Utopia 1.03 Review

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


Episode 1.03

Paul Brian McCoy: Last week we were commenting on the way the villains of Dennis Kelly's new Channel 4 drama, Utopia, were a bit one-note (although I don't think we went that far in describing them). They didn't seem worried about playing anything close to the vest when it came to being evil bastards. Stephen Rea and James Fox were pretty much the epitome of cold, heartless Bad Men in Nice Suits.

This week kicked off with a bit of softening on some of those points and then a brutal reestablishing of their Evil Cred. What did you think about the opening scene with Rea and how that unfolded.

Kelvin Green: It was as shocking and memorable an opening scene as you could ask for.

I was a bit surprised to see, given how the recent shootings in the US have been prominent in the news here, such a graphic portrayal of a school shooting.

What's weird is that coming back after the second advert break, there was a warning about upcoming scenes of violence; that's quite unusual and I can't think of any time I've seen that before. Yet there was no such warning before that opening scene.

That's not a complaint, by the way; I thought it made the shock of the scene more effective.

Paul: It was definitely shocking. My thought process as the camera panned down the row of bathroom stalls to the one where Arby (Neil Maskell) was sitting was something like, "Those stalls are really narrow. Those sinks are really small. OH SHIT HE'S IN A SCHOOL!" and I knew something horrifying was about to happen.

Especially given how reluctant Rea had seemed in the opening shots before giving the order.

Even while it was happening, I wasn't sure I could believe what I was seeing.

Kelvin: It was a brave move. It makes me wonder whether there will be edits in any US showing.

Paul: At this point, I'm just wondering if it'll make it over here at all. It took forever for Misfits to cross over, and it had a pretty substantial fan base by then. I hope that this is being as well-received.

Kelvin: It is doing very well with the critics and I keep having conversations with people about the show, so that's a good sign. The Guardian newspaper is doing a Utopia blog. I only remember them doing that for Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, Homeland and The Killing.

Paul: I read where there were only around 30 complaints about the school shooting scene. With around a million viewers. Sounds like people are buying into the quality and not reacting impulsively to the edgier, more possibly offensive bits.

Kelvin: Yes. It's weird to say it, but I thought the shooting scene was filmed in quite a tasteful way. You saw the teacher getting shot, but all the other killings were off-screen. It relied more on sound and the viewers' imagination.


Paul: Like every single shot of this show, it was beautifully staged.

Plus it had the added benefit of allowing the violence to actually begin impacting the killer, humanizing him if only a little. He didn't want to do it, but it's his job. It's his life. That later scene of Arby sitting in his horrid little windowless room was kind of heartbreaking.

Kelvin: It reminded me of a line from Mark Millar's run on The Authority, in which a trapped Midnighter demoralises an opponent who is about to kill him by talking about the life of an assassin, of going out to kill then returning to a cold and featureless cell.

Paul: I loved the way they made Arby's ever-present candy the trigger for his spark of self-awareness. It became something more than a writerly affectation for the character in one swift move.

Kelvin: Yes, I was surprised to see not only Rea's character's reluctance to give the order, but also Arby's development. Which then carried on throughout the episode. Culminating in another surprise, as Arby and Jessica (Fiona O'Shaughnessy) meet, and only in the third episode.

Paul: Jessica's another character that really developed in an interesting, almost parallel, way this week. Her seduction of Grant (Oliver Woollford) had more than a little bit of alien, predatory insect-like quality to it, until finally softening a bit. Leading up to that emotional bombshell moment where we realize that both she and Arby are looking for something that they lost long ago. And it's the same thing, really.

Kelvin: What I found interesting about Jessica's development this episode was that in the scene in which she seduces -- and I want to say "tries to win over" but it is a seduction isn't it? -- Grant, there is a moment where it looks like she is going to kill the boy, but then something stops her.

She almost becomes Arby, just as he's going the other way and softening up.

Paul: Exactly. And Arby's moment with Rea, asking about Carvell, his family, and whether Carvell hurt Jessica too, was amazing.

"Did he do things to her? Is she like me?"

Kelvin: Yes, I'm so impressed with Neil Maskell's acting in this.

Paul: He's fantastic.

Kelvin: It seemed like such a limited character, the near-autistic assassin, but he's brought so much to the role.

