Review: Occupied (Okkupert) 1×1 (Norway: TV2; UK: Sky Arts)

A Very Norwegian Coup

In Norway: TV2. Aired from October 2015
In the UK: Wednesdays, 9pm, Sky Arts

What is science-fiction? It’s a harder question than you might think. As soon as you think you know what it is – it’s set in outer space, it involves some non-existent technology or science, it involves aliens – you can think of some counter-example, such as The Man In The High Castle that doesn’t fit your rules. Often, it boils down to a definition like that of pornography: you know it when you see it.

Even then, there are disagreements. Think back to 1987 and you’ll remember the BBC’s Star Cops. Set in the then far-off year of 2027, it simply tried to imagine what life would be like in that year, particularly when it comes to investigating crime. No aliens, yet clearly science-fiction, with its imagined new technologies (computer viruses! Personal digital assistants!), moon bases and space stations.

Star Cops, for all its ambitions at future reality, suffered from the fact that like most future-set science-fiction, it was an extrapolation of the then present. Like 2010, The Terminator and other 80s sci-fi shows, it assumed that the USSR and an aggressive Russia would be intact in the future and antagonistic to the West. My, how we laughed at their naivety when the Berlin Wall fell, and even Terminator 2 had to revise the franchise’s predicted 1997 to take account of the fact the “Russians are our friends now”.

My, how we laugh at our naivety now. Who predicted the rise of Valdimir Putin and the return of an antagonistic Russia? Who foresaw the return of Russian jets probing Norway‘s airspace? Apparently, Chris Boucher did in Star Cops. Sorry for laughing at you in the 90s, Chris.

All of which takes us to Occupied (Okkupert), a thriller based on an idea by noted Scandi author Jo Nesbø that could be described as science-fiction or political thriller, depending where you sit in the whole ‘what is science fiction?’ debate. Set in the ‘near future’, it predicts the US achieving energy self-sufficiency and withdrawing from NATO, leaving the EU and other nations in the West to try to get by on dwindling oil reserves, largely produced by Norway.

Then in the wake of a climate change-induced hurricane that devastates Norway, along comes a new Norwegian prime minister (Henrik Mestad) with a strong green agenda. He shuts down oil production and instead offers the world nuclear-generated electricity powered by Norway’s Thorium reserves. Except the EU and other neighbouring countries aren’t too impressed by the instant move to green power – how exactly do you run existing petrol-powered cars on nuclear energy? – and in a somewhat radical move, team up with the Russians to force Norway to start up oil production.

The Russians kidnap Mestad, make it clear what’s going to happen next, and before you know it, Russia’s doing a ‘US in Vietnam’ and sending in teams of ‘advisors’ (with Mil Mi-24 helicopter gunships) to help Norway crank up oil production again. Yes, Russia has invaded Norway – although Mestad tries to convince everyone that it’s all very peaceful – and there’s seemingly nothing anyone can or will do about repelling the former superpower.

Or is there? Because Norway has its own Jack Bauer – security service guard Hans Martin Djupvik (Eldar Skar) – and he’s going to do his upmost to deal with the Russians, in his own way.

Here’s the original Norwegian trailer for the show or you can watch the unembeddable English-language one over on Sky Arts.

About
Okkupert (Occupied) is a Norwegian political thriller TV-series in 10 episodes that premiered on TV 2 on 5 October 2015. Based on an original idea by Jo Nesbø, the series is directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg.

With a budget of kr 90 million (USD 11 million), the series is the most expensive Norwegian production to date, and is so far confirmed sold to the UK, Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Estonia, Poland and all the Benelux countries.

Is it any good?
Although some of the production values are a little wobbly at times and the show takes a somewhat radical choice in having a car chase that stops every minute so the hero can check his SatNav because it’s lost its signal, it’s actually a cracking bit of work, a sort of Norwegian A Very British Coup meets 24, that’s head and shoulders above our last Norwegian import, Mammon.

