Utopia, Channel 4’s new conspiracy thriller, opens in a comic shop. A pair of assassins,; one well-dressed, the other a shambling Lenny of a man, walk in, interrogate the staff and then murder them. The second to last person to die is the store clerk who is, of course,an overweight man with bad hair in a geeky t-shirt. Oh and everyone in the store is male.
There are a lot of things in Utopia that will bother people, but this is the one I had trouble getting past.
Firstly, I ran a comic store for seven years. I’m overweight, I’m balding, I own a lot of comic t-shirts. I loved my job and I was made redundant, as were all the staff in my branch, seven years ago. We were a tiny store, Travelling Man’s York branch who achieved very little in the great scheme of things but we were bright and friendly and worked hard and, when they pulled the plug on us, were officially regarded as ‘Mum safe’. Despite being a geek shop, kids were trusted to come in alone, our customers were at least fifty percent female and we were very much part of the landscape of the city. Like I say, we were a tiny store, but we did really well and we weren’t, and still aren’t, alone. The other Travelling Man branches, Page 45 in Nottingham and Treasure Island in Fremont are just some of the stores I’ve visited that are open, friendly and invested in their local community, with people of both genders and all ages as regular customers. Also, and this is a shock I know but…
Women work in comics.
Women work in comic shops.
Women READ comics.
Things aren’t perfect, anyone who follows any pop culture news site will know that all too well. Misogyny and chauvinism are clung to by some like a membership card to an exclusive misanthropes club, but even with that, women work at and excel at every level of the comic industry which is, itself, far more than two men in Iron Maiden t-shirts discussing whether the Hulk could beat the Thing.
But every time someone inflicts something like the opening sequence of Utopia on the world,it doesn’t matter. The clock gets wound back and all the fascinating, inclusive, fun work being done is swept under the same rug as porno mags from the 1970s and jokes about the crappy effects on Blake’s 7 because when it comes down to it? Writing like this says it’s still fine to laugh at the nerdy kids.
And if the nerdy kids are the audience you’re trying for, that’s a problem.
It’s particularly galling as not only is the author, Denis Kelly, responsible for some excellent previous work, but the premise of Utopia is fascinating. It follows a group of members of an internet message board concerned with a legendary, cult graphic novel called The Utopia Experiments, about a scientist who made a deal with the Devil for knowledge and is said to predict many of the worst events of the late 20th century. Hypnotic, dangerous and wrapped in the tragic life story of its author, The Utopia Experiments is the perfect cult classic; unknown by most, beloved by others. Now, it seems, the manuscript for the sequel has been uncovered and the hitmen, and their mysterious bosses, want it back. Only a small group of fans, who frequent the same message board, have any idea of what’s going on and when they discuss the second manuscript, they instantly become targets.
The group, and how they meet, is a nice combination of the sublime and the ridiculous. The faint nervousness of offline meetings with online friends is neatly captured, and there’s a nice, rolling sense to the dialogue. This is well observed stuff, in exactly the way the opening isn’t, and it’s particularly interesting to see how they all default back to discussing the book as a social foundation, a carrier wave for everything else. This is fandom as I’ve experienced it, not so much red in tooth and claw as well-thumbed and memorized with the corners folded down and it not only rings true, it’s surprisingly sweet. There’s a real sense of relief, not just of no longer being alone but no longer being broken, when you find other people who enjoy the same stuff and that slightly desperate grasping for other people in the same pop culture lifeboat is both very subtle, and well observed.
The group themselves vary between interesting and cardboard cut-out. Ian, played by former Misfit Nathan-Stewart Jarrett is an IT guy who yearns for escape and finds it through the forum, whilst Becky, played by Alexandra Roach, is a cheerful, slightly frantic PhD student who has a very, very good reason for being interested in the book. Becky in particular feels well rounded, especially when you find out how she may be connected to the conspiracy and Ian’s flatter scenes are carried through by Jarrett’s natural charm. They feel, if not real, then at least interesting.
