Strike Back Strikes Back

by David Chute
October 28, 2011 11:16 AM
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The recently-renewed Cinemax action series Strike Back, about a globe-trotting, London-based Tactical Intelligence unit known as Section 20, begins a series of re-runs on the channel Friday night at 10 pm. Second chances don't come often, in this life. Seize this one with both hands.

For the show’s many fans, we offer a couple of treats: A link to a droll featurette about the show called How to Fight Naked, and an informative interview (supplied by Cinemax, below, along with "How to Fight a Russian") with the co-executive producer, Daniel Percival, who set the tone for the series with vivid, intimate direction of episodes 1, 2, 9 and 10.

Thompson on Hollywood

WHAT IS STRIKE BACK ABOUT?
Strike Back is set within a British tactical operations intelligence unit called Section 20. The unit is responsible for covertly travelling around to globe to attack terrorist threats where they originate. Each episode’s adventures are tracked through this dysfunctional family of military personnel and at its heart are three principle characters: Damien Scott, a wrongfully discharged Delta Force operative who wants to find out who set him up, the highly skilled British SBS royal marine (UK version of Navy Seal), Michael Stonebridge, who experiences a constant internal conflict between home and duty, and their obsessively driven commander, Colonel Eleanor Grant, who has sacrificed a “normal” life to serve.

Through the perspectives of the main characters, we get a ringside seat to what is known as Tactical Intelligence Operations – the seamless melding of military intelligence technology and Special Forces combat units – fighting an ongoing, covert war on terror.

We tell our stories in an unsentimental and straightforward manner. We aim to always include a powerful human element, whilst setting the stories within true-life global situations and political backdrops such as Darfur, India/Pakistani conflict, gang crime of Kosovo or the Chechen civil war. This is fantastic territory for drama. -- there are good guys and bad guys, but everyone has their own clear motive and purpose behind their actions and nothing is black and white. There is a lot of gray area, even among the good guys.

This season we wanted to tap into the timely issue of how terrorist networks have become global and sophisticated. The Council for Foreign Relations refers to these networks as “strange coalitions,” a group of allied terror groups who have a shared goal. Strike Back takes you into this world where arms dealers are supplying rogue states that are using and/or housing terrorists for their own ideological reasons. This is another place where fact and fiction combine. We contrive an architectural terrorist who is modeled on a whole series of different people.

IS THIS NEW TERRITORY FOR TELEVISION?
We try to tap into some rarely seen worlds in fictional television drama. “MI-5” did a terrific job of showing audiences what the intelligence world is and “24” gave light to how threats on U.S. soil are tracked. We focus on these mobile tactical units that can respond quickly and covertly to leads all over the world.

IS SECTION 20 BASED ON A REAL UNIT?
Section 20 is fictional but it's inspired by a British tactical operations intelligence unit called The Increment, which was first formed in Belfast in the 1980s to tackle the IRA. It grew into a global unit that has handled a wide range of issues including those in Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, to name a few. There are many of these units all over the world and they often form alliances with like-minded nations that share an interest in resolving terrorist threats.

WHAT IS THE NATURE OF SECTION 20’S WORK?
One thing that has been a benchmark for us is that their ground is always shifting. Our heroes are responding to changing situations all the time, which again is realistic for this type of work. There's no linear path to a goal. The mission will change on a dime and someone will be killed that you're not anticipating. Missions are continually being compromised and our characters, just as in any war, have to constantly react to changing situations. In conflict, things hardly ever go as planned so improvisation is key.

The truth is that the public hears so little about the work of these dedicated people unless a high-priority target like Bin Laden is captured. In this case their work is recognized, but the majority of it remains unknown.

A result is their trust is hard earned, it doesn’t come easily. So when the possibility of a mole within the unit raises its specter, every mission comes under additional risk.

WHO ARE THE PEOPLE OF SECTION 20?
These are highly trained, extremely motivated individuals who are very good at what they do. They often spend years in elite military training and combat units, which can hone their skills but also take an incredible personal toll on them.

One of our consultants left the Special Forces at the age of 39 because he said he couldn’t keep dodging bullets and wanted to invest his time in life rather than death. Our characters are confronted with these same issues as they struggle to come to terms with the demands of their complicated personal and professional lives.

Also like the real people who do this work, the characters strive to make the right and moral choice and sometimes cannot. Scott has a mission is to uncover and foil a terror attack in a hotel, but he doesn’t turn his back on the girl hiding in the closet whose parent has been shot. He feels remorse about the waitress who goes back to get her phone for him but ends up shot, but he must continue with the mission and not get distracted by his emotions.

What’s different about civilians versus the people who are trained for this is that the latter group would go with the hard decision. Quite possibly, I would not go with the right decision and I would follow my heart instead, which would probably get myself and others killed. This is why they always have to put their emotions aside.

There are many questionable acts and moral issues Section 20 has to face to achieve their missions’ goals and the deeper you get into the series, the more questionable that becomes in itself.

WHERE DO THE STORIES COME FROM?
Strike Back draws heavily on real world events, as we look to the headlines of the constant threat of terrorism and those who fight it. There has been a series of low-profile news reports in the last couple of months about Al-Qaeda suspects killed in Yemen, and another killed in Sudan, and this is the territory of the show.

The show’s consultants work in this field and have been a great resource for storylines. The actual events in Strike Back are fiction, but we take the inspiration, settings and themes of our stories from real occurrences.

