Last year the production team behind Britain's most popular science fiction series, Doctor Who, was the target of sustained criticism from some viewers and the media for making its plots too complicated and impenetrable for newcomers. Although one might have expected Channel 4 to enjoy seeing its rival broadcaster coming under fire, some within its ranks must have been horrified. Plans were already in motion for Channel 4 to produce its own science fiction series whose plot would be more labyrinthine than anything Doctor Who had ever attempted. Perhaps the comparison is slightly unfair since Channel 4 was targeting a different demographic and was cultivating a more adult tone for its program, but in terms of narrative complexity the new series had something to worry about.
Channel 4's program would eventually be screened in early 2013 as Utopia. It tells the story of a handful of fans of a particular graphic novel, brought together by their belief that within the book's pages is hidden a terrible secret. As the search for the truth escalates, it becomes clear that a shadowy, powerful group of politicians, assassins, financiers and so forth will stop at nothing to make sure that the book is recovered and kept away from prying eyes. As the program throws together a heady cocktail of biological weapons, mad scientists, conspiracy theories, spies, torturers, attempted genocide, deserted mansions, long lost family members and assorted other improbable elements besides, Utopia becomes a dizzying and intricate balancing act which always seems one moment away from collapse. It is nothing if not complicated.
Of course, when discussing this sort of series to say too much about the plot itself risks diminishing one of the most enjoyable elements of the program. The narrative twists are numerous and often intriguing and it would be a disservice to potential audiences to deprive them of the pleasure of having the rug pulled from under their feet in the spectacular fashion that the show manages with some regularity. These moments where it becomes clear that all is not what is seems go some way towards providing the show with its energy and momentum. This is crucial since the brooding, troubled mood that Utopia constructs is largely a result of the fact that, between the moments of narrative revelation, it is quite a slow program that unfolds its story steadily. The series's dynamism emerges out of the unexpected, often disconcerting moments where significant shocks burst into an otherwise more routine sequence. This makes for uneasy viewing and prevents the audience from relaxing. As such, the tone of the show is partially reliant on its ability to surprise and its story really ought to be approached without foreknowledge of what is to come.
However, Utopia is a program that does more than tell a genuinely surprising story. Thankfully there are many other areas into which the program's producers have clearly sunk considerable time and money, which means that there is still plenty to talk about without giving the plot away. For example, this is a show that, perhaps more than almost anything else that I have seen on British television in recent years, purposefully crafts a self-consciously individual visual style. Like its plot, Utopia's world is a collision of different contrasting elements. While the series makes use of lonely, forbidding environments, they are often accented by bold or oversaturated colors. Frequently used locations include forbidding urban streets, exposed and barren wastelands and a bizarre, abandoned mansion, cluttered with the inexplicable detritus of lives that have since moved on. Long shots of roadside cafes evoke the palpable isolation of the American diner in a wealth of classic road movies. However, the sky in sequences such as these is often a clear, bright blue and the crops in the fields that surround the action are lush in yellow, green and brown. The series opens in a comic book shop that is awash with vibrant yellows, scorched reds and deep midnight blues, but the metal shutter on its door is ugly and mundane and a man in a bizarre, tattered rabbit costume is handing out flyers in front of it. The title card, too, is an electric yellow and, in the first episode, it sits at odds with the washed-out battleship grey of the university office in the sequence that follows. The look of the series is a collision of the shockingly vivid and the remarkably austere.
These clashes in the program's stunningly bold, frequently enticing and occasionally brutal palette mirror the plot's bursts of frenetic activity and periods of slow, deliberate development. This sense of discord can also be found elsewhere in the program, not least in its soundtrack, which at times would not sound out of place at some sort of nightmarish carnival. This sense of purposeful instability is also evident in visual flourishes that variously relieve and reinforce the uneasy beauty of the show. In one of Utopia's fleeting comedic moments, for example, the viewer is invited to watch two of the protagonists share a sexual encounter. However, as the two prepare, a series of errors prevent them from completing the act. Their clothes become tangled, they struggle to remain quiet so as to not wake up their sleeping friend and finally the alcohol they have consumed takes its toll on their ability to perform. A series of close-ups underline the anticipated intimacy of the moment, allowing each interruption to come as an unexpected surprise, even if the sequence itself is familiar and formulaic. In this sense, the comedy is constructed visually and I was laughing along with the characters by the end. Conversely, in perhaps the most memorable flourish of the series, the sheer horror of a massacre at a school is emphasized by having the stationary camera point resolutely away from the action, allowing the killer to cross the screen on his way to and from the various classrooms while the sound alone carries the weight of conveying what is taking place. Again, this is a reasonably familiar trick, but its deployment is effective and devastating nonetheless. These moments crystallize the conflicting visual styles of the series and offer its producers the opportunity to briefly relieve or enhance the show's sense of menace and tension.