Wilson Wilson, played by Adheel Akhtar, is a conspiracy theorist, I could stop there. It feels like the script has. Wilson, through no fault of Akhtar, comes across like a writer’s idea of a conspiracy theorist. He’s the antithesis of Becky and Ian because they look and sound like forum users whilst he looks like a riff on the conspiracy theorist Mark Benton played in the very first episode of the relaunched Doctor Who. Raised at home by his father, and with a fallout shelter in the backyard, Wilson is an amiably, scruffy man who has lived off the grid and prepared for the coming information wars, but still, you suspect watches Bargain Hunt. He’s an idea rather than a character, and whilst Akhtar is typically charming, the script isn’t there to back up his performance.
These three look to be the core of the show, but some of the orbiting characters show promise. Oliver Woollford is great as Grant, a young boy who’s also a fan and whose artistic talent is matched only by his ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He and Becky are the only two characters that really feel like more than their descriptions; one a quietly furious woman who’s decided to beat a problem to death with her brain, the other a quietly brilliant boy sick and tired of holding his shattered life and family together. Grant also has two of the best moments in the episode; witnessing the murder of another forum member and walking into the class he should be in at school, only to have the teacher not recognise him. He’s adrift in the way Wilson should be but isn’t, a boy literally off the grid and, unlike everyone else, at home there. Paul Higgins also impresses as Dugdale, the Private Secretary to the Minister for Health and the first hint we get of how the conspiracy works. Participating in IVF treatment with his wife even as he’s coming to terms with his prostitute girlfriend being pregnant, he’s another character who feels like he’s a grey man in a grey area. Another episode highlight comes from the recurrent use of the word ‘mission’ around him, an aural cue that the conspiracy is taking a newfound interest in his life that’s the most chilling, subtle beat in the entire episode. The scenes with Dugdale at work also crackle nicely, managing to avoid the lazy route of aping The Thick Of It, despite Higgin’s form on that show, at the same time as showing up the venality of modern government. It’s a welcome change to have an element of a show like this devoted to the ‘other’ side and I’m interested to see exactly how much worse Dugdale’s life can get. With five episodes left, I’m guessing lots.
The direction is the one element that fires on all cylinders from the get go. The comic shop scene at the start is drenched in hard, over-cooked colours and several other scenes play with this, creating a sense of unreality that doesn’t feel forced, but does feel increasingly nightmarish. There’s some real wit at times too, the IM discussion between forum members not only crackling along with the sort of visual invention Sherlock regularly shows, but also being used to reveal the true nature of the characters to the viewers, and contrasting that with how they interact with each other. Internet communications have been legendarily badly presented since there was an internet for scriptwriters to fail to understand but this belts along, feeling real and fast and different. There’s very smart use of silence and partial imagery as well, one of the most shocking scenes showing nothing more than a gun appearing round the side of a doorway. Thanks to director Marc Munden, it’s visually a far more consistent, and at times, cleverer show than it ever is on the page and, like Sherlock, I’ll be fascinated to see the impact it has on the visual language of what follows it.
The show plays with comic and graphic novel styles constantly, consistently grounding it in a way the script only manages with the two hitmen. They feel like the cold, distanced men who do cold, distanced horror that Grant Morrison is so fond of writing and whilst I never liked them, I can see their pedigree in Utopia and understand why it’s there. The violence they perpetrate is used here like punctuation but it’s always in context and often implied, especially the final torture sequence with Wilson.
Utopia is, for all it’s problems, is consistently interesting and I suspect, divisive. Some viewers will be bothered by the violence, others by the fact that Wilson, the only Middle-Eastern character is the only one maimed . Others will be bothered by the fact that two of the graphic novel reading characters live with their parents and the script takes time to laugh at both of them more than once. Again the audience is invited to point and laugh at the nerdy kids.
As for me, I’m interested. I’m a mark for a good conspiracy thriller and the reveals we get on the conspiracy this episode are both beautifully paced and hint at lots more. The cast are uniformly good, the direction is uniformly good and whilst the script is lumpy, some moments absolutely shine. But for all that, the problem I have with Utopia is still this; it feels like cultural tourism. The graphic novel, right now at least, is a macguffin, one that could just as easily be a scroll or a missing Da Vinci blueprint and for me, that contributes a lot to the empty feeling of the show. I’d love that to change and will certainly stick around but, right now, it bothers me. Because, whilst Utopia may start in a comic shop, I can’t help but suspect it’s embarrassed to be there.
UK readers can watch episode 1 here on Channel 4’s site
The Utopia Inquiry, a flash game tied to the series is here.