British TV has been rich with creativity and quality these last few years. But in addition to shows such as Sherlock, Doctor Who, Peep Show, Misfits and Luther, there are lesser well known productions that are equally deserving of attention. Utopia is one of them. To sum up the plot, characters and visuals of Utopia in one word, that word would have to be “bold”. In its writing, acting, and presentation, it pulls no punches and makes for an engaging, dramatic and shocking piece of storytelling.
A six-part drama series, it was originally broadcast in 2013 on Channel 4 in the UK. It tells of “The Utopia Experiments”, a prophetic manuscript that has predicted multiple global disasters. An online group of conspiracy theorists come into possession of a second part of this document. Soon an organization called ‘The Network’ steps in to retrieve the work and eliminate all who have knowledge of its content. Set in a dystopic, near future Britain, Utopia is a conspiracy thriller that touches on politics, Orwellian themes, genetics, blackmail, torture and poses questions of morality in the face of knowledge and the greater good.
The document itself serves as somewhat of a MacGuffin for the show, throwing the unsuspecting, likeable cast deep into an unfolding conspiracy with weaving plot lines and characters, changing the course of their lives. The unlucky people caught up in affairs include Becky (Alexandra Roach), Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and Wilson Wilson (Adeel Akhtar, a familiar face from Four Lions, one of the best black comedies of the last decade). This core cast run the gamut from bored IT specialists to paranoid conspiracy theorists, each with their own reasons for interest in Utopia and personal motivations which are drawn on as the show unfolds. Special note should be made of Oliver Woollford (Grant) and Emilia Jones (Alice), two child actors who truly excel in roles that are critical to the success of the show. Other key figures are Paul Higgins as Michael, a Government civil servant being used as a puppet in the Department of Health, Fiona O’Shaughnessy as the elusive Jessica Hyde, a key figure in the resistance against the Network and also Neil Maskell, whose assassin Arby is equal parts Szell from Marathon Man, Frank booth from Blue Velvet and Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men. Each plays the conflict and struggles of their respective characters admirably as the unpredictable sideshow that is Utopia continues.
The whole conspiracy is orchestrated by The Network, a seemingly nefarious collection of old, upper class British aristocrats and politicians setting their plans into motion and determined to acquire the manuscript to confirm their plans will be successful. The show treats the audience in the same way as it does the innocents caught up in the conspiracy, a fast paced, shocking start, confusing perhaps but always engrossing. When you jump right into the show, events are already underway and in fact seem to have been for decades. “You have to adapt to survive”… and the same could be said for a viewer. Ironically the key to survival is also the very thing that put these people in such danger: the knowledge within the Utopia Manuscript. The series delivers a slick and intelligent thriller that feels experimental in a way where style is meshed equally with substance.
The Utopia Manuscript itself is presented as a graphic novel and in many ways the shows aesthetic draws from this approach too. Visually, Utopia is very distinct; such a wildly stylized presentation is not common in British media and it is pulled off with aplomb. The grimy, overcast streets of the UK are portrayed with oversaturated primary colours. Filters drive up the intensity of fields or skylines, giving an abstract beauty which only serves to amplify some of the more graphic scenes. Set in a near-future UK, overhearing news reports of unrest, food shortages and epidemics, showing but not explaining near empty streets, the presentation of Utopia is beautiful but permeated with unease. Contributing to this is a soundtrack by Cristobal Tapia de Veer. It is an intense and creepy series of arrangements. He used weird African instruments (and a Chilean trutruka) to give an unfamiliar feel, blended with an unsettling electronic backbone that leaves you feeling paranoid and wary. It throws you off balance, just ready to be completely toppled by the visuals of the show. You can hear part of it here.
Where Utopia really excels is in its portrayal of morality, how knowledge and perspective can alter a person’s thoughts and actions. The cast are all unremarkable people thrown into a remarkable situation. Likeable strangers well written so that the audience can connect and sympathize with facets of their character. As the story unfolds, things are learned, motivations developed. They are often faced with choices rooted in questioning their own morality. You find yourself considering whether you would make a similar choice to save yourself, a loved one, or perhaps a greater number of people. A questionable act for ‘the greater good’. It is not a case of ‘good vs evil’, it is more the ‘knowing vs the unknowing’. That Utopia presents such decisions and keeps you engaged with these characters who often reveal a darker side is a testament to both the writing and acting. And these acts are, at times, disturbing, something which the show does not shy away from. I would hesitate to use the word gratuitous but can see how some would label it so. Utopia does not pass you by, it reaches out, connects with you, and shakes you up. It is a jarring experience, but often uncomfortable viewing is needed to penetrate the malaise and mediocrity that make up most TV shows.
So what’s next? A second season has been filmed and should air in the UK soon. New cast members include Rose Leslie, currently seen as Ygritte on Game of Thrones, and also Ian McDiarmid, best known for his portrayal of Palpatine from the Star Wars series. Both exciting, talented additions. Where the series leaves off, there is a lot of room for deeper tales and conspiracies to be unveiled.
Still not sold? Well, Utopia has its fans in the US, and HBO has recently announced it will be adapting a US remake of the show with David Fincher in a directing/executive producer role. Gillian Flynn, currently collaborating with Fincher on the adaptation of her novel Gone Girl is onboard to write the screenplay and original creator Dennis Kelly is overseeing as Executive producer. But the original is just that, a very unique, provocative production and one that leaves a profound impression. Check it out.
Utopia is available to buy from Amazon now.