before any fog cloud there are some industrial relations issues over the operation. Yet as matters become increasingly bizarre he struggles to hold onto his authority and it brings into focus a personal tragedy from his past. His polar opposite I suppose is Owen Teale’s Lars Hutton a livewire veteran who is out of time when faced with the modern world and whose streak of self preservation comes from cynicism. He’s just been out here too long, he wants to help people but there is often a selfish motive as well. Even at his craziest- and he locks horns with just about everyone- Owen Teale brings a credibility to this tower of a man. Martin Compton’s quieter Fulmer Hamilton is more practical and another character who takes an unexpected turn. The actor brings that everyman quality that can deal with the extremes of some of the others.

I suppose the writers may be making a point by having the three main female characters seeming to be the most stable especially Emily Hampton’s composed Picta operative Rose Mason about whom we probably learn less than everyone else. Yet she has the nerve that Magnus lacks. No nonsense medic Cat Braithwaite played by Rochenda Sandell is exactly the sort of person you would want to have around if you were in this sort of situation so later on when she starts to cumble a little you do worry!. Molly Vevers plays Heather Shaw with a lightness that is a contrast to the serious looks elsewhere though is a bit underused .

The real star though is the set which never looks anything less than a real rig. While common sense tells you they couldn’t possibly have done all this on a genuine North Sea rig, the scale and detail we see definitely suggests they did. Not for nothing is the favourite Google question about the series `Was it a real rig?`. The production team deserve congratulations for such an impressive construction that melts seamlessly into outdoor shots and other green screen work. 

There are moments when you feel a little too much may have been piled on yet all these things do slot into place.  The extra tension generated from the news that all concerned will soon lose their jobs anyway is a good idea which adds a human tension to the problem. There are secrets and surprises all the way and no review should spoil them all but you will find yourself rooting for different people as matters progress. These are people who have their demons and priorities yet also professionals.

The pace is steady without being one of those series that has ridiculous pace. You are able to savour an effect, an idea, a performance or a scenario without being instantly rushed to the next. There are moments of intrigue such as when the ash falls and some very exiting sequences notably one stand out in part 3 which sees an unlikely act of heroism atop a crane and is packed with tension. By the last couple of episodes we’re seeing a little more of the enigmatic threat itself. Pleasingly this is never fully explained but what the team establish is that its an ancient force, possibly older than humanity itself and it creates an extinction event every so often to wipe the planet clean. The motif of a number of circles are a clue.

Despite the ever present scares, arguments and danger there is a more thoughtful side to this story. Rather than go for some odd creatures, the production depicts the influence of the being as flora and fauna growing incongruously around the part of the rig where those possessed are hiding. Odd floating material hangs in the air. The actual thing on the sea bed is glimpsed with a real sense of its power- sound effects on the show are top notch.

The ecological theme deepens as the series progresses. The being that is seen as a threat by the crew is really a creature trying to survive and protect the earth if not part of the planet itself. Rather than go for the obvious sea monster the production instead realises this being as an undersea plant that probably has roots all around the oceans. Baz repeatedly says we must protect it but is he talking about the creature or the whole planet?

At the point when the crew are starting to develop some understanding, Coake’s arrival polarises opinions yet again. Tradition shows that an audience would see this character, however abrasive he is, as the person who can get them out of the mess but he proves to be someone with the company’s interests at heart. His arrival stirs up some surprising opinions form characters whose logic we have trusted till now.

 Criticism I’ve seen seem to be from those who would rather watch a documentary about oil rigs or maybe would rather there was more horror than there is. Perhaps the ecological angle irritated them. To be fair it’s not a series for the sort of people who would react to Stranger Things by saying things like  “it’s a bit unbelievable” instead of absorbing themselves in the rush of the story. To those of us who have no clue as to what happens on an oil rig the plethora of chunky consoles, wires, metal gantries and loud engines was more than convincing enough.

 The ending is left with unanswered questions and though I can’t see this being a long runner but hope at least we are at a half way point in a two season story.

PS People have been asking about the ending, I reckon that Baz allowed himself to be fully absorbed to try and stop the tsunami. As to where the helicopter was going I have no idea but I did wonder why one of the helicopters managed to take everyone leaving the other just for a handful of high ups?  


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