The show has a couple of big asks: The first is that Norwegian oil production would be of such importance in the near future that other countries would invade it à la Iraq to ensure its continuation: if North Sea oil is petering down in the near future, so’s Norway’s, and with Iran about to add 500,000 barrels of oil a day to world oil production, taking the price down to US$28 a barrel, it’s hard to imagine the EU running out of oil any time soon. Or that Russia would be anything but happy that Norway had quit the oil game, given that the EU is one of the biggest importers of its oil.

The second is that the EU could not only sufficiently get its act together and change its entire raison d’être (the avoidance of war in Europe) that it would agree on a secret strategy to invade Norway, but that it would collaborate with the Russians and the Swedes to do this.

These asks probably tell you more about Norwegian attitudes towards the world and themselves, than about any realistic projection of the future.

But once you get over these two big asks, the general idea – Russia secretly invading another country for its own reasons, particularly one that’s no longer protected by NATO – is not such a big ask. Or indeed any ask.

From that basis, we then have what’s a reasonably interesting, action-packed political thriller. Skar’s a rugged enough lead to do all the action stuff and we have a scruffy journalist (Vegar Hoel) doing some investigating, too. There’s also a whole bunch of little people, who are no doubt going to be surprised when they discover in episode two that they’ve been covertly invaded. Whether they’ll end up doing anything or whether the once fierce but currently oil-rich Norwegians will just accept it will be one of the show’s big questions.

Either way, it’s a bold, exciting show with a fascinating central concept that’s already annoyed the right people, so I’m definitely tuning in for episode two.




  • JustStark

    Now this sounds like it could be excellent. Definitely going to try it.

    Though…

    The second is that the EU could not only sufficiently get its act
    together and change its entire raison d'être (the avoidance of war in
    Europe) that it would agree on a secret strategy to invade Norway, but
    that it would collaborate with the Russians and the Swedes do this.

    … while avoiding another war may have been the original purpose of the Treaty of Rome, by now the EU's primary purpose is clearly ensuring its own survival, so this isn't as far-fetched as you imply (of course it's as chaotic and incompetent as any other bureaucracy, so there's still the 'getting its act together' bit, but most thriller plots require the antagonistic organisation to be far more competently run than it would be in real life [eg, governments that are actually capable of keeping secret conspiracies or agencies secret], so we can accept that).

  • Mark Carroll

    Promising indeed. I can certainly suspend that much disbelief. I'll be interested to read how your assessment of further episodes.

  • Well… we might have to agree to disagree about the EU, particularly since online political arguments tend to get heated quite quickly. But I think the average EU official – at least the ones from Old Europe – are quite wedded to the idea of the EU as a bulwark against war in Europe. Even if it's not the thing they'd first think of, if you were to say, “Hey, why don't we invade x with the help of the Russians?” where x is a current ally of the EU, I think they'd properly have a heart attack at the idea, no matter what kind of energy crisis was happening.

    The UK on the other hand? We'd probably give a big grinning thumbs up.

  • JustStark

    But I think the average EU official – at least the ones from Old Europe –
    are quite wedded to the idea of the EU as a bulwark against war in
    Europe. Even if it's not the thing they'd first think of, if you were to
    say, “Hey, why don't we invade x with the help of the Russians?” where x
    is a current ally of the EU, I think they'd properly have a heart
    attack at the idea, no matter what kind of energy crisis was happening.

    Well, ish, but they are also wedded to the idea (and let's not discuss whether this is true or not) that the only thing stopping there having been war in Europe for the last fifty years has been the existence of the EU.

    So if there were an energy crisis which were to cause knock-on financial and political crises which looked like they might cause the EU to fracture (eg, power cuts were causing populations in EU member states to look like they might elect extreme Euro-sceptic parties who would then try to take their countries out of the EU), and Norway's oil was the only plausible solution, and the EU were to ask Norway to help and Norway were to refuse, then I could imagine those officials deciding that Norway should be, well, persuaded to reconsider its position, perhaps by, indeed, sending in some 'helpers' to explain to them quite how serious the situation is.

