Last year, Channel 4 introduced audiences to the vibrant and violent world of Utopia, a conspiracy thriller unlike anything before. Its unique style, notably the use of highly saturated colours such as the acid yellow which has become synonymous with the series, gave it a distinct identity. But it’s wasn't all style over substance; Utopia dealt with very relevant real world issues, and still entertained with a darkly comic undertone. The first series became somewhat notorious for its graphic levels of violence (mostly amongst the Daily Mail crowd who'd never watched it in the first place), and the second shows no intention of toning it down.
In fact, the first three episodes improve upon everything which made the first series so great and unique, with a bolder and more confident tone (which is saying something, after the first involved a school shooting). With a bigger sense of scale, Series 2 (or Utopia², which I’m rather fond of) kicks off by once again defying our expectations, by setting the first episode in 1979 and exploring the origin of Janus, the serum created with the aim of sterilising the majority the world.
I won’t go over the plot of the first series in much detail, because there’d be a lot to get through and this post has some major spoilers. So if you haven’t seen it yet, go and watch the whole thing now - if you’re reading this, then you probably don’t have much else to be doing anyway. I’m writing this as more of an in-depth blog post instead of an overall review, so if you can get through a few scrolls of my ramblings, then hold onto your fingernails!
With the new timeframe and cast, the first episode puts us straight into uncharted territory and shows us how The Network came to be. The ingenious use of the 4.3 aspect ratio to reflect the time era is an example of Utopia’s innovative aesthetic, and nicely sets the episode apart as a prequel. The now familiar use of yellow, magenta and cyan colour palette instead of the conventional red, green and blue once again sets Utopia apart from reality slightly (while still keeping it uncomfortably close), giving it a surreal atmosphere which clashes with the more brutal side of the programme.
Rose Leslie (known for Game of Thrones) is perfectly cast as the young Milner, and over the episode it’s revealed just how ruthlessly devoted she is to her cause. Initially presented as somewhat sympathetic, shown by her devotion towards her alcoholic and drug-abusing husband, Milner's true nature is shown once he knows too much: she kills him in his most helpless moment without hesitation. Her earlier comment to Carvel that his wife is an obstacle and should be dealt with turns out not to be so hypocritical after all. Unlike the cold and calculating Milner, Carvel, despite performing some pretty despicable acts, is ultimately broken by his actions. His decent from a drunk yet smug scientist to a madman in an asylum, frantically scribbling out the Utopia manuscript, is disturbing and convincingly acted.
It’s these morally grey areas which elevate Utopia above the standard conspiracy thriller, particularly in this second series. The thought-provoking and controversial idea of genetic selection is brought up by Carvel, suggesting they should select only the ‘best’ to remain fertile, is explicitly paralleled with Nazism, although he states that would be the opposite of their actions. It’s a shame this wasn't explored further, although we don’t yet know how Janus works exactly, so it could still come up. Milner isn't completely evil, but instead is driven by her goal of “creating Utopia”, in the absolute belief that she’s doing it for the benefit on mankind. The central issue of the narrative, the increasing overpopulation of the planet and its dwindling natural resources, was only revealed late into the first series. This worryingly real concern can now be brought to the fore, as it is in this first episode. Whereas it was once was a relatively clear-cut ‘us vs. them’ conflict, the new revelations have created some interesting character dynamics. The most obvious comes about later on in the series, in which Wilson Wilson, the likable conspiracist, teams up with Lee, the same guy who gouged his eye out back in the very first episode.
Another issue of controversy surrounding Episode One is the distortion of real life events. These include the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, as well as the death of political Airey Neave, which are realistically intertwined through genuine archive footage. It’s the latter which has stirred up a few of the tabloids, the best and most hilariously overblown reaction being this one (any guesses on the site before clicking?). Leaving aside the apparent inability to distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t (and Utopia has never presented itself as a documentary), there is certainly a discussion to be had about reality and lives being bent, without the sensationalism of labelling the show as “propaganda”. Context is extremely important, since it is easy to be deliberately exploitative or provocative without serving any narrative function. Reactions such as the ones above apparently overlook this; the episode hadn't even aired, so of course people are going to react in a certain way when they only know the broadest facts.
In the context of the episode, he appears briefly for a short scene and his death is a small plot point at the end of the episode. I don’t expect Utopia’s depiction of Neave or his death will change anyone’s perception of him after 35 year, and the report of him being depicted as a “hard drinker” seems pretty unfounded (he has one sip of wine in the episode). This site will never get very political, but one of the things that annoys me is the apparent requisite to turn things into a left or right-wing debate. Utopia goes up and beyond any political ties and goes straight to the idea of a universal human crisis; there are unavoidably some political overtones of this episode, but there’s no obvious or personal attacks on Neave or Thatcher. I completely understand that these were real people and those closest to them are justified in finding the fictionalisation of their deaths wrong, but that’s all it is: fiction. To draw a parallel to another real life event, the assassination of Kennedy has always been a source for conspiracies and inevitably fictional adaptations, from Red Dwarf to this year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.
The first episode does a very good job cementing the main ideas of the overall plot with a proper emotional backdrop, as well as creating satisfying links to the characters and events we already know. The performances were spot-on and it’s a shame that we’re unlikely to be going back to this era. Although things could have be explored in a bit more depth, such as how Milner was already in such powerful position, I think it would ultimately weigh things down too much when there’s enough to get through already. And despite succeeding as a prequel, it does remove some of the mystery established in the first series; from the crazed drawings on the manuscript, I’d imagined a dark, nightmarish past, and although this certainly wasn't far off, it does unavoidably familiarise things. Still, that’s just my own minor point instead of an actual flaw, and this opener is a strong and promising start!