Bugs: remembering an ahead-of-its-time tech TV thriller

Arguably, British tech ensemble Bugs paved the way for the likes of Spooks, Sherlock, Torchwood and more...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

It feels a long time ago that watching Saturday night TV with the family was the norm, but back in the 1990s, millions crowded around the box for the likes of Noel’s House PartyDue South, The Generation Game, and of course, Bugs. The latter ran for four series between 1995 and 1999 and arguably holds the distinction of being embryonic of later, more intensive, tech-heavy UK shows including Spooks and Sherlock.

The general Bugs premise involved a team of crime-fighting gadget experts facing a range of modern (now charmingly redundant), technology-centred threats. The main triptych of regulars included Nick Beckett (Jesse Birdsall), Ros Henderson (Jaye Griffiths) and Ed (Neighbours alumnus Craig McLachlan in series one to three) later played by Steven Houghton in the final season.

Clocking in at four seasons and forty episodes, Bugs was a conscious effort by the BBC to make a realistic and modern take on The Avengers. Its Saturday evening slot ensured broad exposure and the viewing figures were in their millions at the height of the show’s popularity.

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Back then the BBC seldom had drama series which went beyond two or three seasons, and Bugs was to be no exception. The third season teetered on cancellation, but a deliberately tense cliffhanger and a decent overseas market led to a fourth series commission. When it arrived, series four was positioned earlier in the schedule – a signal that the end was nigh.

Despite a strong first season, series two and series three began to quickly lose their elemental focus on technology. The original cyber elements devolved into a series of relatively unconnected one-off The A-Team-ish episodes, which were increasingly hyperbolic and melodramatic with decreasing levels of realism.

Real-world events were to aid in the final cancellation. The 1998 Omagh Bombing forced the BBC to postpone the series for a week, delaying the broadcast of the final episodes until a year later. Another attempt to save the show was made with a fresh cliffhanger but was not successful, leaving the unresolved thread of Ros and Beckett’s abduction hanging.

Yet what’s fascinating is, much like its shorter-lived compatriot Crime TravellerBugs was a precursor to much of what would become seminal television. Its use of modern technology, ensemble cast and action emphasis led the way for what was possible with the likes of Spooks and even Torchwood. There was probably no TV series at the time that encapsulated the emerging technological element quite as well. If there’s a lasting impression of Bugs it is, by comparison to the tech-based shows which exist today, just how ambitious it was to bridge the knowledge gap between fiction and the technology revolution which was taking hold.

Bugs was made in the run-up to the year 2000, and there is a real sense of overwhelming dread that comes across in each episode; quite right, given most people then lived in the expectation that the Y2K bug would cripple every computer in the land at the stroke of midnight. What’s interesting, when watching Bugs again, is that the world still lives with the same sort of misunderstanding about technology; its limits, its capabilities and the laws which govern both. The shadow of the bomb in one generation is now the shadow of the keystroke; that one law or one wiretap too far will plunge the world into darkness.

Episodes like Money Spiders and Blackout dealt with computer hacking and eco-terrorism respectively. There’s always a feeling of ‘nearly there, but not quite’ in how it grappled with the technology that’s now not as far fetched as one might have thought twenty years ago.

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An instalment like The Price Of Peace, dealing in this case with a stolen electromagnetic weapon and a fragile Eastern European peace (ahem, Goldeneye?), is charming and of its time, but the same can’t be said for the fantastical plot of two-parter What Goes Up… and …Must Come Down. Nowadays, it’s taken for granted that a television show will have impressive visuals, and more than ever audiences want taut scripts and clever twists. Put side by side with today’s offerings, it’s fair to say that Bugs hasn’t aged well, not in terms of visuals or its increasingly absurdist plots.

The show regularly falls foul of its own realistic premise and takes too many liberties with its idea of technological prescience. Space shuttles were hardly new, and its ridiculous moments drift too often into fantastical futurism without staying well enough within the limits of the day. Indeed, no list of the farcical would be quite complete without Newton’s Run, an episode in which Nordic terrorists steal a cybernetically-enhanced dog to place a bomb in a weapons store which will vaporise a city. Go figure.

Perhaps the overwhelming threats are what contributed to the rationale to indulge an ensemble formula. Gone is the paper and duct tape solutions of lone wolves and instead begins the journey to the much more realistic team effort. It’s impossible not to see the advent of what was to become an ensemble characterisation. The new New Avengers it never was, but Bugs introduced what the likes of Spooks continued, and took the notion of an ensemble cast out of the ashes of camp 60s mash-ups and into the realm of serious, passable, mainstream television.

This is particularly apparent when looking at the minds behind the show. The series was devised by Carnival boss Brian Eastman and producer Stuart Doughty with input from writer-producer Brian Clemens, who had previously worked on the original The Avengers. Other series writers included Colin Brake (later a Doctor Who author) and Stephen Gallagher (behind Eleventh Hour with Patrick Stewart). Two episodes (Bugged Wheat and Hollow Man) were even written by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who more famously went on to create the ensemble-focused Superman origin series Smallville, and Lethal Weapon 4.

A curious thing about the 90s is the back-and-forth interaction between the American and British television markets. America is rightly considered the home of some hallmark classics, but novelty has superseded their reputation in the public memory and only recently are they being re-created for contemporary audiences. There was never another A-Team or Airwolf despite the fact that each was, in many ways, ahead of its time in trying to tie together technology and special effects and an episodic structure that transcended movies.

Bugs, on the other side of Atlantic, shares the same distinction. Back then, British programming had never brought movie quality to the small screen and, for the BBC, Bugs holds something of a special place. Without it, there’s little appreciation for the evolution of British television from standard dramas to more ambitious techno/ensemble thrillers as mainstream, prime time entertainment.

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If anything, Bugs is a curious bridge between the optimistic potential of bulky computers and the more fearful, insidious Black Mirror territory of today. It’s of note that, in the 1990s, television tried to sensationalise the emerging dot-com and telecommunications boom and yet today technology is so omnipresent that it is satirised rather than embraced.

While there are no plans for Bugs to return, it has survived chiefly thanks to its dedicated cult following. At a time when anything seems possible on television, including the revival of countless vintage series, who knows what the future may hold?