    All while telling themselves, of course, that they were acting for Norway's own good, because if the EU were to fracture

    then clearly the continent would be instantly plunged into war (the EU having been the only thing stopping that happening) and that would be bad for Norway.

    So it's not exactly an invasion, more just helping an ally which obviously doesn't realise at the present moment where its own interests lie to make the right decision. They'll thank us in the long run. They might even, once they realise how we have helped them and are appropriately grateful, reconsider their opposition to joining the EU outright and clearly that would be better for everyone.

    And if we need Russia's help, well, then we need Russia's help: it's just an alliance of convenience and, again, better that than the fracturing of the EU which, see above, would lead to the inevitable resumption of war on the European continent.

    I've no idea if this is the rationalisation use din the series, but it's not a particularly far-fetched example of the ability of someone who has identified themselves with the survival and goals of an organisation to be able to talk themselves into thinking that even extreme actions taken in furtherance of that survival and those goals are not only necessary but in fact the right thing to do.

  • That is all kind of possible, but any official that followed that line of thought would still end up realising that unless the Council of Ministers were on their side, and probably the parliament as well, the second they 'authorised' anything involving the Russians, it would all start to go a bit pear-shaped because they don't have any actual authority over anything.

    It'd be like the Ministry of Defence deciding to authorise the invasion of a country (with the collaboration of the French) against the will of parliament, the Minister of Defence and the entire cabinet. Unless everyone above them could be persuaded or didn't really give a monkey's, even if everyone on the ground went “Okay. And there's no need for me to check with anyone important about that,” it would get reversed pretty instantly and everyone involved would get a kicking.

    And the same's actually true in reverse: even if the president of the EU decided it was a good idea, if everyone below him (ie all the individual countries) thought it sucked something hairy, nothing would actually happen.

    Basically, even if the officials in question did overcome their aversion to war, which is what they'd be authorising, the main countries of the EU would have to as well and then they'd have to agree to it. I'm not sure that could be pulled off covertly, behind closed doors and under the auspices of 'the EU' rather than by those individual countries. At which they'd stop hiding behind the 'who's that? who cares?' EU official and deliver the ultimatum themselves.

    But we're now at a level of detail that I don't think Okkupert really cares about. And which is a bit “Who would win in a fight – Superman or Spider-man?” Oh well.

  • JustStark

    Basically, even if the officials in question did overcome their aversion
    to war, which is what they'd be authorising, the main countries of the
    EU would have to as well and then they'd have to agree to it

    True enough, but (in this hypothetical situation) those countries are in the grips of an energy crisis which is threatening both their economic and their political stability. If, say, Angela Merkel was confronting the real possibility of Alternativ für Deutschland sweeping all before them in a general election, and invading Norway, but of course it wouldn't be spun as an invasion, nobody would ever use the word 'war' or 'invasion', it would just be sending friendly advisors to Norway to explain to them why they absolutely must keep the oil flowing, with a few soldiers around just to ensure the safety of the advisors, you understand, offered a war to restore stability to the continent, well, I wouldn't be sure she wouldn't take it.

    Resource shortages are, after all, one of the main reasons throughout history that countries have gone to war throughout history.

    At which they'd stop hiding behind the 'who's that? who cares?' EU official and deliver the ultimatum themselves.

    You underestimate the desire of politicians for plausible deniability, I think. After all if it does go right they can always swoop in and take credit later, so in the early stages where it might go wrong, let's just make sure we are not the ones attaching our names to it, yes?

  • Re: resource shortages

    Well, yes, but that still comes down to just a few countries thinking that. 23 countries thinking that, quite a few of them in Eastern Europe and so not necessarily that keen on Russia? And then able to keep all these discussions and eventual decision secret from everyone? I don't think so.

    “You underestimate the desire of politicians for plausible deniability, I think.”
    I think you underestimate how little the average politician thinks of a civil servant versus the leader of another country, particularly when it comes to threats in a conversation being held in secret.

