They didn’t mess about, did they?
After the demented brilliance of series one last year, C4 kicked off the new series of ‘Utopia’ with two back to back episodes over as many nights, and a mild flurry of controversy.
For the uninitiated: stop reading. Seriously, go to C4 On Demand and watch the first series. No plot summary can do justice to the shows twisty narratives, engaging characters and bold visual style.
Assuming you’re up to speed, episode one took the ballsy move of moving away from the people and time we were familiar with and took us back to the conception of The Network and their grim solution to overpopulation.
Rose Leslie and Tom Burke are amazing as young Milner and young Carvel respectively. These are two characters I was not feeling very charitable towards by the end of series one. Yet by the end of this episode, I couldn’t help but pity them and almost see where they were coming from. ‘Have you ever seen a genocide?’ asks Milner, ‘I have.’
It was a very smart move setting this in the Winter of Discontent: power cuts and strikes, rubbish uncollected and coffins unburied. God, the 70s were grim! Carvel is already hanging on to sanity by his fingertips, a hollowed-out Milner doesn’t seem to care if she lives or dies, and her husband is a barely functional alcoholic. Suggesting the human consequences of a system on the verge of collapse really brought home the potential problems of overpopulation. And against such a backdrop, the Solution didn’t seem quite so mad, or so appalling. It was also intriguing to learn that even The Network draws the line somewhere, with Milner shooting down Carvels’ bright idea to end all racism by ending all but one race.
It all comes apart at the seams, naturally, as Milner cuts off every human relationship, sacrificing all connections to the outside world in her fervour to find and implement Janus. Carvel is pulled the other way, brought back into the species by his love for Jessica, even as he is haunted by his treatment of Pietr: eventually, horrified by his involvement in The Network, he alters Janus and hides it in Jessica. He condemns the one person he loves most in the world to life as an outcast, in order to protect humanity from his own creation. All very sad, and terribly human.
And beautifully rendered, as well. The striking visuals of series one are back in abundance here, including a neat shift in aspect ratio emphasising the move back in time. There is still a great deal of violence, most notably some unpleasantness involving a rabbit. But, as it is never casual and never glorified, I’m personally okay with it. The controversy around the mingling of historical fact and fiction struck me as a bit of a storm in a tea-cup. Here, the deaths of MPs Richard Sykes and Airey Neave were the work of The Network, not the IRA. As the real-life events were well over 30 years ago, and we are well aware that this is a work of fiction, I honestly think there was nothing to be alarmed about. Neave came across pretty well, I thought, wily and not easily intimidated.
All in all a magnificent opening episode: engaging and pacy, it barely put a foot wrong. Delighted they only made us wait a day for episode two…
Do you agree? Have I missed something important? Is there anything you’ve seen recently that compares?