Utopia Review

Utopia is one of those shows that slipped completely under my radar when it aired at the start of the year. To be obnoxiously blunt and narrowminded, I tend to ignore most British drama series because they are terrible. It’s OK I’m a Brit myself so I’m allowed to say this, but they are either basically just The Bill but with swearing (Luther) or they simply don’t fulfil my explosions-per-episode quotient. Even shows that really should appeal to me more, like Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror still come across as just a little bit flimsy. I like my drama like I like my women – imposing, emotionally scarring and so confusing that you have to look up answers to some of the questions raised online. And possibly full of explosions.

There are exceptions to the ‘all British drama is shit’ rule obviously: Doctor Who is consistently fantastic and recently if Orphan Black counts as British (I have no idea) then that was pretty good, and there are plenty of promising programmes I haven’t watched yet: I’ve heard good things about The Fall for example, but generally speaking I don’t have a lot of confidence in British TV to cater to my particular demands. And sure, American drama is often terrible, but if you sift around in the dross you find absolutely fantastic programmes like Hannibal, Deadwood, Carnivale et al.

With Utopia I think that British TV finally has a programme that can compete with HBO not only in terms of the quality of writing and story, but also in terms of the stunning production values: the first thing you notice about Utopia is that it is utterly beautiful. Filmed in widescreen with super-saturated colours, Futura title font, trendy graphic design colours and occasional Zac Snyder style special effects, it’s a far cry from what I would expect from UK TV visuals. It also has great Aphex Twin-esque music, and the whole package is very polished and – like the story – it’s quite inspired by graphic novels/comic books.

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The next thing I noticed was the quality of the actors. I think Adeel Akhtar (from Four Lions) is fantastic, so is Paul Higgins (the crossest man in Scotland) and Oliver Woollford, the kid who plays Grant, is great. Out of all the heroes, I definitely found myself rooting for Grant the most. And then the supporting cast is brilliant as well and adds a lot of credibility, with great performances from Simon McBurney (playing a scientist rather than some sort of religious type for a change), James Fox and Michael Smiley. I think the star of the show is Neil Maskell (who is in slight danger of getting a bit typecast) as a heavy-breathing, shambling murder mutant. Such a fantastic actor, and it’s great to see him in something where he gets to shine again after seeing him in Kill List. He and his partner in crime are like something straight out of a Neil Gaiman or China Mieville book, unhinged and horrible.

This brings me to my next point – Brits do great weird fiction, if you want to read stories about creepy supernatural voodoo hitmen or alternate Londons where everyone is a prawn or whatever you are spoilt for choice. Utopia is very clearly influenced by writers like Neil Gaiman and China Mieville – particularly books like Neverwhere and Kraken and this is great, more of this sort of thing and less police procedurals would suit me just fine. But even more than that it is influenced by comics, and though there is an early allusion to Alan Moore’s Watchmen I think there is much more influence taken from Grant Morrison (my all-time favourite writer) and his comic series The Invisibles. I guess the problem with being some sort of idea-generating factory like Morrison is that it’s much easier for people to just copy your ideas than to come up with something original. Not that I think Utopia rips off The Invisibles – at least not to The Matrix levels – but it is quite similar, in tone and in overall concept. The notion of individuals or organisations existing outside or hidden within everyday society is something I think The Invisibles did first. But just like The Matrix takes that concept, removes the Britishness and adds special effects and Keaunu Reeves, Utopia tones down the sci-fi and adds a bit more of a grounding with reality. I love The Invisibles and I love The Matrix and Utopia. I think all three can happily exist together and I am extremely pleased to find a TV show that reminds me even slightly of Grant Morrison’s writing. Oh and the actual comic in the show (‘The Utopia Experiments’) looks like it was illustrated by Ben Templesmith or Dave McKean – which is pretty cool.

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Finally I suppose I should mention the old ultraviolence. I love graphic scenes of torture and violence towards children as much as the next guy and I am quite impressed that Channel 4 didn’t back down from airing some of these scenes. Generally speaking, hacking off limbs or blowing someone up is pretty much fine for TV audiences so long as you don’t swear or show any nudity, but there are definitely types of violence that are a bit more shocking (like Game of Thrones‘ baby stabbing shenanigans) and even I was quite shocked by… well in order to avoid spoilers I’ll just say that I was quite shocked by quite a lot of the stuff involving Neil Maskell. I think Channel 4 were brave to air these scenes: the violence isn’t gratuitous nor is it in bad taste, but it’s exactly the sort of thing that causes OUTRAGE amongst certain types. This sort of risk taking is the only way that British drama will be able to stay competitive with HBO in capturing the attention of the horribly jaded TV audience so I am glad they didn’t bottle it.

Series 2 has been confirmed, and there is a rumour that David Fincher might be planning an American remake. Oh that guy, I love his films but there is no need to remake things that are already good! Remake things that had potential but failed! How about remaking The Following? Actually I’d love to see some small Channel 4 remake of Fincher’s Benjamin Button or Alien 3, that’d show him. I’m definitely in for the next series of Utopia, and as the conspiracy thickens I think there is plenty more story left to be told, and I have confidence it won’t just end up like Lost, padding out each episode with random inexplicable nonsense. Great stuff. Also it has some explosions.

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