In episodes 5 and 6, an aid worker has been kidnapped in the Sudan and is being held for ransom because her father is a British arms dealer. After we shot one of our episodes, we heard about a British aid worker who was killed in an attempt by U.S. Special Forces to rescue her; they threw a grenade in the door at her captors and it accidently hit her. That's the world of Strike Back. This happens all the time in this line of work -- they get it wrong, they fail, the trail leads to a dead end. They have to make difficult choices and live with results.

At the center of the serial storyline is the ongoing threat posed by the internal civil conflict in Pakistan – an Islamic nation that already has nuclear and other WMDs – and the divided loyalties of Pakistani intelligence.

The worst-case terrorist scenario is a CBRN attack – chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists. It's not on the scale of the mutual annihilation of the Cold War, but it's nonetheless terrifying because it can come from anywhere and come anytime, and the death toll could be enormous.

Personally, I don't lose sleep at night at the thought of a nuclear bomb or biological weapon being detonated in London, even though I have made films about this [reference to his previous film for HBO called “Dirty War”]. I think an awful lot of dominos have to fall in order for that to happen. These covert units, however are designed to disrupt the few “dominoes” that they know about, and often that is enough to stop the attack.

Ultimately, the war on terror is not a battle you can win militarily; indeed it can be inflamed by large-scale military action, but targeted special forces/intelligence operations are a vital way to avert desperate threats. There's a very famous quote from the IRA, “You have to be lucky all the time, we only have to be lucky once,” and that's been proven again and again with a great deal of terrorism. Just as with the IRA, it is the ideological war and long-term negotiation that will bring about peace.

IS IT LIKELY THAT SECTION 20 WOULD WORK WITH AN OUTSIDER LIKE SCOTT?
There are a number of tactical teams for different governments around the world and they often form coalitions with each other. First and foremost, units like this are pragmatic. They will recruit whoever they need to fulfill the mission. They will also work with local military and police should it be required. Whether they work alone or in an alliance with outsiders depends entirely on who has the expertise that is needed in a particular situation or region.

Joint operations happen most commonly between British and American Special Forces who have a long trusted alliance. They fought together in Iraq, so for Section 20 to bring in Damien Scott in the way that they did is not that unusual. The concept of joint operations goes back many years, but was really honed in the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, in particular under General Stan McCrystal’s joint tactical operations task force against Al Qaeda in Iraq. One of our Special Forces consultants worked extensively with American Special Forces. Even though he was officially only a corporal in the British Army, he found himself in Iraq commanding entire units of U.S. Army Rangers.

We decided to bring Scott into the story this season by giving him a history with John Porter, who was seen in the U.K. first season, which never aired in the U.S. As part of their characters’ back stories for this season [U.S. first season], the two worked together on a American and British joint operation, which was based on a story from one of our own SBS consultants, making contact with the Northern Alliance in 2001-2. They flew across the Northern Pakistan border into Afghanistan with boxes stuffed with millions of dollars to buy support from the tribes. They were dressed as Pashtuns [local Afghan people], grew long beards and moved around the hills, and literally bought their way into Afghanistan before the ground invasion. This is the incredible kind of complex alliance between British and American Special Forces that has been going on for a decade.

ARE THERE OTHER UNITS THAT SECTION 20 WILL WORK WITH?
Elite units of different nationalities will work together when they have a tactical need and shared goals. In episodes 1 and 2, you see Section 20 eventually work with the Indian government and in episode 9, they work with Georgian Special Forces to get into Chechnya. In many episodes, they work covertly without the knowledge or cooperation from local governments, often due to lack of trust and complicated political issues.

WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SCOTT AND STONEBRIDGE?
They seem like opposites in their approaches to the work but they actually have a lot in common, and you see more of that as we get to know them. In serious moments, they often turn to humor because it’s a good release for the extreme situations they face, which also applies to many other jobs.

Scott is a terrific character because he is always surprising us. When we first meet him, we think he only joins Section 20 for the selfish reasons of finding out who set him up and for the money. Later we see how he cares about resolving the attack, and he takes risks to protect the team and civilians. His outrageousness is funny at times. As most long-term and highly skilled military operatives have some form of PTSD, Scott’s manifests in risky behavior – whether it’s impulsively impersonating a hacker, singlehandedly overrunning a drug compound in hostile territory, or bedding a lot of women.

Towards the end of the season and as Scott and Stonebridge start to trust and get to know each other, you realize that Scott had a family and a past and it's just beginning to unravel. He is angry with Stonebridge because he doesn't want Stonebridge to make the same mistakes he made.

There’s a great scene in episode 8 where Scott is out of ammo and he tries to get Stonebridge to run off the bridge with the hostages. His thought is that Stonebridge has something to live for so he should leave with the hostages and let Scott lay down the suppressing fire until they could escape, but Stonebridge won’t give him the guns or ammo.

Stonebridge is doing this work because what else can he do? Highly trained military personnel often feel that they can’t do anything else, so they stick with the same kind of work, which only complicates their struggle with PTSD. Stonebridge is wrecked by guilt about his marriage and the coworker he loved who died, which leads him to court deadly situations. That is why he runs into the desert to rescue Clare and why he won’t let Scott replace him on the bridge. In episode 6, Scott notices his dangerous behavior and confronts Col. Grant in the hospital because he knew she used Stonebridge’s precarious mental state to get the job done.

The greatest joy of the series is seeing these two work together as one. The biggest treat is in the final story, where all the threads come together and Scott and Stonebridge show their incredible fighting skills and deep professional understanding to the maximum.

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More: TV, TV, HBO

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