The Undeclared War makes something we hear about all the time visible and understandable. And, my friends, it is a scary reality shown in this series from the UK. This review is of season 1. A second season is in the works.
In The Undeclared War, director Peter Kosminsky uses characters we care about to tell a vivid story about the behind the scenes workings of things we hear about on the news such as deep fakes, bot farms, cyber attacks, hacking, and more.
The main character is Saara (Hannah Khalique-Brown). Saara is a brilliant programmer, a university student. When she’s coding it’s like a fantasy sequence or a video game where she goes inside the files and explores the connections in the code. She takes a year off from university to work at GCHQ as a student learner in the national security section.
The security section is filled with jaded older programmers. Her boss is Danny (Simon Pegg).
A few people catch her eye immediately. Kathy (Maisie Richardson-Sellers) tracks what the bots and disinformation farms are doing on social media. Although Saara lives with a man, a teacher named James (Edward Holcroft), she is attracted to Kathy.
Saara also befriends a much older man, John (Mark Rylance), who has been around British spy services since the very beginning and knows all the history. Now he mostly spends his time correcting the grammar of the younger programmers around him.
When Saara was at university a young Russian student, Vadim (German Segal), noticed her. When he goes back to Russia he is forced into programming jobs. First at a social media disinformation farm. There he meets Marina (Tinatin Dalakishvili). Marina is an undercover reporter working at the disinformation farm. The relationship that develops between them extends into England later in the series. Vadim’s connection to Saara also becomes important later in the series when he is recruited to hack into CGHQ and spread malware.
These characters and more are used to explore the moving parts of Russia’s plan to spread chaos and destruction in England so that they can break the country down and take it over and rebuild it completely the way they want it to be.
I found it fascinating and frightening as the series walked through scene after scene showing how lies, propaganda, and cyber attacks could be used to cause riots, murders, and bring governments to a halt.
Marina comes to England and works at a Russian TV network. Her boss Angie (Kerry Godliman) organizes marches and riots in such a way that both sides in a riot are acting out in exactly the way she wants to achieve Russia’s aims. The TV reports about the incidents she manufactures create even more chaos. Knowing how your enemy will respond to certain events lets you engineer events to get the enemy to do exactly what you want. This can extend to hiding hidden messages in malware and making fake videos.
The final moments are a step toward England getting back control from Russia. But the story is very open-ended and in need of a second season. Vadim’s status in Russia is in question. Saara’s relationships with James and Kathy are unsettled. The older generation in CGHQ haven’t recognized the importance of the fresh younger minds in the cyber war they fight. The United States might get involved. England’s security is in limbo as well as how the UK will respond to the attacks. Finally, there’s that last minute event that changes everything.
I think this is an important series. It’s well-written and full of suspense. More significantly, it helps you understand how a cyber war works. Knowing this can help recognize fakes and lies. In a world where knowing what’s real and what isn’t might be the most important thinking skill to have, this series is both entertaining and educational.
The series is streaming on Peacock.