Paul Brian McCoy: For those of you on this side of the pond, or those in the UK who aren’t keeping up, Dennis Kelly‘s ultra-stylish conspiracy drama, Utopia returned to the airwaves last week, with the first two of six episodes. Superstar director Marc Munden was at the helm and didn’t appear to have missed a beat. The lovely and talented Kelvin Green and I reviewed the first season (which can be found here) and what was one of the best TV series of 2013 looks poised to take a top spot in 2014, as well. To catch up on the story, a secret organization called The Network developed a way of sterilizing the vast majority of humankind as a way of saving the planet as we grow shorter and shorter on resources. The virus, called Janus, was to be spread through the vaccine for a deadly new strain of Russian Flu, and all the Network needed was verification that Janus worked. The proof was to be found in a graphic novel manuscript, written and illustrated by a madman who turned out to be the scientist who designed the bug, Philip Carvel. The manuscript had fallen into the hands of a group of comic fans who had to go on the run to keep the secret of Janus out of the hands of the Network. To aid them in surviving, a mystery woman known as Jessica Hyde taught them how to hide, steal, and maybe live another day. But the unstoppable killing machine known only as Arby was on their trail. When all was said and done, secrets were spilled, alliances were made, and betrayals were par for the course. And it was all done in beautiful widescreen Technicolor with flashes of brutal violence and absurd humor. So we had a two-night premiere for Series 2 of Utopia. Episode 2.01 took us back to the 70s for an origin story, and then 2.02 caught us up with our familiar cast of characters while introducing one or two new twists. Was the series premiere everything you hoped it would be? Kelvin Green: I am a little torn about the two episodes, to be honest. I’m really glad to see the series come back and both episodes were really well made — nothing on British TV looks this good at the moment — but there was something missing for me. Paul: In both episodes? Kelvin: Yes, I think so. The origin story was quite clever in that it did a good job of setting up the premise of the series for new viewers as much as it filled in the background for existing fans, but even so it seemed a bit superfluous. It was good to see everyone return in the second episode — and there were a few amazing moments — but it was so concerned with setting things up that there wasn’t a lot happening. But perhaps I’m being overly picky. Paul: I wouldn’t say “overly picky.” I think you’re on to something, actually. Setting the opening chapter in the 70s and giving us the backstory for the creation of Janus and the Network, didn’t really bring any surprises with it if you’re a fan of the first series. In fact, I can’t really think of a single element of the episode that brought something new to the table. But I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I think I may have a problem. Logistically, it also only gives us five episodes for the new current storylines to play out in. Kelvin: Yes, although they presented it as a #0 — to use a comics term — it has taken up one of the episodes in the series, compressing the rest of the story. Like you, I enjoyed it. The acting and atmosphere were great and it looked wonderful, but it didn’t add much. Paul: I kind of wish it had aired separately. Like a Christmas Special or something. Kelvin: All that said, I did appreciate the little parallels between Carvel’s torturer and Jessica’s interrogator. I assume that was deliberate, so perhaps we’ll see more of those touches in episodes to come. Paul: Let’s dig into the first episode, shall we? I see that there’s been some controversy over using the real-life assassinations of UK politicians in the story, weaving them into the origins of the Network. Kelvin: A little, yes. The family of Airey Neave complained about his appearance in the episode, and I can sort of understand their position, but then again, if you’re going to tell a story about the hidden truth behind the world’s events it makes sense to use actual events. Paul: Like The Comedian assassinating Kennedy in Watchmen. Kelvin: Quite so. How many Kennedy assassinations have there been in fiction? Paul: Almost as many as there have been conspiracy theories about it. Kelvin: There may be a bit more