Sadly they also begin to reveal the program's most significant weakness by gently hinting at a lack of true originality. In the sequences highlighted above this doesn't matter as the desired effect is achieved with such force that doubts are cast aside in the success of the moment. However, there are only so many times the program can get away with this before a nagging sense that little about Utopia is really new creeps in. Fascinating though the series may be, it is a disappointment that its atmosphere, characters, setting and story are constructed from scraps salvaged from more successful forerunners.
This is most obvious in terms of the generic tendencies of the plot. Classifying programs by genre is always difficult, but perhaps Utopia causes more problems than most. Its primary interest seems to be in the conspiracy theory that is at its heart, but it also makes use of a biological weapon which is drawn from the realm of science fiction, tense action movie standoffs, a race against time that belongs to the thriller, a small handful of comedy moments, a few incongruous instances of romance and the aforementioned creepy mansion which wouldn't be out of place in a horror film. Mixing genres in this way isn't itself a problem at all, but each of these elements is handled in a reasonably formulaic and occasionally lazy manner. The initial sense of radical newness that the program engenders comes less from its individual elements and more from the ways in which they are combined. After a few episodes this seems less novel and the tiredness of several aspects of the series becomes clear.
This is particularly problematic in relation to the central conspiracy theory, which is propagated by a cabal made up of national and international political figures, scientists and other senior officials. They exercise their power by hacking into police and medical records in order to condemn or manipulate their victims. They even manage to produce fake CCTV footage to implicate one of their adversaries in the school shooting mentioned earlier. When examined in isolation from the rest of the plot, this begins to look very familiar indeed, recalling numerous episodes of The X-Files (1993-2002), the Jason Bourne films, and The Net (1996). Perhaps it is to be expected that a series with such a strong tendency towards the conspiracy thriller will draw on its established conventions, but it is the largely uninventive approach to this material that is disappointing. By aligning itself with a wide variety of different genres, the program does not provide itself with sufficient scope to fully explore the potential of any of them. Utopia makes use of the same ideas and motifs as many other films and programs, but doesn't reinvent or reconstruct them in any significant manner. Its main contribution is in blending and juxtaposing the conspiracy drama with a range of tropes drawn from other generic categories, but each of the genres that it adopts remains essentially the same as in any other production.
Sadly, this also ensures that many of the characters remain largely uninteresting. Aside from an unflappable hitman whose resolve begins to wane and a torture victim who gradually comes to see his adversary's point of view, very few of the characters evolve in any significant manner. This is particularly true of one central character, a survivalist whose father produced the graphic novel that is at the heart of the series's mysteries. She enters the show as a hardheaded and unsympathetic killer. The series is clearly enamored with her brutal outlook on life and, despite a few attempts, struggles to make her even marginally relatable. She discovers secrets about her past and her family, but ultimately remains as cold and relentlessly unresponsive as ever. It is as if the producers were too in love with the initial idea for the character to allow her to break out of its constraints.
Coupled with the disorienting visual style of the series and the uneasy nature of its narrative, these static and largely unlikable characters do little to engage the viewer or to invite them to spend a little time exploring the world of Utopia. This is a shame as there are numerous pleasures on offer here. Those who push past the initially bewildering aspects of the program will find a show worthy of their attention, but making it to the stage where this becomes clear can be difficult.
Perhaps the point of Utopia is to keep its viewer feeling uncomfortable and, to a certain extent at least, distant. The plot and the visuals work together to make for an uneasy viewing experience and this is achieved in a robust manner. However, this often leaves the viewer feeling detached and, once or twice, uninterested. In this sense, the program succeeds in its main goal, but sadly it is that goal which is, for me, its most obvious weakness. As an experiment in constructing a particular mood or atmosphere, the show is a resounding triumph. As entrainment, it is perhaps less so.
Matthew Jones is a Research Associate at University College London, where he is currently working on a major AHRC-funded project about memories of 1960s British cinema-going (www.ucl.ac.uk/cinemamemories). Prior to this he has taught at the University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Salford, the University of Central Lancashire and Birmingham City University. His published work focuses on film audiences and genre, both in historical and contemporary contexts.