By the time this blog is published, Utopia will have finished its six episode run on Channel 4. If Poliakoff’s Dancing on the Edge was launched with one kind of hype (see Stephen Harper’s blog), Utopia was surrounded by hype of a different nature. Utopia is very much of the moment, combining the writer and creator of Pulling and co-writer of stage musical Matilda, Dennis Kelly, with Marc Munden, director of The Crimson Petal and the White (2011) (Munden directs the first three episodes of Utopia), and casting actors such as Alexandra Roach (The Iron Lady), Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, fresh from Misfits, Neil Maskell (Kill List), alongside Stephen Rea, Geraldine James and James Fox. From its use of a graphic novel as focus for its conspiracy narrative, to its trending cast and crew, Utopia is a product of the now.
One of the attractions of television drama is its potential for complex, intertwining narrative, and ongoing character development. Stacey Abbott’s recent blog about the end of Fringe discusses the pleasure and pain of this kind of investment, and the frequent dissatisfaction series finales engender in long-term viewers. So why, when internet discussion of a possible second series started up after Utopia aired its last episode, did I find myself resisting the idea? Because six episodes (albeit with the first and last slightly extended) were enough.
Admittedly, it didn’t fail to engage through its handling of character. The series made unexpected shifts from the normal people dragged into the conspiracy through their engagement with graphic novel The Utopia Experiments to hitman Arby (Neil Maskell) and mysterious Jessica Hyde (Fiona O’Shaughnessy). This wasn’t about character development, though. After all, the plot is designed to demonstrate that the sinister Network do not see individuals, they see a bigger picture.
That bigger picture is the moral dilemma posed by Utopia’s conspiracy plot: in a world of increasing overpopulation, do we need some kind of control? The Network’s answer is a virus that would sterilise the majority of the population. Medical testing and experimentation, corporate domination, anxieties about surveillance, nervousness about a global pandemic, projections about overpopulation and taxing our planet’s resources all feature in the conspiracy narrative. The show stops short of making any overt connection between the availability of fertility treatments (integral to one character’s subplot) and widespread overpopulation, leaving the viewer to ponder the blurring of public and private concerns in the contemporary politics of reproduction.
So surely there’s mileage in all this for ongoing narrative beyond six episodes? It’s a conspiracy thriller, so twists and turns are abundant and part of the ride. Almost every episode provides some reversal that unsettles what we thought we knew. But rather than encouraging viewers to wish it would never end, the narrative pointed towards an inevitable, dark conclusion. While one of the original four characters, paranoid conspiracy nerd Wilson Wilson (Adeel Akhtar) eventually becomes convinced that the sinister Network’s engineered virus is necessary to avoid a global crisis, the others continue to act out their roles as dystopian heroes trying to save the world. But they fail.
The impact of a narrative like this is as a short, sharp shock. I’ve heard writer and director Joe Ahearne talk about trying to avoid padding out his recent three-part adaptation The Secret of Crickley Hall (2012), and why he never wanted to do more of cult vampire series Ultraviolet (1998, answer: because he’d told the story in six episodes). Some reviews of Utopia described it as a miniseries, and perhaps this comes closer to explaining how it works and why we don’t need more of it.
Let’s be honest, one of the most engaging things about Utopia was its visual style. Writer Dennis Kelly explains his approach in a Guardian article, ‘Our world looks more and more like science fiction these days. It’s increasingly like the plot of something; there’s this blending of fact and fiction.’ When the conspiracy is uncovered in episode one, Becky (Alexandra Roach), Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Wilson and Grant (Oliver Woolford) find themselves suddenly operating in a different world. It may look like the world they lived in before, but it is subtly different. Most people have experienced in a crisis that feeling of dissociation, a sense that ‘this can’t really be happening’. That’s the feeling Utopia generates very powerfully.
It shows us this strange world, in wide screen and in glorious saturated colour. The wide screen shots, whether landscapes or interiors, maximise background and minimise character, conveying alienation and claustrophobia at the same time.
Settings are familiar, mostly mundane and very British – the cavernous empty pub where Becky, Ian and Wilson first meet, the main road with grassy embankment and overhead footbridge where the publisher of The Utopia Experiments commits suicide in episode two, the bland middle class home of Michael and his wife.
The Department of Health is lit blue, the Corvadt/ Network offices are all dark heavy wood, many other scenes are tinged green or yellow. Colour transforms such ordinary sights into something other. This arresting visual style is another reason for Utopia to stop at six episodes. Could it sustain this alienating vision over more? Wouldn’t it just become routine and familiar?
There are a number of debates about the privileging of drama in discussions of TV especially regarding its ephemeral nature and its availability (see Mark Jancovich’s recent blog about weather programming). TV on demand, available on DVD box sets, with extended online and on-mobile narratives and platforms sometimes seems to have become unending. This is partly a commercial imperative: ongoing serialised narrative drama fits into the convergent, multi-platform media environment of the current era. Can a six part miniseries have the same staying (and selling) power as show with a seven-year run? Presumably not.
Utopia is also of the moment in that it fits a trend visible in recent contemporary British television drama like Misfits and Being Human, or UK films like Kill List (2011) and Sightseers (2012, both directed by Ben Wheatley), which have translated American genres and Americanised tropes into edgy British successes. Utopia offers us a very British conspiracy thriller that matches mundanity with hyperviolence (no one who saw it could have resisted squirming during the scene where Wilson is tortured in episode one, and The Daily Mail predictably reported complaints after episode three featured Arby shooting his way through a school while hunting for Grant).
While Utopia’s style and approach might now seem part of something new and fresh, in six months many of its viewers will have forgotten it, assuming it doesn’t return for a second season.
Given this currency and its exploitation of a self-contained short form, it’s interesting to see that Utopia features in a Channel 4 trailer for new drama shared with Black Mirror, Complicit, and Run. Complicit is a one-off feature-length drama, while Black Mirror, back for a second ‘series’ offers what is effectively a collection of single plays. Whether Utopia becomes a six-episode miniseries by default (because it’s not picked up for a second series) or by design, this is still a suggestive line up. Given that industry insiders are predicting an end to the wave of reality and popular factual on UK television and a return to drama, could this include the return of short forms like the single play, the anthology show and the miniseries, which have been sidelined for years?
Lorna Jowett is a Reader in Television Studies at the University of Northampton. She is the co-author with Stacey Abbott of TV Horror: Investigating The Dark Side of the Small Screen (2012) and author of Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan (2005). She has published many articles on television, film and popular culture, and is particularly interested in genre, gender and television drama.
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