Review – ‘Utopia’ 2×1 (2014)

Utopia was a mixed bag, but nothing in that bag was boring. The much-vaunted cinematography and design, with some great core performances and a haunting electronic soundtrack all conspired to make it a memorable blast of colour. Writer/creator Dennis Kelly wove a story so minimal it provided just the barest amount of substance for all this glorious style to hang off and, based purely on the retro-set first episode of the new series, I think less may have been more.

Screen Shot 2014-08-12 at 22.01.29Rather than departing from the arresting ideas and images of his first series and breaking fresh ground, Kelly here seems to have drunk his own KoolAid, and treats them with a solemn reverence. So many things which were first suggested with brilliantly effective vagueness, like Petrie’s abuse, or Carvel’s genius, or the carving on poor old “Young James Fox”’s stomach (which he should really have someone look at, by the way), are now shown to us with a bluntness which can only diminish them. Having proven so artfully that less is more the first time around, it’s bizarre that Kelly now felt obliged to go ahead and shovel more on anyway.

The episode certainly does a lot less with a lot more in it’s depiction of Carvel, who was hinted at in the first series as a chilling and bewildering combination of loving father and amoral psychopath. The show does try to depict this mixture, but sadly not through any real characterisation – they just switch him back and forth randomly between the two extremes from one scene to the next, depending on what the series’ canon demands of him. One minute Carvel is a sociopath, because the last series said he experimented on his own son. The next he’s a passionate, caring family-man, because in the last series Jessica remembered him fondly.

Mad Acting – 101

Mad Acting – 101

In the first series, it’s also mentioned that Carvel was tortured into madness – so in the final minutes of the episode there are literally 25 seconds of half-hearted nail-pulling, after which he’s instantly transformed into a full-on psychotic mute. The credits are practically rolling as he is dumped unceremoniously into his cell – another box ticked, let’s move on.

Another oddity is the distinct lack of humour. The first series was a lot of things – including grim, perverse, violent, and genuinely pessimistic about the serious issue of human overpopulation – but it was never po-faced. It had, hardwired in from the start, a keen sense of just how absurd conspiracy theories are; the knowledge that they come from the same well as myths and fairy-tales, and of just how ridiculous the world we live in would be if even a handful of them somehow came true.

There is a nagging sense in this prologue that the minds making Utopia might have accidentally started taking it seriously. Moments of the show’s distinctive black humour are decidedly few-and-far between. In fact, I count only two: a solid gag as an Italian journalist who doesn’t realise he’s about to be murdered because his captors will only tell him so in English; and Tom Burke as Carvel enthusiastically praising malaria as part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Unless, I suppose, you count the depiction of politician Airey Neave’s murder as a joke? I was aware there’d been a fuss about this in the media before watching, and had pre-emptively dismissed it as the usual hysteria. We here at Flickbook hold it to be self-evident that pushing the bounds of taste is always forgivable, if it adds something essential to a good story. Having sat through the prologue, however, I’m inclined to say that the family of Mr Neave has sort of got a point.

Screen Shot 2014-08-12 at 22.07.06The word “gratuitous” got thrown at the first series a lot for its vivid depictions of torture and mayhem, but every awful thing we saw in those episodes directly served an unfolding drama, or the growth of its characters. As Channel Four rightly said in its defence of the most controversial scenes (in which several young children are massacred at a primary school), they were “editorially justified within the context of the storyline”.

Obviously they couldn’t offer this particular defence for the use of Neave’s murder, because what storyline? Instead C4’s statement weakly pointed out that the show “is entirely fictional,” which doesn’t sound like a justification at all – more like a formal way of saying: “You can’t sue us, fuck off”. The truth is, for the first time, the G-word actually applies here. Clips of actual news footage covering Neave’s murder, like all the other flashes of historical footage, aren’t really adding anything to the story. They’re trying to distract you from the fact that there isn’t one.

One other ill omen from the prologue is that it seems to double-down on the all-consuming importance of the supposedly enigmatic Jessica Hyde, who was really just the latest iteration of a fairly dull stock character: the icy female action goddess. From the Tomb Raider and Resident Evil franchises, through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, to Stephen Moffat’s many clones of River Song, it’s a cliché beloved by male writers who reach for an original female character, but fail to grasp her. What you usually find is that as she develops, the writer loses his nerve and reverts to type. The goddess’ initial cold-hearted, ruthless competence turns out to be masking a squishy core of simplistic, traditionally “feminine” emotions.

© Hark! A Vagrant

© Hark! A Vagrant

At the start of the series, Hyde embodies a strictly pragmatic, icy rationality. By the end we realise she’s actually just a frightened little girl, pining for a daddy who didn’t love her enough. That this relationship is presented as the answer to her all-important “mystery” – the one and only central motivation of her character – is the weakest, laziest aspect of a show which mostly tried to be smarter, and often succeeded.

On the bright side, Utopia actually did feature a genuinely original female character in the form of Becky, played by Alexandra Roach. At various times she was depicted as being quite intelligent, or fairly dim; profoundly selfish, or fiercely compassionate; brave or cowardly; spiteful, or sweet; passionately sexual, or cold and aloof; but at no point do these varying traits feel like sloppy writing. Rather, they feel like different facets of a very human, consistently realised character.

beckyBecky was quietly revolutionary in that unlike Jessica, she didn’t represent an absolute of anything – strength, weakness, intelligence, stupidity, good, evil, beauty, or cruelty. She was a jumbled mixture of traits, which came together to make her that rarest of creatures in popular fiction; a woman depicted as something resembling a human being. Here’s hoping she gets plenty of screentime in the series proper, and doesn’t just get trained up into another “empowered” nerd-wank fantasy.

Anyway, after the first series it would have taken an awful lot to dampen my enthusiasm for the second – but crikey, they gave it a good old go. It really was like they chose to postpone the actual first episode, and instead air a collection of  preview “webisodes” made by the B-team, all mashed together. In fact, now that I’ve typed it out, I’m sure that must be exactly what happened. Still really looking forward to watching the actual second series, but here’s hoping all the monstrous, murderous conspiratorialising gets a little more vague – and a lot more fun.

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