tension as two of the assassinations featured were related to the Irish Troubles and that is still a very sore subject, even in a time of relative peace. Paul: True. I’m completely oblivious to this period of British political history, so while I can see it being a sensitive subject, I’m very impressed that Kelly was able to weave these events into his story so smoothly. Finding little moments in real history like this “10-day period in 1979” are kind of genius. Kelvin: Yes, I’m all for it. History is fair game as far as I’m concerned. Paul: I never knew that the movement that brought Thatcher to power was so tenuous. That one vote difference in the vote of no confidence is ripe for conspiracy theories. Kelvin: Yes indeed, it was a very interesting time for British politics and I can see why Kelly chose it. So much potential, as you say. And Thatcher is a popular villain in some quarters so evoking her immediately sets a particular tone, even if she’s a puppet, or at least a servant, of The Network in the Utopiaverse. Paul: I don’t think she’s presented as a puppet or a servant, really. She almost serves as a strange attractor of some sort, around whom the Network can work relatively undisturbed. Thatcher’s England becomes a cultural nodal point that helps create the sort of world where a secret organization can flourish. Kelvin: Yes, that’s a better description. She’s useful to the Network, without being associated with it. Paul: There are some parallels here to other works, like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books and movies. With secret powerful groups operating in and through the government while being isolated and separate. Which never ends well. Kelvin: Yes, one thing that was useful new information was that The Network was shown to be apart from the Government, rather than an oppressive, all-powerful organisation. I find the latter a bit unconvincing so it was good to see that although The Network is powerful, and can influence politicians, the military, and big business, it doesn’t control them. At least in the early days. Paul: On another note, were you distracted by the shift from widescreen to the 4:3 format for the premiere? Kicking off the episode with a real Italian news montage from the Seventies was a little disconcerting. Kelvin: I wouldn’t say “distracted” but I did notice it. I thought it was a bit of a gimmick at first but as the episode went on I got used to it. I wonder if they used actual vintage cameras? Paul: Probably not, if only for convenience’s sake. I understand they did tinker with the original news footage, color shifting it to be more in line with what Kelly and Munden were doing with the rest of the episode. Once again, Utopia is the most gorgeous show on television. The only thing I’ve seen that rivals it is Hannibal. Kelvin: Oh yes, the colours. All that yellow lighting in Rome. Paul: Wonderful. And the finale at the Three Mile Island power plant! Washing everything in those red emergency lights! Kelvin: Oh yes. It’s beautiful. Paul: With little Pietre appearing like some sort of disturbing ghost, reaching out for his father. Kelvin: Oh yes, Baby RB reaching out. For comfort? Or murder? Or both? Paul: Whichever it was, he creeped me the hell out. But only slightly less than tiny RB staring at that flipping rabbit. That kid captured a flat affect look perfectly. Kelvin: He was wonderful. And terrifying. There was another nice parallel there, with the rabbit in the bag in the first episode and the “gift” in the bag in the second episode. Paul: Ha! Yes there was! I hadn’t noticed that. I really was impressed with the entire cast. I thought I’d be making “You know nothing, Jon Snow” jokes throughout the show, but Rose Leslie really nailed Milner. Kelvin: I am a Game of Thrones agnostic — long story — so I found her impressive without any such associations. She was arresting every time she was on screen. Paul: She really made Milner seem human and understandable. To an extent. She still does horrible things, but you can see the processing that goes on behind her eyes somehow. Particularly when she is ready to dispose of her alcoholic boyfriend. It was just something that had to be done. You know, for the greater good. Kelvin: Yes, there was that interesting mix of passion (her love for Carvel’s genius) and cold logic. Then there was the contrast between that and the older Milner’s more tired, almost remorseful attitude. Paul: “Brain