What Lies Beneath

Surprisingly Nuanced Enviro-Thriller ‘The Rig’ is ‘Alien’ at Sea

New super-natural series The Rig has drilled its way into the eco-revenge genre, bobbing atop Amazon Prime’s top 10 list at press time. The show, centered on strange happenings on an isolated oil platform in the North Sea, is the first of its kind filmed entirely in Scotland. David MacPherson, making his TV debut as The Rig’s creator, producer and lead writer, offers a 3D-glasses approach to a divisive issue with his own complicated background that merges two antipodal views into a deeper vision of the future.

A hundred and fifty miles from dry land, the crew of the Kinloch Bravo are slurping crude from ancient Permian fields beneath the seafloor when an oddly-CGI’d fogbank rolls in and cuts off communication with shore. Oil company rep and scientist Rose (Schitt’s Creek’s Emily Hampshire) pushes to keep the pumps running: “Numbers are what we’re here for,” she says through harsh red lipstick to fatherly rig boss Magnus (Iain Glen, Game of Thrones). But tremors, ashfalls and disappearances soon start to erode delicate power dynamics and force the crew to face an ancient entity that they’ve awakened from the deep— along with the unsettling fact that humanity has not a thumb but a giant carbon footprint on nature’s scale. But while The Rig’s ecological messaging is clear, the show itself is a nuanced and interconnected ecosystem, balancing the oil industry’s planetary impact against its socioeconomic importance for workers during profound restructuring. MacPherson, who grew up in both worlds, knows the issue is as murky as drilling sludge pumped down a hungry borehole.

Viewers, like the crew, are wrapped in the enigmatic vapors of The Rig. The show’s intent is as fathomless as the creature itself: is it a sci-fi drama, action thriller, or eco-mystery? Is it an environmental polemic, a blue-collar swan song, or just a wicked good disaster story bubbling up from the world’s last frontier? MacPherson offers no clear answers over six paradoxical episodes.

It’s a story about the broadest issue facing humanity — extinction – told in an insular and ultra-localized fraternal microcosm. The brilliant ensemble cast pulls verve and sincerity out of wooden eco-screeds and environmental aphorisms that read like copypasta Earth Day tweets. Detailed but terribly lit, often clunky VFX overlays an elegantly engineered, sprawling three-story set. The Rig is entirely opaque about where the real threat lies: humans, or the swarming revenge-spores called the Ancestor, with an eons-long memory of global geological change – and did it survive these changes, or cause them? The hardy Scottish roughnecks forge new life, love, alliances and hope on the rig’s floating steel, yet the ending seems inevitable from the start. Is the cataclysmic final minute of the last episode cruelty, or justice?

MacPherson grew up in the Scottish coastal highlands, where his father worked offshore and built oil rigs for deployment in the North Sea. Stories of the strange oceanic world  beneath the platforms enthralled the youngster, and as an adult he wove this experience into jobs in politics and environmental sustainability. He witnessed his community’s collective fear of being left behind during the energy transition of an industry trying to clean itself up, as companies decommissioned wells to meet zero net carbon emissions and new technology and sustainability measures marked the passing of an old age. “We’re fossils digging fossils,” says one salt-and-pepper drillbilly in The Rig. “I was going to be an anthropologist,” says Rose ruefully. “I wanted to work with dinosaurs–now I do.”

MacPherson applies his environmental science and energy background to plausibly tap into an ancient world, as the rig literally drills back through time to an era when the earth was an unrecognizable landscape filled with life. “This land was fertile, populated,” says actor Emun Elliot (Game of Thrones), who plays crewman Leck. “There’s thousands, millions of stories at the bottom of the sea.” As Magnus, palming an arrowhead brought up from the seafloor, muses, “Most myths trace back to some kind of truth.”

The production couldn’t film on a real platform because of Covid restrictions, not to mention the logistical nightmare of schlepping an 80-member crew plus equipment on and off an actual rig. So they built an elaborate room-to-room replica across three stages in a massive indoor studio in Edinburgh, knitting live action with CG components for sweeping exterior shots. Creating environmental chaos calls for a big production budget: the crew used vibration rigs, wave and fog machines, and mountains of flying ash to replicate the massive scale of the sea and its weather. The show actually lit Martin Compston (Line of Duty), who plays Rose’s love interest, on fire for a pyrotechnic stunt.

The actors, Covid-bonded through close quarters, isolation and limited movement, came eerily close to the “microcosm society” they were portraying. Compston, whose father also worked on the rigs, says the camaraderie “balances the fact that you’re in the middle of the sea in a steel prison, sitting on volatile liquids and gases.” With the remote, heavy-industry feel of the Alien franchise (MacPherson is a big fan) and a large main cast in a confined space, directors John Strickland and Alex Holmes serialize the action over six episodes by splitting the characters into groups and parallel storylines.

With mutineers, a mysterious official floating in with the surviving crew of a sister rig, and an insidious company cover-up, the sporous Ancestor isn’t the only maybe-villain. As with most corporate dynamics, the oil company consolidates power and information at the top in service to the bottom line: hints of their horrifying plan thread invisibly through every episode, leaving the crew to work through the lies on their own. Owen Teale (Game of Thrones), brilliant as crusty veteran toolpusher Hutton, laments, “I used to think we were the steel holding it all together, even if the rest of the world never saw it. But now I know we’re the well. Because every trip, every person that gets chewed up, every chopper that goes down–it just takes a bit more, and a bit more, until it hollows you out.”

As humans grind through planetary resources and the Ancestor moves toward wiping the slate clean with a global catastrophe, Rose, whose business-lady lipstick has faded episode by episode, is hopeful that they can strike a balance with nature: “Living organisms cooperate with each other all the time. Pretending we’re prisoners of fate is just another way of avoiding the blame.” But after the shocking ending of season one, it may be too late for symbiosis as the crew are indeed prisoners of a new and entirely unknown fate—and the stakes are higher than ever for season two.

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Rachel Llewellyn

Rachel Llewellyn is a saucy media mercenary who's worked at Curve Magazine and Girlfriends Magazine in San Francisco, and ghost-edited two noir novels. She's also translated academic material, written corporate website content, taught adult school, and produced morning television news. Rachel lives in Bakersfield, California, where she hikes with her dog and pushes paper in the government sector.

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