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Utopia 1.05- Review

A tv review article by: Kelvin Green, Paul Brian McCoy

 

Utopia Channel 4

Paul Brian McCoy: One of the hallmarks of good television writing is knowing how to lay out the mysteries and revelations in a manner that doesn't keep the audience wondering too terribly long, while also making sure that each new reveal leads to some new and exciting twist or turn. With Episode 5, the penultimate episode of Series One of Utopia, Dennis Kelly continues doing just that. As he's done with every single episode so far.

Every time we talk about this show, breaking it down and wondering where it's going next, or getting concerned because something doesn't quite make sense, the very next episode has addressed our issues. We are supposed to wonder about exactly the things we wonder about. And Kelly is ready to answer our questions and provide further mysteries every time.

Kelvin Green: Earlier on, we talked about how well-constructed everything is in Utopia, and this is one excellent example of that.

This episode, we get the big reveal of what's really going on with all this rogue biotech, but with the reveal come some tricky moral questions, as our heroes find themselves disagreeing on what to do about the "evil" scheme.

Utopia Channel 4 Letts

Paul: And while it now seems there are really only two sides to the conflict, the Network side contains many different shades of purpose. The people we thought were fighting them are actually ALL working for them for one reason or another.

Except for Jessica (Fiona O'Shaughnessy) and Arby/Pietre (Neil Maskell).

Kelvin: And what an interesting time they have. I loved their little "date".

Paul: That is officially my favorite sequence from the entire series now.

Kelvin: Arby's wide-eyed enthusiasm was quite endearing, which -- given that we've seen him massacre innocents almost every episode -- is quite a feat.

Paul: Plus he had all the best lines this week, too! "I'm a fan!" Ha!

Kelvin: He did. Once again, Neil Maskell impresses. He is so good in this. Arby's journey has been perhaps the most compelling one.

Paul: I agree. While everyone else is reacting to the things happening around and to them, revealing character that way, Maskell is letting us watch as a seriously damaged individual begins waking up and becoming at least a little bit human.

He's the only introspective character in the show somehow!

Utopia Channel 4

Kelvin: He is! He's an assassin and a philosopher.

It's interesting too how he tries to reach Jessica, but she seems even more damaged, or perhaps just more resistant to letting her guard down, so Arby comes across as more human.

Paul: We've now seen him do human things. We've never seen Jessica do anything remotely normal.

"This is my local. They know me here." And then ordering that breakfast!

Kelvin: Exactly. He genuinely is ordering a breakfast, because it's his favourite meal, whereas Jessica is sitting there waiting for the catch, the twist. And when it does happen, she misses it entirely.

Paul: I loved that entire set-up. "What now?" "We talk to the man." "Where?" "The counter."

Kelvin: Ha! She's expecting it to be all spies and stuff, but it's just breakfast.

Paul: I admit, I was expecting it to be some weird drop and they were picking up the manuscript.

Kelvin: It was shot very well, so it looked like that kind of scene, with the other customers looking at them as they entered. The cafe being a drop or a clandestine meeting place is what one might expect, but of course Utopia doesn't do things that way.

Paul: And even Arby's plan to get a gun is so casual and low-key, that given how we'd just had our expectations played with, I was taken by surprise there again. Saying he's got to use the toilet and that "There might be some noises." I was too busy laughing to think anything otherwise.

Kelvin: Exactly. It is so well done.

Utopia Channel 4

Paul: Nothing like a poop joke to distract me.

Kelvin: Ha! Poop jokes are always funny. Only people who hate fun say otherwise.

Paul: Agreed. 

Another interesting thing about this whole sequence was that we were given two new insights into Jessica. We get a look at her nightmares and this strange stone she holds onto when she's stressed.

Kelvin: It highlights a difference between her and Arby, I think. While on the outside they seem quite similar in their detachment, Jessica is tormented but Arby buried his torment deep inside. Only for it to come out as a result of reading Utopia.

Jessica never buried hers, I suppose is what I'm trying to say.

Paul: While I would have preferred to have the stone at least referenced at some point earlier in the series (although maybe I've just missed it), it was still an effective character revelation, once Arby reveals his big secret in the end.

Kelvin: Yes...that secret.

Paul: I can't say I wasn't expecting it.

Kelvin: If there's anything about the episode I didn't like, it was that.

Utopia Killing Tree Channel 4

Paul: Before we get to that in detail, though, what did you think about the reveal that 15 year old Arby had killed Christos in front of little Jessica? And that he was taking her to the murder site to let her know that she was loved?

And to drive home the point that he was never loved.

Kelvin: I wasn't expecting Arby to have been the killer. Again though, it was interesting that it seemed like a genuine attempt on Arby's part to do something good for Jessica, to reach out to her.

