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The Undeclared War review: Brilliant cyberattack drama recalls The Matrix

The Channel 4/Peacock drama stars Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance and scene-stealing newcomer Hannah Khalique-Brown, who plays a genius hacker on work experience at GCHQ.

Hannah Khalique-Brown (Saara) and Joss Porter (Phil) in The Undeclared War
Channel 4
Published: Thursday, 30th June 2022 at 10:00 pm
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A star rating of 4 out of 5.

Saara Parvan is hunting for a hidden door in a deserted school gymnasium. With time running out, she finally spots it: it's on the ceiling. No problem - the room rearranges itself as she turns upside down, walking forward purposefully and opening the door to reveal a sunlit garden.

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Of course, Saara isn't really defying gravity - at least not in the physical world. The dream-like sequences - evoking both Inception and The Matrix - are visual metaphors for the genius hacker's code-cracking.

Like Keanu Reeves's character Neo in The Matrix, Saara - a 21-year-old student about to start a work experience placement at GCHQ - is preternaturally gifted, and she's fighting an always-moving, ever-evolving enemy. When Britain is the victim of a targeted cyberattack, she's ideally placed to prove herself.

Created by the same team behind Wolf Hall, The Undeclared War - starring Simon Pegg, Adrian Lester and Mark Rylance - is set in the near future in 2024, when a post-Brexit and post-lockdown Britain is heading into a general election, and a well-timed cyberattack from an unknown source takes down the country's internet, with everything except social media impacted.

Adrian Lester (Andrew), Hannah Khalique-Brown (Saara) & Simon Pegg (Danny) in The Undeclared War
Adrian Lester (Andrew), Hannah Khalique-Brown (Saara) & Simon Pegg (Danny) in The Undeclared War Channel 4

Enter Saara, whose first day on the job coincides with the attack. Blunt, intense, and desperate to prove to both herself and others that she's not a positive discrimination hire ("I hope that's not why you picked me - because I've got a brown face"), she is quicker and more thorough than most of the self-styled "male, pale and stale" GCHQ cohort who show her the ropes when she first arrives - although she struggles to read people as well as she understands numbers.

Newcomer Hannah Khalique-Brown leads the cast in her scene-stealing (and surely star-making) breakout role as Saara, the audience's stand-in as she's introduced to the GCHQ Malware Department.

The dream-like sequences demonstrating Saara's programming gymnastics are a brilliant choice - they elevate the series far beyond the normal representations of cybersecurity onscreen, which usually involve a group of people clustered around a desktop and yelling at flashing green numbers on a screen.

For those viewers with little knowledge of code or hacking, the metaphorical sequences not only demonstrate just how complex and difficult the task at hand is, but they also help demonstrate both Saara's skill and the high stakes she faces.

Alongside Khalique-Brown, the cast includes Simon Pegg as Danny Patrick, GCHQ’s head of operations, and Adrian Lester as Britain's first Black Conservative prime minister who, we're told, ousted Boris Johnson in a particularly brutal fashion.

Simon Pegg as Danny in The Undeclared War.
Simon Pegg as Danny in The Undeclared War Channel 4

However, we soon learn that Andrew Makinde (Lester) is singing from the same hymn sheet ("And this recession has nothing to do with Brexit, which is a huge success"), and is far more interested in poll numbers than the bigger picture.

Although he's not in the first episode, the series also stars Mark Rylance, who plays a veteran GCHQ analyst brought in following the cyber-attack, and who forms an unlikely bond with Saara.

With such a great pedigree, The Undeclared War was always going to attract attention, but this series exceeds expectations, guiding viewers by the hand through the complex world of cybersecurity - and then refusing to relinquish its grip until the final episode.

The Undeclared War began at 9pm on 30th June 2022 on Channel 4, with episodes available to watch on All 4. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide or visit our dedicated Drama hub for the latest news.

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