love. She loves your brain,” may be my favorite line of the episode. Kelvin: It was great. Paul: Although it’s rivaled by “Leave malaria alone” and “Okay Jessica Hyde, let’s teach you how to use a gun.” Kelvin: True! You’re right about Young Milner seeming human and understandable. In particular when contrasted with Young Carvel. Paul: Tom Burke was a bit of a surprise. The only thing I’ve seen him in before was Only God Forgives, and I had no idea it was him. He walked a very nice tightrope between being a cold-hearted mad scientist and a father on the verge of a nervous breakdown. There were bits in there where I could hear Neil Maskell’s line delivery as Arby in his father’s conversations. Kelvin: I’ve only seen him as Athos in the recent BBC Musketeers so that was a bit of a contrast! Paul: I could imagine! Kelvin: Yes, you can see where both Arby and Jessica get their weird, detached aloofness from. Paul: It was also a nice touch to find out that Arby became the way he was through experiments in inhibiting violent behavior. Whoops! Kelvin: Yep, that didn’t quite work out as expected! I don’t remember anything about the fate of the mother in the first series, do you? Paul: She “died in childbirth” bringing Jessica into the world. Kelvin: Oh yes, I had forgotten that. Yes, Milner’s doing. Paul: In another frighteningly calm moment in Leslie’s performance. Kelvin: And that slight sick feeling as the camera pans around to show Milner sitting in the corner of the room. Paul: I loved the way Cristobal Tapia de Veer‘s soundscapes helped to really make Carvel’s slide into madness, too. The ambient sounds, synthesizer chirps, and whispers were kind of freaking me out, too. Kelvin: Yes, this programme doesn’t look like anything else on TV but it doesn’t sound like anything else either! Paul: That’s another parallel with Hannibal, there. The way the sound and the colors and the set design all come together to make something extra special. Kelvin: It is almost as if they’re trying to make something special, rather than just pointing a camera at some actors. Paul: Imagine that! But as gorgeous as the first episode was, the second just blew my mind from the opening moments. That brilliant blue glass (?) pyramid in the field of lavender. The tight focus on the bee, then shifting to the pyramid. Kelvin: Oh yes. Even some of the more subtle stuff, like Jessica’s bright yellow (what else?) cell, impressed. It’s weird that a bright yellow prison cell is considered “subtle” but that’s what Utopia is like. Paul: Too true. The show doesn’t often really push the whole “near future” vibe visually, but this one made me do a double take. And Fiona O’Shaughnessy can still make the crazy eyes like nobody’s business. When she asked for a bible to read, I thought she might just start drooling or cackling. Kelvin: Oh yes, she’s the heroic Hannibal Lecter. Paul: She’s legitimately frightening. I think I cheered out loud when Arby reappeared. It was nice to see our prediction from last series come true. Kelvin: “It’s Pietre” Yes, I was so pleased to see him return, and in such an unexpected fashion. A family man? Arby? Paul: A plumber! Kelvin: “I’m quiet. They like that.” Paul: Neil Maskell does such a fantastic job in this role, I just want to see the episodes go on and on and on. Just following him around as he does, well, just about anything really. He’s hypnotic. And that look of sheer joy on his face as he sits watching cartoons while being teased by a little girl was worth the price of admission. Kelvin: Oh yes, the killer you love to love. I had another of those sick feelings when Lee reappeared and I thought it was all going to go wrong for Pietre. Paul: Because it so entirely could have. I was on the edge of my seat. Kelvin: Oh yes, but then. But then. “My name’s Pietre. We need to run. All of us. Right now.” It was Arby as the T-800. Paul: LOL! There’s just something brilliant about a slow-moving, wheezing, killing machine taking out a SWAT team without any effort at all. Kelvin: Quite so. I love these two siblings. Paul: Maybe the best brother/sister pairing on Television? Kelvin: So unpredictable. I did not expect Pietre to turn hero, and while I expected Jessica to make her escape somehow, what she’ll do to the Network, what both of them will do, is beyond me. If they join forces? Wow! Paul: Wow, indeed. I also cheered when Kevin Eldon made his appearance. That was as unexpected as anything