Paul: Reading the manuscript has done wonders for Raisin Boy. His admission that he knows he's broken, that some trauma made him that way, was a little heartbreaking. Especially when he further reveals that he was actually experimented on and it went wrong.

Kelvin: And the way -- after he's taken Jessica back to his hideout and the Network's men have arrived -- he sits down as the building burns down around him was full of pathos.

He's like Frankenstein's Monster.

Utopia Channel 4 Arby Alone

Paul: And that secret...

Kelvin: Yes...

I'm not fond of it.

Paul: Why is that?

Kelvin: I'm sure that Dennis Kelly knows what he's doing, but that reveal is something I've seen used for cheap effect so often elsewhere -- in superhero comics, for example -- that I groan a little whenever I see it.

Paul: Understandable.

Kelvin: Every X-Man is some other X-Man's long-lost sibling or parent, for example. It's an irrational dislike, I know, and I expect Utopia to do something good and interesting with it.

Paul: That's why it didn't really bother me, even though it's been kind of obvious in retrospect. We've spoken all along about how similar he and Jessica were, like two sides of the same coin and all that.

It will serve a purpose other than just a twist in the plot. I'm sure of it now.

Kelvin: You know, that's an excellent point. They have laid the groundwork, so it's not a cheap twist.

I feel better about it now!

Paul: Plus it gave him that fantastic last line: "Don't do what I did. Don't find out the truth about our father."

But then she takes the manuscript anyway. Because of course she does.

Utopia Channel 4

Kelvin: It's almost as if Arby has become a good man who hates that he's become a good man.

Paul: Birth is painful. Rebirth is maybe even more painful.

Kelvin: Indeed. Speaking of which.

Paul: I did NOT expect Michael's wife, Jen (Ruth Gemmell), to be so cutthroat about taking Anya's (Anna Madeley) baby!

Kelvin: Nor me. I suppose it makes a sort of sense, because Michael (Paul Higgins) is such a pushover that he might attract someone who has a more forceful personality.

Paul: Right. Then, suddenly, Michael isn't just floundering around without a solid plan. He makes a deal and sets them up for life with money and a new family.

Which makes this episode's last five minutes all the more gut-wrenching.

Kelvin: I knew he'd turn.

Paul: But we WERE wondering how they were going to tie the storylines together.

When he gave his wife that little look before dialing the phone I knew it was over. I had hoped, but...

Kelvin: I don't think Michael has gone over completely though. I noticed something this episode.

Paul: Yes?

Utopia Channel 4

Kelvin: The biological agent at the heart of all of everything will cause infertility in 90 to 95% of humanity. Meanwhile, Michael and his wife have been battling infertility all along.

I suspect that when he finds out what the Network is going to do, his personal stake in matters will cause him to change sides again.

It's too much of a coincidence in a programme this well-constructed.

Paul: I'd say you're probably right. Although it would add to the tragedy of his entire storyline if he somehow becomes responsible, however indirectly, for sterilizing the world.

Irony!

Kelvin: True. That could be something they do. I love that the connection we've been looking for is something like that, that's been in Michael's backstory all along.

Paul: I'm extremely glad that they didn't go with the whole racial genocide angle our heroes thought it was going to be. That was, as we said last week, just too easy.

Kelvin: Indeed, and the way Letts describes The Plan, it almost seems reasonable. Which then, of course, splits our heroes as they disagree on what to do about it.

Paul: It's perfect. And Wilson (Adeel Akhtar) falling under the spell of the plan is actually a believable turn given his personality. He's been preparing for something horrible all along, and this is nowhere near as horrible as he was probably expecting.

Utopia Channel 4

Kelvin: The revelation of the true plan -- assuming no further twists -- reminded me of Edge of Darkness.

Paul: Really? I've been meaning to check that out.

Kelvin: It's very good.

Paul: I didn't know there was an apocalyptic element to it!

Kelvin: There's a similar idea of saving the world from humanity.

Paul: Hmmm. I might have to watch this. Soon.

Kelvin: I think it would be interesting to watch it with Utopia fresh in one's mind. They both have that feel of a slow apocalypse.

Paul: I think I know what I'll be doing with my day off tomorrow.

Kelvin: Oh, yes?

Paul: Turns out I have a copy of it I'd forgotten about. I picked it up when the Mel Gibson movie version was released, but never got around to watching it.

Kelvin: Excellent! It's not the most cheery of stories, but well worth watching. I suspect Utopia will be ending in a similar way.

Paul: I was curious since Martin Campbell directed both the BBC series AND the film, but they both slipped off my radar. Had no idea about where the story went beyond the "looking into the truth of his daughter's murder" bit.

Kelvin: I believe they dropped the apocalyptic aspect from the film. It's that idea of a slow, almost gentle apocalypse that reminds me of Utopia.