    The whole point is, in this case at least, that they're intimidating the premier into a certain action and will kill him he refuses. If he still tells everyone what's happened, it doesn't matter because word is out. Plausible deniability is a bit irrelevant at that point, since it's the mere characterisation by the Premier of the action as an invasion that's the thing they want to stop, not the fact he was kidnapped, they're involved, etc, etc.

    It's also worth noting said EU official is sat right next to the Swedish premier (or top Swedish politician) at the time, too. Assuming he is an official. He might be a leader nominated by the other leaders to speak for them. Plausibility deniability for everyone except the Swedes? It seems a little unfair to their poor Nordic conspirator.

    I think it's basically a scene which needs to set up the threat and it being an unlikely scenario, the details make it a bit harder to pull off convincingly, particularly in such an action situation.

    But it tells us also that Norway seems to find the idea of a monolithic EU capable of a single course of secret action decided among all governments against them to get to their natural resources to be a possibility. Hence its current membership of the EEA rather than EU.

  • JustStark

    Well, yes, but that still comes down to just a few countries thinking
    that. 23 countries thinking that, quite a few of them in Eastern Europe
    and so not necessarily that keen on Russia?

    I think those countries in Eastern Europe would, if forced into a pinch, take 'hold you nose and co-operate with Russia to invade someone else' over 'get invaded by Russia again' any day…

    And then able to keep all these discussions and eventual decision secret from everyone? I don't think so

    Well clearly, but i did point out above that most thriller plots require the antagonists, by they crime synicates, secret agencies, or governments, to be far more competent about eg keeping conspiracies secret than they are in reality. Clearly I don't think the EU is capable of responding to a crisis with a decisive, co-ordinated action: that's a ludicrous idea. It's the motivations and rationalisations that would lead to the action that I don't find as far-fetched as you apparently do.

    As for the stuff about the actual scenes, I think that's going to have to wait until I've had a chance to watch it.

  • Re: not getting invaded by Russia.

    But that's pretty much why they joined the EU (as well as for the economic benefits, etc) – if Russia invades them, it's invading the EU, which it won't do. At least I suspect not. You may think otherwise. Vladimir Putin might think otherwise. All bets are off with him.

    So that wouldn't be the choice – the choice would be “Russia threatens to turn off its gas supply to the EU” – although its recent sanctions attempts against the EU have had a slight backfiring quality to them – “if you don't agree to let them help out Norway.” Which they might go for, but I think there are several former USSR countries – or perhaps even Greece – that wouldn't go for it, no matter what. It would be like asking the Welsh to support England at the rugby.

    Assuming we can believe the EU guy that he represents all the countries of the EU, of course. He may be a naughty Swede.

  • JustStark

    But that's pretty much why they joined the EU (as well as for the
    economic benefits, etc) – if Russia invades them, it's invading the EU,
    which it won't do.

    Not if the EU has fractured. Remember, the hypothetical situation here (the one I am imagining, I don't know how closely it matches the one in the programme) is one in which an energy crisis has caused economic and political unrest such that it is looking like a real possibility that lots of EU countries might, unless their energy needs are met, elect extremist, anti-EU parties.

    Would a Germany run by Alternativ für Deutschland come to the aid of, say, Latvia? More to the point would Riga trust that it would do so?

    So, in the situation where the energy crisis looks like it's going to cause the fracturing of the EU, Latvia, and the other Eastern states, would be faced with a choice between seeing the EU either disintegrate entirely, or become so weakened by in-fighting that it couldn't protect them from Russia (and if we're assuming the energy crisis affects Russia too [We're already assuming the Siberian oilfields have run dry, right?], then the bear might well be in a belligerent mood); and co-operating with Russia to force Norway to turn the gas tap back on.

    In that situation then yes, I can see them co-operating (reluctantly) with Russia. Because basically in that situation, it's either side with Russia or be left unprotected on the edge of a disintegrating EU should Russia

    (Technically, what should protect the Baltic states etc in that situation is their membership of NATO, because it's that whihc means that an attack by Russia on, say, Estonia, should draw a response from all NATO members; but as the countries which would be having all their attention taken up by the crisis within the EU would also be the ones in NATO which they would be relying on, that's not much comfort).

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