The backdrop of Pine Gap has all the ingredients of a tempting drama thriller: a joint US-Australian facility shrouded in secrecy, a unique and exotic setting in the Australian outback, and a cultural clash with the Indigenous community.
Located just outside Alice Springs, Pine Gap is one of 3 major ‘eyes’ in a network linked with Colorado and the UK,. With just 1 road in and out into a valley surrounded by mountains, it is so ominously placed that no filming on site was allowed for this production.
So it’s disappointing that with such an interesting setting the opening episode gets bogged down in talking heads and a pace that lacks sufficient energy.
The Operations Floor looks like Australia’s answer to 24′s CTU, staffed by both American and Australian intelligence. Mission Director Gus Thompson (Parker Sawyers) oversees the surveillance which hits high alert when an armed warhead is targeted at an APEC summit in Myanmar -attended by the US President and Australian Prime Minister.
Aussie communications analyst Jasmina Delic (Tess Haubrich) is one of several staff on the floor the day it takes out a civilian plane with 14 people, including 4 Americans. It’s a Pine Gap fail and someone has to take the fall.
But how could so much money and tech wizardry fail? American Moses Dreyfus (Mark Leonard Winter) suspects an insider has hacked their mainframe and sets about gathering information covertly.
The opening chapter also introduces us to the Alice Springs community where a simple dinner date can entail an ASIO check, and the Indigenous community (led by Kelton Pell & Madeleine Madden) is torn over whether to sell out to a Chinese mining company (led by Jason Chong).
Other key roles at Pine Gap include Chief of Facility, American Ethan James (Steve Toussaint), Deputy Chief Kath Sinclair (Jacqueline McKenzie) and Chief of Intelligence Operations Rudi Fox (Lewis FitzGerald).
Given the filming restrictions, the CGI used to recreate Pine Gap with its giant ‘golf ball’ dishes looks convincing and the red dirt of the Alice for exterior scenes adds to the visual palette.
But much of the action is confined to the claustrophobic setting of offices and the Ops Floor with various disagreements over strategy and accountability. Gus and Jasmina share the load as central characters within the ensemble, but I can’t help but feel it would be stronger with more individual focus.
The real disappointment is the lack of action (it’s all happening on the other end of the satellites) and as a result Pine Gap starts to lift more outside the base than within it. Some of the dialogue was clunky (“We Aussies know all about sucking it up”) and US accents were sometimes inconsistent -Lewis FitzGerald is easily best at feigning Yank-twang.
Over the opening hour I struggled to care for these characters, and to think that all those ’80s protest, it was for a place of dull bureaucrats who spend more time talking than amounting to any regional threat. Against Homeland, 24 and Spooks this was a very tepid start when on paper it really shouldn’t have been.
Pine Gap double episode 8:30pm Sunday on ABC.