Paul: Ha! Apparently the writer originally proposed that the lead character turn into a tree at the end. But it was vetoed by everybody else involved. 

Bizarre.

Kelvin: Just like...

Although I don't see anyone turning into a tree in Utopia. One never knows though. I'm still expecting Mr. Rabbit to be a hybrid.

Paul: Ha! So where were we before I got all excited about new/old TV to watch?

Kelvin: Wilson's apparent acceptance of the Network's plan.

Utopia Channel 4 Wilson

Paul: Oh yeah. He's so won over by the idea that he frees Letts and stabs himself in the guts to cover. I'm wondering if he's not kind of giving up. He didn't know Becky (Alexandra Roach) would find him in time.

If she did.

Kelvin: I was thinking the same. There seemed to be a lot of giving up in this episode. Wilson, Michael, Milner (Geraldine James) all gave up fighting in their own ways.

Paul: That's true. I hadn't thought of it like that. Milner's revelation was a bit of a surprise. But more for her decorating sense than the fact that her son was dying.

Kelvin: Ha! Yes, the orange room was a bit disconcerting. Utopia has played with strong colours throughout, but that sequence did stand out.

Paul: I hope when my body stops working and someone is nursing me in my final days, they paint all the walls red and hang dark yellow curtains so I can get ready for hell beforehand.

Kelvin: It's very helpful!

Utopia Channel 4

Paul: That had to be a directorial choice, don't you think? Another striking choice, without a doubt, but questionable in its motivation?

Kelvin: It was deliberate, that much is clear, but it seemed to lack any reason behind the choice. As you said last time, it's as if the directors remembered the strong use of colour in the earlier episodes and repeated the idea here, but without much sense of why they were doing it.

Paul: There were a number of beautiful shots throughout the episode, don't get me wrong, but it does lack purpose.

Kelvin: That's fair, I think.

Paul: We also had our first actual First Person perspective as they were removing the bag from Letts' (Stephen Rea) head, and our first dream sequence this episode. It all just makes me extremely curious to see how (previous director) Marc Munden would have handled these story elements.

Kelvin: Both parts stood out for me, and I think it's because they were conventional storytelling tools, and Utopia was not conventional in the slightest beforehand.

Paul: Right! These aren't bad choices, just conventional choices.

Kelvin: You're right. I want to know how Munden would have done those sequences.

Utopia Channel 4

Paul: Neither scene would have necessarily been detailed that way in the script. Jessica's nightmare didn't have to be shown. The connection to Arby's description of murdering Christos later on could have been connected through action or staging.

And shooting from inside the bag is definitely easy to do differently.

Another choice they made that jumped out at me, was after Arby slammed the car into the other agents' and then climbed out, walked around and shot them. From getting out of the car to the shooting to walking off afterwards, leaving Jessica to grab a dead man's gun, was all one shot moving with Arby before settling on Jessica in the end.

Again, it was dramatic and well-done. Just different from the way those opening three episodes would have presented the scene.

Kelvin: I imagine it would have been shot from afar if it had happened in the first half of the series.

Paul: We also had a series of short cuts opening the episode, moving from outside to inside as people slept. That was nice, but again, more traditional. As was the cutting to black over and over in the end as Wilson stabs himself and falls to the ground.

Kelvin: Yes. As you say, not bad, but uncharacteristic of the series.

Paul: Munden did something similar when we first saw Arby in his little cell, so it's not entirely out of character for the look of the series, but this was more pronounced and didn't serve any real purpose, unlike the way the earlier cuts showed the empty passing of time for Arby.

I swear. I have scenes from this show burned into my memory. It's creepy.

Kelvin: I'm eager to watch it again from the start. It's so good.

Paul: It is. Let's see. What have we forgotten?

Oh! Donaldson (Simon McBurney)!

Utopia Channel 4 Donaldson

Kelvin: Ah, yes.

Paul: I found that a little more forced than the Arby/Jessica revelation, to be honest. But it wasn't something completely out of the blue.

Kelvin: I agree. I was almost a bit disappointed to find out that he was Becky's secret contact.

Paul: Same here. But I could see it, so... I was more surprised that he knew about the sterilization plan.

Kelvin: I was more surprised that he and Becky had a more than professional relationship.

Paul: Well, they didn't specify that did they?

Kelvin: I got that impression.

Paul: Letts thought that was the case and said so, but he then said he was wrong. Although she didn't contradict him and he was trying to save his own skin.

Kelvin: I thought Donaldson said something along the same lines, but I may be wrong.

Paul: He is sleazy, yes, but there's nothing certain. However, now that you mention it, based on her reactions to him, I think you're probably right.

Kelvin: Donaldson is a sleaze, but he swears well.