else in the show! Kelvin: Oh yes, Kevin Eldon! Always excellent value. Paul: And such a great death scene! Spoiler Alert, by the way! Kelvin: That whole sequence with him and Becky and The Network’s latest target was great. Comedic but dark at the same time. Paul: And the mystery of Anton (HOLY SHIT THAT’S EMPEROR PALPATINE, Ian McDiarmid!!), the old foreign man with the secrets of Deel’s Syndrome (and maybe Janus)! Kelvin: Yes, Deel’s was never really explained. It has something to do with Janus, of course, but what? Paul: When they went down into the “dungeon” and Donaldson (recast this season and played by Michael Maloney) asked if Eldon’s character was having sex with Anton made me snort. Dr. Girlfriend looked at me with a hint of shame. Kelvin: Ha! Yes! I wonder if the old man is Carvel? That’s the obvious assumption. Paul: I have no idea!! I thought he might be Carvel, just completely snapped. Kelvin: We saw Carvel dropped off in an asylum in the flashback episode, after his breakdown, and that may explain the old fellow’s condition. Paul: That’s possible. Kelvin: It will be fun finding out! Paul: It certainly will. I’ve noticed that neither of us has mentioned any of the original group of heroes yet. Is that intentional on your part? It kind of is on mine. Kelvin: Sort of. The second episode was very much setting everything up and bringing the original cast together — some of them anyway — so they didn’t really get much to do beyond that. There was some comedy in Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and Grant’s (Oliver Woollford) situation but not much else. Becky (Alexandra Roach) seemed to get most of the attention. Paul: I wasn’t too thrilled with any of them, really. Kelvin: Yes, now they’re together I expect it to get better. Paul: I suppose, but I kind of wish they’d gone with a new cast. I just didn’t really care about Ian and Grant this time out. I’d rather have seen them on the run, I think, getting to the point where they can’t stand each other’s company. Kelvin: I was expecting, after all the emphasis they placed on the gang breaking up at the end of the last series, for it to take more than one episode to fix. It sort of undermined the finale. Paul: It did. I wonder if that’s partially a fault of having five episodes to work with instead of six? Kelvin: It could be. Or perhaps they weren’t expecting a second series. They’ve also done such a good job with Arby and Jessica that the supposed main cast look a bit weak in comparison. Paul: They do. Stepping in to Becky’s story as she’s contemplating suicide wouldn’t necessarily be a stumbling block, but it was glossed over so quickly and easily that it lacked impact. The same with Ian’s fake “suicide attempt” as a cover for where he’d been. He fell back into the status quo too easily for me. And Grant was just being a dick. Which is understandable, but it would have been nice to set up his character a bit more first for the new series. Kelvin: Yes, Ian didn’t even have a cover identity. Same name, same job. Paul: We have to assume that Milner and the Network aren’t paying any attention to him at all? Again, it’s a little too easy after everything that happened last season. Surely someone would have noted his accessing facial recognition software and ITV? Kelvin: I suppose that as far as he knows, Milner is a goodie but even so he should be hiding from The Network. It’s a bit odd. Paul: Yes. At least with Michael Dugdale’s (Paul Higgins) return, there’s a bit of mystery and sadness about him. I don’t buy for a minute the whole shifting him into the CEO position with Corvadt, but I would like to know where his wife and Alice have gone. Kelvin: Yes, and I wonder if we’ll see him develop more backbone this time. Paul: Why would he go along with making this batch of Russian Flu Vaccine after knowing what was going on with the last batch? Maybe that’s where the missing family comes into the picture? Kelvin: I would assume so. He showed a bit of spit and vinegar in the second episode so I hope we see more defiance from him. Paul: What did you think of Wilson Wilson’s (Adeel Akhtar) new fashion statement? Is orange or pink his color? Kelvin: I don’t think he has much choice. Bright colours are everything in the Utopiaverse! Paul: Pulling the spoon out from between the couch cushions was a bit much. But I did love the look of sheer terror on his face with Arby and Lee (Paul Ready) walked into the room. Kelvin: I