The British excel when it comes to paranoid TV thrillers, and “Masterpiece: Contemporary” five-parter “The Last Enemy” is no exception. Slow going at first, this barely futuristic tale of government surveillance and biological threats has the feel of science fact, with an array of twists that continue into the satisfying last chapter. Similar tonally to “The Constant Gardener” with its cerebral, lovelorn and rather hapless protagonist, it’s a first-rate production for those to whom the term “Big Brother” doesn’t just denote a silly reality show.
In the best Hitchcockian tradition, Stephen Ezard (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a regular guy thrown into extraordinary circumstances — provided that “regular” means a celebrated mathematical genius who has taken refuge from the world living in China.
Stephen returns to the U.K. for a funeral after hearing that his brother, Michael (Max Beesley), died in a land-mine blast while treating refugees in the Middle East. The two are so distant that Stephen didn’t even know his brother was married, and he then proceeds to fall head over heels for his brother’s wife, Yasim (Anamaria Marinca of “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days”).
Not only did Michael die under mysterious circumstances but Yasim is treating another aid worker who has contracted a deadly virus. Meanwhile, the government is seeking to introduce a controversial ID program, Total Information Awareness, and recruits Stephen to help promote it; in his headlong quest to reconnect with the gone-missing Yasim, he accepts the job, hoping to access the program’s search capabilities.
Adding to the dense story, there’s a shadowy rogue agent (Robert Carlyle), whose loyalties remain unclear, on Stephen’s tail and government officials (among them Stephen’s ex-girlfriend Eleanor, played by Eva Birthistle) desperate to find the infected aid worker for reasons initially unknown. Microbiologists, meanwhile, start to suffer an alarming mortality rate.
Written by Peter Berry (“Prime Suspect 6”) and directed by Iain MacDonald, “Enemy” resembles several recent U.K. miniseries (among them “The State Within”) that have grappled with the balance between liberty and security in the age of terrorism — casting a skeptical eye at a government abusing its power.
What distinguishes this one, primarily, is how convincing Cumberbatch is as a bookish nerd, way over his head in this world of espionage. “For a genius, you’re pretty fuckin’ stupid,” he’s told at one point, and that he is.
Although the story takes the occasional misstep, “Last Enemy’s” cliffhanger endings and intricate plot pull the audience along toward a taut, crackerjack ending. Overall, then, give this PBS franchise high scores for truth in advertising — with a project that comes close to being a masterpiece and could hardly feel more contemporary or timely.