Paul: He's so natural with that character. Another very nice performance that doesn't really jump out at you.

Kelvin: He's a good supporting character.

Paul: Two other supporting characters had a couple of very nice scenes together this week: Geoff, the Minister (Alistair Petrie) and The Assistant (James Fox). Their power dynamic was very nicely played with from the first scene to the last, with the Minister standing up to the Assistant, saying he wouldn't be ordered around, before being put in his place in the end.

Utopia Channel 4

Kelvin: The Assistant in his little dark room, crushing people's will. It's quite chilling.

Is he Mr. Rabbit, I wonder?

Paul: I was about to type the same thing.

Kelvin: He probably isn't, because that would be too obvious for Utopia.

Paul: Possibly.

Kelvin: I'm half expecting Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) to turn out to be Mr. Rabbit.

Paul: I'm starting to wonder if Kelly has plans for continuing this into a second series or if he has it all tied up with next week's finale.

Kelvin: Well, they've been advertising DVDs of Utopia Series 1. [It will be released March 11, 2013, actually. -ed.]

Then again, they also sold Jekyll Series One, so that may not mean much.

Paul: And The Fades Series One...

Kelvin: Sad times...

Paul: But from what I was just reading, the younger demographic that is the real target for this is pretty solid with only This is England rating higher, so maybe there's interest in continuing the story somehow. For Channel 4, I mean.

Kelvin: It seems to have been a hit, so I can see why they'd pursue another series.

Paul: Looks like a third of the audience is 16-34 and 52% is male. So fingers crossed for a Series Two. Provided this all ends well next time.

Kelvin: That's the question! I don't see things ending well somehow. They've played things so well that it's difficult to know how much story is left to get through.

Paul: True. There are a lot of possibilities here still.

Kelvin: Fingers crossed indeed!

Utopia Channel 4

Paul: Do you think that by ordering the Minister to murder Letts with his own hands, that the Assistant is setting him up to be removed, since his handling of Michael was so botched?

Kelvin: Quite possibly. It was a chilling and sad scene. Letts, for all of his faults and crimes, had managed to struggle back home, only to be murdered for his trouble.

There seem to be no happy endings in Utopia!

Paul: By that point I was seeing some strong similarities between Letts and Michael, to be honest. The reason I asked the question is I'm kind of hoping to see Michael get promoted to Minister before this ends.

He'd be a public face that can be controlled fairly easily now that he's got a family on the way. No arrogance. Plus he ordered the Russian Flu vaccine and was hailed in the papers as a hero for that.

Kelvin: I could see that. It would echo SPOILERS The Killing Series Two a bit much though.

We've not mentioned Ian, but now that I think of it, I don't remember Ian being that active this episode.

Paul: Nope. Although I did catch that Wilson asserts his authority over him by asking who he's lost. The same point we made a while back. That made me smile.

Kelvin: As you were saying earlier, every question and observation we make seems to have been anticipated by Kelly.

Paul: The only thing that hasn't been addressed is who the Grant Morrison lookalike was. I assume now that he was just a thug hired so he could be killed and provide Milner with a dramatic entrance.

Kelvin: That would make sense. A sacrifice to make Milner seem authentic.

Paul: Some confirmation of that would be nice, though.

Kelvin: If that's the only loose end at the end of the series, I'll be happy.

Paul: Oh ,yeah. That would be remarkable for a story with as many moving parts as this.

Kelvin: And you've come up with a plausible explanation if not. Demand a No-Prize from Channel 4!

Utopia Channel 4

Paul: Ha! Any final thoughts before scoring?

Kelvin: Only that penultimate episodes always have a difficult task in setting up the finale, but thanks to some excellent performances and that wonderful Arby/Jessica subplot, this episode of Utopia did that task well.

Paul: It most certainly did.

Kelvin: As such, I'm going for four-and-a-half for this episode.

Paul: Same here. Damn near perfect.

Kelvin: I agree, and I cannot wait for the final episode.

Paul: It won't be long now. Then we have to find something new to love.

Kelvin: I may have to order the DVD now. You know, just to get me through.

Paul: I'll keep listening to the Soundtrack and maybe watch the whole thing again next week for my birthday.

Kelvin: Good plan, and if I don't say it before then, happy birthday!

Paul: Thanks! Happy Birthday, have some apocalypse!


Kelvin Green erupted fully formed from the grey shapeless mass of Ubbo Sathla in the dark days before humans walked the earth. He grew up on Judge Dredd, Transformers, Indiana Jones #12, the Avengers and Spider-Man, and thinks comics don't get much better than FLCL, Nextwave and Rocket Raccoon. Kelvin lives among garbage and seagulls and doesn't hate Marvel nearly as much as you all think he does.


Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now forKindle USKindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.

 

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