have a suspicion that with Arby’s defection, Wilson Wilson is going to be Lee’s new partner. Paul: I think you’re right. Kelvin: Yes, it’ll be interesting to see Wilson becoming an active member of the conspiracy, given how much of a buffoon he was in the first series. Paul: What was your take on the whole V-Day plot? Is it wheel spinning, or does it add something interesting to the story? Kelvin: Making it a celebrity-endorsed thing was cute but it’s not clear what it adds, no. Paul: “We’re harvesting the rich,” was a nice line. But otherwise, I’m not sure what it’s supposed to add either. Kelvin: I suppose it adds a countdown. Instead of an ambiguous future, the sterilisation of the human race now has a date. Paul: True. Seems a bit artificial from a writerly standpoint, but it does accomplish that. Might force Geoff (Alistair Petrie) into a more ambiguous position, too. Kelvin: Yes, it adds to the feeling that they’re rushing things a little. Paul: I wonder what sort of waves Geoff and Michael teaming up could cause? Probably nothing monumental, but maybe the wiggle room for something climactic down the line? Kelvin: I hope so. I keep expecting the storylines to intersect. Paul: Michael’s vitriol toward Geoff might just signal that plot twist, actually. Kelvin: You may be right about that. All that hatred Michael showed would seem to be a logical lead-in to them working together now that Geoff has been shown his insignificance. Paul: I think that about covers everything? Was there anything we missed that you wanted to talk about? Kelvin: No, I think that’s it. Paul: We’ve barely scratched the surface of talking about the visual elements. There were two or three shots in particular that stood out for me. Kelvin: Go on. Paul: The reintroduction of Arby walking up the middle of the street in that opening shot was a nice visual metaphor for his two paths. It was clever and gorgeous, as usual. And it was nice to see the return of the staring at the clouds motif that we talked about a little last season. Seeing the open sky and the rolling clouds as symbolic of freedom, maybe. Kelvin: Yes, and the view from Jessica’s cell too. Although that had an odd look to it that suggested that it wasn’t real. Or so it seemed. Paul: It did. There’s a real sense of unreality to the whole prison where Jessica’s being held. Like she’s on another planet. Kelvin: I’m sure that was intended. Paul: I also kind of loved that crane shot as our heroes were running away through that vivid green field, as the camera started overhead and then slowly swooped down to eye-level and moved in on the group. Even without an obvious thematic cause, it was still just a great shot. As was the following shot with the group standing in the field with the sun behind them. I think I want that for my computer’s wallpaper. Kelvin: It was gorgeous. I also liked seeing that shot of the grass verge by the motorway that cropped up two or three times in the first series. Paul: That was nice, too. My minds gone blank, though. Why did we cut there this time? Was there a reason I’m forgetting? Kelvin: I don’t think it was significant, just a transition again, but one associated with Arby. Paul: Might have to take another look at that and see what Munden was getting at. No shot was ever wasted in his episodes of Series One, so I doubt it was just added in for nothing but a callback. [Quick break while Paul checks the tape…] Holy crap! Arby’s coming back from there just before Lee reappears. There’s our thematic connection! The past returning. Kelvin: That’s it! Paul: Munden is brilliant. Kelvin: Really, really good. Paul: We could probably just go through the episode scene by scene and find things to say about every moment in this show. It’s just that well put-together. Kelvin: I also enjoyed seeing that horrible, oppressive wooden office again, too. Paul: And the details in the woodwork! I hadn’t realized just how apocalyptic they were! Kelvin: Yes! I thought we’d seen the last of the office last time but now it’s back! And significant! Paul: That’s really somebody’s office. I think it may be college or something. I can’t remember, but it was discussed in the commentary track in the Series One pilot. Kelvin: What an office! I hate it and love it at the same time. And now Michael Dugdale gets to live there and see the world end. So much thought has been put into the craft. I remember being impressed by that in the first series and it’s