'Noughts + Crosses': TV Review

Noughts & Crosses Still  - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of ITV Studios Global
Intriguing world-building squandered on a hollow central love story.

Set in an alternate present in which Africa colonized England, BBC One's YA drama arrives on Peacock.

To start by giving credit, Peacock's BBC One acquisition Noughts + Crosses is an admirably ambitious creation. The six-episode drama's alt-history take on an England colonized by African interests, with all racial and systemic relationships inverted, offers an abundance of topical substance to ponder well after the first season is complete and well beyond what is typical of the genre.

That genre, though, is YA romance and no matter how impressed I might be with some of the big ideas floated in Noughts + Crosses, I can't get past the feeling that the series is trying to do two touchy and complicated things — speculative-fiction world-building and love-story heart-tugging — and isn't wholly (or in some cases even partially) successful at either.

Adapted by Lydia Adetunji and others from Malorie Blackman's ongoing novel series, Noughts + Crosses is set in a present day version of London some 750 years after it was conquered by the Apricans, basically a West African collective. The nation of Albion remains under the thumb of the unseen Aprican ruler and racial tensions between the Black colonizers ("Crosses") and the whites ("Noughts" or, if you're feeling racist, "Blankers") have been stoked by decades of rigorously enforced segregation. The Crosses control the government, media and law enforcement and a spate of recent violent crackdowns on Noughts have the country on edge.

Like many entries in the race-reversed alt history genre (see the disappointing 1995 theatrical dud White Man's Burden), Noughts + Crosses sometimes settles for just taking the extremes of contemporary racial inequities and swapping the dynamics without doing the legwork to ponder whether centuries — 750 years of colonization is a long time — of an alternative hegemony might actually form intriguingly different forms of racism. And yet you can tell that the series is effectively provocative when its British premiere was greeted by online trolls claiming it was racist against white people. My own reaction was that it's dangerously close to exactly presenting (or even encouraging) the ideology of our new breed of white nationalists, who claim that they've been disenfranchised and need to rise up to protect their racial identity. It's supposed to make you uncomfortable.

There's much to unpack, but then the thematic meat becomes a side dish as into this mix we throw our young lovers. Sephy (Masali Baduza) is the university-bound daughter of Home Secretary Kamal Hadley (Paterson Joseph) and flighty socialite Jasmine (Bonnie Mbuli) and, as a Cross, her life opportunities are limitless. Callum (Jack Rowan) is the son of a former militant revolutionary (Ian Hart) and the Hadley's beloved maid (Helen Baxendale). Although Callum is well aware of the prejudice all around him — after one of their friends is beaten to near-death by the cops, Callum's brother Jude (Josh Dylan) falls in with a new liberation leader (Shaun Dingwall's Jack Dorn) — he wants to change things from within, aiming to become the first Nought cadet at Albion's prestigious military academy.

Sephy and Callum fall in love. Why do they fall in love? After six episodes, I haven't the faintest. Baduza, very good otherwise, and Rowan have no evident chemistry. And the relationship between the characters happens so abruptly that it's hard to initially invest in. Moreover, as the story progresses, they each do many more callous or thoughtless things to each other than positive. The sixth episode in particular is jam-packed with enough mutual betrayals that their ongoing infatuation becomes completely laughable if you aren't invested, and I surely was not invested. Maybe it's necessary to have read Blackman's books to get the bond between the characters because in six episodes, there's a total void where the series' heart needs to be.

Perhaps the problem is that this alt-history is presumably a world without Shakespeare, so Sephy and Callum don't realize that their tragic, doomed romance is a total Romeo & Juliet ripoff. Or maybe Shakespeare does exist in some context I don't understand? Again, reading Blackman's books would surely be illuminating because after the first episode or two, Noughts + Crosses basically abandons the world-building side of things and becomes a roller-coaster of non-stop plot without explication or nuance. Initial director Julian Holmes has time to fixate on little details of the world, like the changes to the London skyline, political graffiti or interesting locations like the seedy club/brothel/flophouse designed for illicit integrated romances. Koby Adom, director of the second half of the season, has no such time. This is one of those instances where the British small-batch production system is a detriment, because this is a 10-episode story shoved into a six-episode sausage casing.

Still, there are things to admire here. Reflecting the African (or Aprican) influence on this alt culture, the costumes by Dihantus Engelbrecht are vibrant and varied and there are hints in the production design of the melting pot of architectural influences in this world. You have South African locations playing a very changed London, and ideally the budget would have allowed for much more exterior exploration of this Afro-Euro Futurism. More of the world, particularly its technology, should probably look different, but there's no way they had the money for that.

There are also very good performances, mostly from the older side of the cast. Joseph and Heart, as the differently flawed and fiery patriarchs, and Baxendale and Mbuli, as the differently flawed and caring matriarchs, are terrific. Our protagonists are upstaged by several of their young costars, including Jonathan Ajayi as Sephy's menacing pre-Callum boyfriend and Jodie Tyack as Callum's fellow segregating cadet. Fans of British hip-hop can also keep an eye out for the rapper Stormzy, who makes a charismatic cameo in the sixth episode.

I can't really recommend a YA romance with a core coupling this inert or an alt-history that left me scratching my head so frequently, but I still respect the scope of the tapestry Noughts + Crosses is working on. There are worthwhile conversations this can still spawn, despite being imperfect TV.

Cast: Jack Rowan, Masali Baduza, Jonathan Ajayi, Helen Baxendale, Paterson Joseph, Josh Dylan, Shaun Dingwall, Jonathan Ajayi, Kike Brimah, Rakie Ayola, Bonnie Mbuli and Ian Hart

Adapted By: Lydia Adetunji, Nathaniel Price and Rachel Le-Lahay from the books by Malorie Blackman

Premieres Friday, September 4, on Peacock