Warning: Contains Utopia plot details (original and remake)
Compare the openings of the original Utopia and the US remake, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the new version had softened the show’s hard edges. Right out of the gates, the 2013 UK original kicks off with a series of murders. In the aptly named Doomsday Comics shop, a pair of assassins cosh one man with a metal pipe, and gas another two men and a child to death. Before we know anything about Utopia’s story or its characters, we’re confronted by unsettling violence. Beware, is the message, nobody is safe here.
That attention-grabbing start isn’t replicated by the US version. The remake opens with a young couple moving into a newly inherited home, where they stumble upon the manuscript of an unpublished comic they think could be valuable and so put up for sale at a convention. It’s a much breezier and more upbeat opening, lacking the disquieting dread of the UK original.
Right, you think, so the US version has toned down the violence and made the story more palatable. It’s going to avoid controversy and take a middle path. This is Utopia declawed.
Wrong, wrong and wrong. Keep watching, and by the end of the second episode, you’ll see that the remake has softened very little. Without the eerie atmosphere of Marc Munden’s direction and Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score, there’s a lighter, less immersive tone, with more black comedy and certainly a more romantic take on Ian and Becky’s relationship, but murder? You got it. Torture? Yes sir. Executions? Oh boy. The order of events may have been shuffled, but the remake has just as much violence and bloodshed as the UK show – more, in fact. After all, America is the gun capital of the world.
A sequence involving a shooting proved the show’s most controversial when the UK series first aired. Though the sand-bleach-chilli-spoon torture of Wilson Wilson was arguably more horrible to watch, the opening to episode three garnered more criticism to UK television’s regulatory body Ofcom. Of the 44 official complaints lodged about the series in the UK, 37 were about the start of episode three – enough for outrage-fuelled tabloid The Daily Mail to attempt to cash in on the moral panic (forgive us if we don’t link to that publication.)
In that opening sequence, an assassin enters a school (out of hours, so sparsely attended but still populated) and shoots dead eight children and two adults. Blessedly, the children’s deaths aren’t shown. We see the gunman and hear the gunfire, and later see the camera sweep over a distant shot of bodies on the ground. The most distressing scene comes at a moment of crisis for the assassin as he hesitates over a cowering child who’s been eating his own preferred brand of chocolate raisins, before the camera cuts away and a gunshot rings out.
Executive Producer Jane Featherstone defended the school shooting to The Guardian and denied that there was anything gratuitous about Utopia’s violence. “The drama is exploring the dehumanising effect of brutality on children,” she explained, urging the audience to view what the series has to say as a whole, not in isolated moments.
To provide some plot context for the school shooting, it was carried out by an operative of shady global organisation The Network in order to frame an 11-year-old boy. He was in possession of something valuable they wanted, and had gone into hiding. In order to flush him out, The Network framed the child as a spree shooter, ensuring that every police officer in the UK would be looking for him. A Network assassin performed the shooting wearing gloves made with the child’s fingerprints. CCTV footage was later faked to show the child, and not the assassin, pulling the trigger.
The US version borrows the same motivation. Shady global organisation The Harvest want to find an 11-year-old boy in hiding, so they frame him for a spree killing. The method is slightly different – instead of faking CCTV footage, The Harvest use a lookalike child on camera and then replace him with the adult assassin, both wearing the fingerprint gloves. The target too, has been changed. Instead of a school shooting, The Harvest plans a spree killing in a playpark. Then, in a last-minute twist, the assassin enters a family home and executes everybody inside. Three women, one man, three children and… a baby, who in the previous scene was being cuddled and celebrated for its “new baby smell”. Once again, the killer hesitates over a young boy eating his brand of chocolate raisins. Though as before, only the sound of gunfire is heard, it’s a horrific and shocking sequence that ends with still images of the blood-splattered home.
And proof, if ever it were needed, that the US Utopia does not pull its punches. It may save up the nasty surprises rather than leading with them, but the remake has every inch the violence of the UK original.
Utopia is available to stream now on Amazon Prime.