good to be reminded of it now. Paul: I wonder who’s going to be directing the back three episodes? Munden is signed on to oversee the production, I know, but I wonder how much freedom the new director(s) will have? Kelvin: Yes, I recall the second half of the first series being a bit flat in comparison so I hope that doesn’t happen again this time. Paul: Same here. Kelvin: That said, that second half was still good. Paul: Just not exquisite. Which is a helluva complaint. Kelvin: We are difficult to please! Paul: We’re just easily spoiled. Kelvin: That’s a better way to put it! Paul: Want to score these puppies? Kelvin: The flashback episode looked wonderful and had some fascinating characterisation but seemed a bit pointless. So 3.5 for that one. The second episode took a while to get going but it also looked amazing, it was great to see Arby and Jessica Hyde again, and some interesting new mysteries were set out. I think 4 for that one. But both could have another .5 added. The only reason they don’t is that I think the rest of the series will be even better. Paul: I was also leaning toward 3.5 for the first episode, but it’s so damned rewatchable I think I’m going to go a little higher and give it a solid 4. And I was also thinking 4 for episode two. There were too many little plotting things that bugged me, especially with the return of Ian, Grant, and Becky. But it was still just an amazing piece of television. An amazing piece of art. Ah what the hell. I’ll kick it up to 4.5. Kelvin: Ha! I think that’s fair. Utopia 2.01 & 2.02Kelvin 2.01Paul 2.01Kelvin 2.02Paul 2.024.0Overall ScoreShare this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related 10 Responses Kelvin Green July 21, 2014 You know, I forgot to mention it and only looking at the pictures now jogged my memory but that first episode reminded me an awful lot of Don’t Look Now. Perhaps it was the bleak wintriness of it, or the Italian locations, or the obsessive, damaged, characters. Log in to Reply Paul Brian McCoy July 21, 2014 Oh yeah. Any of those would do the trick! Log in to Reply George July 21, 2014 For me, it brought back this great movie. Probably because I think the actual square used in Utopia appears in that film. Log in to Reply George July 21, 2014 11 Log in to Reply George July 21, 2014 (Retyping.) I don’t think the 1970s episode is superfluous (although I agree it might have been good as a standalone Christmas Special type thing). It establishes an emotional connection between Carvel and Milner. Without that, two scenes – telling Arby his father was incredible and then being soft on him when he declines to join, saying to Jessica “What have we done to you?” – wouldn’t make sense, because: Carvel would just be the guy who did “the drawings of a madman”, Arby would just be a defected defective hit man, and Jessica would just be a Janus-recepticle. (And she says she’s the one who ensured Arby wasn’t just “got rid off’ when his father disappeared.) We’re seeing more of Milner here, she’s a more rounded character, and it all holds together a bit better with the idea of her having attachments I think. Log in to Reply Paul Brian McCoy July 21, 2014 That’s a good call. It does build up the emotional connections and makes those scenes resonate. It also kind of makes me think they may be bringing Carvel back as crazy Anton! Log in to Reply George July 21, 2014 Anton = Carvel, yes I reckon you’re right. They’re not trying very hard to hide that; I reckon it’ll be confirmed next episode surely. Wonder how they’ll introduce the info? Meanwhile, Dugdale’s story should be interesting. He puts the photograph away; is he being blackmailed into doing this? The idea that he and Geoff might get together once it all starts getting out of control for Geoff is quite appealing. Love that creepy office. I love how Utopia is structured such that anything could happen in that way: Arby’s conversion means anyone might change sides; we know that any character might die even if they seem major (Lee, although he didn’t); anyone might not be quite what we thought (Letts turned out not to be a big controller guy after all; even The Assistant wasn’t quite as our switched-on guesses might have suggested). Kelvin Green July 22, 2014 I’m certain he’s Carvel. George July 24, 2014 Well, I’m looking forward to your review of episode three now… Kelvin Green July 22, 2014 Good points! Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.