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Special Operations doesn't mean going in with all guns blazing. It means special planning, special care, fully briefed agents in possession of all possible alternatives. If you want James Bond, go to your library. But if you want a successful operation, sit at your desk and think, and then think again. Our battles aren't fought at the end of a parachute. They're won and lost in drab, dreary corridors in Westminster, and hopefully in Oslo.—Neil Burnside, nominally to his Norwegian counterpart but actually to the audience
British spy series that ran three series on ITV, from 1978 to 1980. Neil Burnside is the Director of the Operations division of the Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6) during the Cold War. Under his supervision is the Special Section, three agents nicknamed "Sandbaggers", led by Willie Caine.
Once described as "men in cheap suits dying badly in Prague," it clearly falls on the cynical side of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism, and is about as far from James Bond as you can get (which the characters themselves are apt to point out.) Most of the plots revolve around Burnside wrestling with bureaucracy within and without, whether it's his superiors at SIS, his domestic counterparts at MI 5, or the British government.
Features examples of:
- Acronym and Abbreviation Overload The dialogue uses so many acronyms that the DVDs have an acronym glossary as a bonus feature.
- Anti-Hero: Burnside.
- Anyone Can Die: Sandbaggers have a high mortality rate over the course of the series. It's commented on In-Universe as well.
- Author Existence Failure - Series creator and head writer Ian Mackintosh vanished in a small airplane flight near Alaska, while series three was being shot. Three poorly regarded episodes were written to fill out the series, but the producers decided to end the show rather than turn it into a Franchise Zombie.
- Black and Grey Morality: His stated goal, "the destruction of the KGB," justifies Burnside's ruthlessness.
- Bottle Episode: SIS office politics play a huge role in the show, and occasionally the entire episode takes place in that environment (though likely including a few London exteriors.)
- CIA Evil, FBI Good: Inverted. The CIA are generally portrayed as helpful, and in particular Burnside has a very close working relationship with the CIA's London section chief, Jeff Ross. The FBI are allegedly behind the Kennedy and King assassinations.
- Cut Short - Mackintosh's disappearance ended the series on a cliffhanger, with Willie Caine mortally wounded. Rumors suggest Caine would have returned as a wheelchair-bound D. Ops in Series Four.
- Deadpan Snarker - Just about everyone gets a turn, but particularly Burnside, his secretary and Sandbagger One, Willie Caine.
- Double Meaning Title - "Special Relationship"
- Double Reverse Quadruple Agent - Defied; Tyler says he considered becoming a triple agent after the KGB turned him, but decided it wouldn't help his situation any.
- Fun with Acronyms - None are particularly funny, but the sheer number of them can choke segments of dialogue. The PA to D.Ops might relay a message that the PUSS at the FCO needs a favor for the DCDS.
- Guile Hero (or maybe Guile Anti-Hero?) - Burnside.
- He Who Must Not Be Seen - Burnside's ex-wife and Wellingham's daughter, Belinda. Burnside's relationship with her (and by extension, Wellingham) is a plot point in several episodes, but we never see her except in photographs.
- I Did What I Had to Do - Burnside personifies this trope, and isn't afraid to get his hands dirty.
- Incredibly Obvious Tail - Played straight (but justified) in the first ten minutes of the series: Burnside and Caine easily spot tails on their way to the office, but it turns out they're being followed by green Norweigan agents on a training exercise.
- Inherent in the System - Most of the intelligence community is bent towards maintaining the status quo as a result of the governments and bureaucracies each agency serves.
- Instant Death Bullet - Brutally and tragically subverted in "At All Costs".
- Insufferable Genius - Burnside is a draconian boss, but superhumanly dedicated to his job and the safety of his agents. Likewise, he regularly lies to his superiors and schemes under their noses, but he's just that good at deception, and it usually serves the interest of the Service.
- Interservice Rivalry - SIS and MI 5 don't get along.
Wallace: I have a friend in Five who...
Burnside: Nobody has friends in Five.
- Knight Templar - Burnside does not hesitate to take matters in his own hands and has a fanatical anti-Communist streak.
- Make It Look Like an Accident - Arranged by the protagonists a few times, when there's a KGB mole who's prominent enough that their trial or suspicious death would cause a scandal.
- The Mole - Several, including a prominent cabinet minister as well as Edward Tyler, Director of Intelligence.
- Not My Driver - Wellingham gets kidnapped this way in "Enough of Ghosts".
- Obstructive Bureaucrat - Compared to Burnside, describes virtually everybody, but Deputy Chief Peele most often fills the role.
- One-Letter Name / Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep" - The head of SIS is always referred to only as "C"; it takes an entire season to learn his real name and even after that nobody uses it.
- The Only One - Diplomacy won't work. The CIA can't get an agent there in time. The Prime Minister refuses to authorize military action. Any number of elements force the Sandbaggers into the line of fire.
- Out-Gambitted - Wellingham thoroughly outmaneuvers Burnside in the season 2 finale.
- Overt Rendezvous - Burnside and Jeff Ross tend to meet while strolling through the park.
- Pointy-Haired Boss - Deputy Chief Peele, who is more of a career man than an intelligence officer, although he does show glimpses of competence once or twice. The Prime Minister and the rest of the government usually are treated as Pointy Haired Bosses, as well.
- Prisoner Exchange - subverted hard when Burnside orders her shot halfway across
- Refuge in Audacity - Perhaps most notably when Burnside wins a bureaucratic argument by moving the capital of Venezuela (It Makes Sense in Context.)
- Secret Test of Character - Wellingham administers one to Peele in the season 2 finale.
- Shoot the Dog - Burnside, notably in "At All Costs."
- Shown Their Work - Perhaps showing a bit too much - one of the second series episodes was censored for contravening the Official Secrets Act.
- Spiritual Successor - Greg Rucka's love of the series led to his homage/reworking, Queen and Country.
- Spy Fiction - Extremely Stale Beer.
- The Spymaster - Burnside, obviously. Also, the chief of the CIA station in London, Burnside's opposite number at MI 5, and several foreign intelligence chiefs. Particularly amusing is the struggling head of the fledgling Norweigan intelligence service:
"What do they have, two men and a reindeer?"
"Something like that."
- Spy Speak - Played straight, but usually not overdone. A typical example uses the "Metaphor" approach, with Burnside in the role of a manager talking to two salesmen in the field.
- The Teetotaler - Burnside doesn't drink.
- Tyrant Takes the Helm - John Tower Gibbs in season 3 falls somewhere between this trope and Bait and Switch Tyrant.
- What the Hell, Hero? - Burnside commits some truly despicable acts, including threatening to blackmail a Sandbagger's girlfriend which drives her to suicide and ordering the assasination of one of his own agents, who is also his lover. Willie Caine's otherwise rock-solid loyalty is severely shaken by the latter, although his dedication to the job brings him back.