This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free version is here.
What a welcome distraction from the January mire is Utopia. A nasty conspiracy thriller with a glint of humour and a stomach for violence, it’s just the tonic for swilling out the aftertaste of Christmas Specials and TV talent contests.
Episode one performs the required set-up neatly, taking all of Utopia’s pieces out of the box and placing them on the board in preparation for the five weeks to come.
If – and this isn’t a given in the bizarre, paranoid world of Utopia – everyone is as they first appear, then the characters are familiar types: a pair of stylised hitmen, a crackpot conspiracy theorist web hacker, a Shane Meadows-y estate kid… It’s not the characters, but the combination of stylised direction, brutality, humour and enigmatic plot that sets it apart from its peers at this early stage.
In the villains’ corner are two chillingly focused executioners, a raisin-munching hard-man with one question on his lips (Kill List’s Neil Maskell), and his sadistic accomplice (Paul Ready). Operatives of the shady Network, the pair is tasked with retrieving the manuscript of doom-prophesying graphic novel The Utopia Experiments Two, and locating the mysterious Jessica Hyde.
Running from them is newly formed group of fugitives, Becky, Ian, and Wilson (Alexandra Roach, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, and Adeel Akhtar), forum friends and The Utopia Experiments fans, who are presumably soon to be joined by young Grant (Oliver Woolford), the schoolboy currently in possession of the in-demand manuscript. There was a fifth member of the group – high-flyer Bejan, who fell afoul of the Network henchmen and was pushed to a fatal exit from his Kennington penthouse.
In parallel to the henchmen/forum story is that of senior civil servant Michael Dugdale (The Thick of It’s Paul Higgins), whom we meet at his lowest ebb. Having done the dirty with a prostitute and left her pregnant, Dugdale is blackmailed to carry out a “mission” for some shadowy types, which involves tricking his boss to sign off on the purchase of £20 million worth of Russian flu vaccines. He duly does so; said boss resigns in disgrace and replacement Geoff is revealed to be also part of the political conspiracy along with two gloriously oily politicians played by Stephen Rea and James Fox.
(By the by, it might be worth popping out for a quick fag or putting the kettle on about now, because we’ve not even finished with the summary yet.)
Why is The Utopia Experiments Two manuscript so coveted? Because it was written by a modern-day Nostradamus (or delusional paranoid schizophrenic and former geneticist), and thought to contain information about future global catastrophes, specifically, info regarding a drug company, former employees of which developed the man-made neuro-degenerative disorder that killed Becky’s father. Does that cover it?
Not quite. We also need to know that the world of Utopia is facing a grave food shortage (albeit one that doesn’t seem to have reached our pals in leafy London), and that whoever is behind the Network goons has enormous bureaucratic power, enough to frame their enemies as sex offenders and falsify medical records. In short: they’re everywhere, they know everything, and they’ll stop at nothing. Your common or garden Big Pharma ‘all the way to the top’ conspiracy then, just with genetic mutations, prophesied pandemics and Devil-rabbit hybrids. Phew.
It’s lucky for Utopia that writer Dennis Kelly (Pulling, Spooks) and director Mark Munden (The Crimson Petal and the White, The Devil’s Whore) are better storytellers than I am, or episode one would have felt less like the entertaining, packed hour it was, and more akin to being beaten around the head and face with a copy of The Fortean Times. As it was, Utopia had a surprisingly light touch exposition-wise, forcing the viewers to pay attention and start joining up the dots for themselves.
In terms of the cast, Four Lions’ Adeel Akhtar emerges as an early stand-out as Wilson Wilson, along with bag of nerves Paul Higgins as Dugdale, and spirited Alexandra Roach as PhD wannabe Becky (after her clipped English diction in Hunderby and The Iron Lady, what joy it is to hear those valleys-vowels).
Munden’s direction was full of neat touches, from the first violent death at the aptly named Doomsday Comics, to Bejan’s Mad Men-opening credits-ish fall. The blind bunker shoot-out was a deft piece of high tension, too, a calling card for what is hopefully to come in future weeks.
All that, and I haven’t even touched upon the sickening torture scene (apt that it should debut in a week where every Oscars conversation not about Ben Affleck’s beard was dominated by an eddy of on-screen torture controversy courtesy of Kathryn Bigelow) which was as horrible a thing as I’ve witnessed on television since Ann Widdecombe did Strictly.
The marketing push behind Utopia is almost as entertaining as the show itself, a nifty campaign of clever-clever personalised videos and cartoony yellow ads. It all adds up to an enticing invitation to a parallel world, a rabbit hole I’m happy to fall into. Who’ll be joining me?
Utopia continues next Tuesday the 22nd of January on Channel 4 at 10pm.
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