Recently, I came across a show called Pine Gap on the Netflix show guide. It was set in the titular Pine Gap, a joint defense intelligence facility near the town of Alice Springs in Australia. The base is staffed by both Americans and Australians, who monitor satellite and communication transmissions in the area for potential threats to either country. But that only works as long as the goals of both countries are aligned, and in Pine Gap it becomes clear that may not always be the case. In the first episode, a passenger plane is shot out of the sky over Myanmar, allegedly by a separatist terrorist group, and malware is found on the base’s computer, which had to have been planted by a member of the crew on duty when the plane was shot down. Up until now, we have a set-up that would feel pretty common to any spy thriller series. It’s the part that comes after that makes Pine Gap different.
Here in America we’re used to a certain flavor of spies. Guys like Jack Bauer, Jason Bourne, or Ethan Hunt are the spies we put in our shows and movies. They are intelligence assets who also kick asses, can drive backward down multiple hairpin turns, can defuse bombs, are a crack shot with any weapon you hand them, and quick with a quip afterward to show how easy it is for them. They’re basically superheroes. The staff at Pine Gap are just people. Sure, they speak over a half dozen languages, or wrote their doctoral thesis on identifying people with satellite imagery, or are genius software engineers, but they’re also in a basketball league. They’re worried about their kids’ school fees. They struggle with relating to other people and their own families due to the top-secret nature of their work. Oddly, they are very reminiscent of the kind of people I grew up around in the suburbs of D.C.
In Pine Gap we watch the executives try to find who planted the malware amidst an escalating security situation in the South China Sea, and we watch the staff navigate their personal lives as well as their own suspicions about the communications and images they’re tasked with monitoring. No one goes crawling through air vents or sneaking around dark buildings with a gun. They talk about being passed over for promotions, or how hard it is to date. Even while they order drone strikes or monitor warships, none of our characters are in any mortal danger from their posts in the middle of the Australian outback. It’s all at a remove, and yet it’s not. They’re in it every day. It’s a genuine thriller, but the stakes are believable and immediate rather than extraordinary and global. There are parts of Pine Gap that might run a chill down your back, but it’s more the realization that intelligence services can tap any cellphone in a room to listen to what’s happening in that room, rather than physical violence.
Overall, I enjoyed Pine Gap and found myself guessing at the central mystery to the end. There are enough believable twists thrown in to keep things interesting. The side plots involving a Chinese mining company and the Aboriginal population, who have been shut out of their ancestral land by the Pine Gap facility, are likely meant to be developed further in future seasons, but felt distracting from the clearly defined core arc of the first season. I also felt like some of the early characterization was a bit clumsy, with people shouting arguments back and forth during high-stress situations in the intelligence facility. The show actually filmed in Alice Springs in Australia, so the exterior scenes are stunning. While the characters on the show are split between Australians and Americans, only one of the Americans is played by an actual American and I definitely caught a few tell-tale accent slips on the other ones. But these are minor issues. If you’re looking for a relatively low-stakes political thriller where you worry more about personal relationships than who’s got how many bullets, this is a good show for you.
Header Image Source: Netflix/ABC