A Peacock Original miniseries directed by Dennie Gordon; adapted by Patrick Massett and John Zinman from the novel by Alex Scarrow; cinematographed by Patrick Murguia; edited by Sven Budelmann, Paul Knight and Marty Schenk; production design by Martin Vackár; produced by Veronika Lencova for MGM International Television Productions. Released in Sept. 2022. Running time: about 42 minutes per episode. Rated TV-MA
Starring: Matthew Fox as Andy Yeats, Joanne Froggatt as Elena Yeats, Alyth Ross as Laura Yeats, Taylor Fay as Sam Yeats, Amber Rose Revah as Mika Bakhash, Jim High as Agent Thompson, Victor Alli as Owen Jones, Felix Sandman as Ash Wiles and Tom Wlaschiha as Karl Bergmann
Back in the mid-2000s, there was a growing wave of concern among the general public about the state of the world’s energy reserves. More and more people were becoming aware of the term “peak oil,” which refers to the point at which the rate of global petroleum production peaks and begins to irreversibly decline. UK author Alex Scarrow was among these people. He grew so worried about the issue that he decided to make it the basis for a 2007 cautionary thriller novel titled Last Light. It wasn’t a great novel, but it did play a big role in raising public awareness about peak oil—and its sequel, Afterlight, was markedly better.
Peacock’s five-part miniseries adaptation of Last Light is a few cuts below the book. The latter had a promising premise and was just a bit too contrived and clichéd in its execution of that premise. The miniseries twists the original premise almost beyond recognition, and the twists offer little of interest. The characters and themes have been dramatically altered, seemingly in deference to a modern-day audience that has ceased caring about peak oil. It hardly feels as though the series’ makers were inspired by Scarrow’s book; it’s more like they sampled a random grab bag of elements from it and gave little thought or care to what they surrounded them with. On top of all that, the show fails as a thriller. Seldom does a miniseries so quickly bring to mind the question “Why did they bother?”
Our hero in both the book and the show is Andy. In the book he’s Andy Sutherland, an engineer who is obsessed with peak oil to the point of having driven away his family. In the show he’s petrochemist Andy Yeats (Matthew Fox), who never so much as mentions peak oil. The source of this latter Andy’s familial strife is the immeasurably less interesting TV cliché of the father who doesn’t have time for his family because of work. The beginning of the first episode sees him abruptly leave his family to attend to some mysterious emergency in the oilfields of a fictitious Middle Eastern country. His wife Elena (Joanne Froggatt) resents him for leaving right before a major operation to restore the eyesight of their son Sam (Taylor Fay). His activist daughter Laura (Alyth Ross) resents him for contributing to climate change by working for the oil industry.
The Yeats live in London. Elena is about to leave for Paris with Sam for his operation. Andy promises to finish his work quickly so he can make it to Paris in time for the procedure. Meanwhile, Laura is planning to be in Edinburgh for a climate march. This is all setup for the suspense scenario at the heart of the show, which has the Yeats separated during a global oil crisis in which modern technology grinds to a halt across the industrial world. They’re desperate to reunite, but before they can do so, they must figure out how to stay alive amidst the mayhem quickly engulfing their respective parts of the world.
It all starts when internal combustion engines around the world mysteriously begin sputtering to a halt and then bursting into flames. That’s because the miniseries version of Last Light decides to needlessly complicate the oil shortage scenario by introducing an oil-eating microbe into the mix. (The book, in contrast, sensibly stuck with a straightforward 1970s-style oil shock in which the pumps simply run dry.) People are left to travel by foot, bicycle and other non-motorized means. Blackouts begin sweeping across the Western world. Cities are overtaken by rioting, pillaging and martial law.
We eventually learn that the oil-eating microbe is the work of a villain who aims to bring humanity back into harmony with nature by crashing industrial civilization. Andy ends up working with the British intelligence agency MI-6 to get to the bottom of the villain’s plot and find a way to keep it from coming to fruition. Meanwhile, the situations in which the remaining Yeats family members find themselves prove to be anything but suspenseful or thrilling. Along the way we’re treated to such stunningly original and gracefully executed plot devices as a hooded assassin lurking in the shadows, a literal ticking clock, deus-ex-machina rescues and characters telegraphing the themes of the show through dialogue.
The miniseries deals with peak oil on only the most superficial level. It does an okay job of showing how modern life screeches to a halt when oil supplies are disrupted, but that’s only one piece of the peak oil story. Two other vital pieces are that oil is finite and steadily depleting, and alternative energy sources don’t have anywhere near the energy density needed for them to fill the breach. The show not only fails to hit on these last two points, but implies they aren’t true. To quote one character, “There is still too much coal in the ground, too much oil and rare earth metals waiting to be mined…As long as there are billions to be made, the problem will remain unsolved.” Nature, the show seems to be telling us, has no say in the matter of our continued resource consumption; it’s we humans who are in charge, for better or worse, as if yeast in a sugar solution could somehow magically replenish the sugar.
The one aspect of peak oil that the show does choose to acknowledge—i.e., the profound inconvenience of interruptions to the oil supply—could have been explored much more fully. Consider a scene in which three of our main characters are forced to abandon their car on the freeway and set off on foot. The next time we see them, they’ve arrived at their destination. Where’s the montage of their arduous trek across the interminable countryside? Their brushes with marauders and other threats along the way? When you lose access to your car, a brief jaunt to a neighboring town suddenly becomes a day trip. Such is the incomparable advantage of power derived from concentrated liquid fuels over human muscle power.
The series does have its bright spots. The actors do admirably well with what they’re given, and there are some isolated moments of excitement and tension. But overall this is a mess of a show with little discernible connection to the novel on which it’s supposedly based, and nothing substantive to say about the current world energy situation. Indeed, it could have swapped out the oil crisis scenario for an entirely different type of disaster (a nuclear fallout, say) and remained mostly unchanged.