Paul: It makes me want to track down other work he's done. Kill List was excellent, of course, but I don't even remember who he was in Doghouse.

He and Michael Smiley were both in Ben Wheatley's short piece for The ABCs of Death that released on VOD this week, and that was a treat.

Kelvin: Oh, I didn't know about that. Is he in A Field in England?

Paul: He's not on the IMDB page, but that may not be finalized.

Kelvin: Shame. He has been in "popular" police-based soap opera The Bill many, many times though.

Paul: Piggy and the remake of Pusher both look interesting. I may check them out if I get the chance.

Kelvin: I was going to watch Pusher because my favourite band Orbital did the soundtrack, but I never got around to it. They don't tend to pick the best film projects, alas.

Paul: I should probably see the original Pusher before watching the remake.

What did you think about how the confrontation between Arby and Jessica played out?

Kelvin: I thought it was fascinating. Utopia is the kind of show where I would not be surprised to see Jessica get gunned down in the third episode. Yet, it wasn't predictable.

Paul: Too true. I had no idea how that was going end. I really wasn't expecting a strange bit of bonding (maybe?) and Arby just walking away.

Did he ask "Where is Jessica Hyde?" as he lowered the gun and left?

Kelvin: I LOVED Arby's "Where is Jessica Hyde?"

Such a clever way of doing it.

Paul: I was stunned and don't really know what to make of it.

Kelvin: In four words, they showed so much about Arby's thought processes and personality.

Paul: Help me out here. I'm confused.

Kelvin: Go on.

Paul: Was that him showing a spark of independence and letting her live? Was he seeing himself in her so she kind of disappeared from his radar? It was a great moment, but I'm not sure how to read it.

I assume that it was an echo of his seeing himself in the child who dropped the candy at the beginning, when she says she was looking for her father in the manuscript. But I wasn't sure exactly why he let her live.

Kelvin: I read it as Arby deciding to let her live because of him identifying with her to some extent. Whether it was just a one-off or if she's got a free pass now, I don't know.

Also, given how weird the show is, it wouldn't surprise me if she's not Jessica Hyde at all, and Arby somehow knows it.

Paul: There was that, too. Maybe she was also in the consignment of children from Bulgaria. It was mysterious and effective. It just left me a little confused.

Kelvin: I think it's supposed to.

I'm starting to fall in love with this programme, and one of the things I love is that they brought the "hero" and "villain" together for a confrontation in the third episode, when every other show would leave that for the finale.

Paul: As with everything we've been confused by or commented on as odd, I assume we'll get at least a partial explanation in the next episode. I think part of the reason for that is that the roles of "hero" and "villain" in this aren't as distinct as in a traditional show.

Kelvin: Yes, as we said last time, the pieces move around the board a lot.

Paul: Maybe "victims" and "victimizers" would be more accurate, but even that isn't quite fluid enough.

Kelvin: Yes, there's so much movement, and that makes it so interesting to watch.

Paul: Of course, there are the straight-up baddies, like that Grant Morrison looking would-be assassin at the chapel.

Kelvin: That was so odd. Who was he, I wonder?

Odd in a good way, I should add.

Paul: I have no idea.

Kelvin: He comes in, threatens our heroes, blathers some stuff that suggests there are even more sides in this conflict, then exits stage left, pursued by a bullet.

Paul: Yeah, I'm not sure whether he's going to actually prove to be anything other than a way for Milner (Geraldine James) to dramatically enter the scene.

Kelvin: I think he will. He wasn't working for Arby's lot, I don't think.

Paul: Regardless, it brings us to our main group of heroes/victims, Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Wilson (Adeel Akhtar), and Becky (Alexandra Roach).

Kelvin: Yes, who have split off from Grant and Jessica again. Movement, once more.

Paul: I liked seeing the contrasting attempts at seduction by Becky and Jessica. That speech by Jessica about how people will always let you down, just after Grant hears Becky and Ian having sex in the other room was perfection.

Especially with the way the director, Marc Munden, allows the lens flares to overwhelm the scene from behind Jessica's head, making it play more hypnotic and magical than it may have otherwise.

And did you notice the way she took her seat on the floor to talk to Grant? It was a weird cross-legged with elbows out kind of pose that again made me think of an insect.

Kelvin: Yes, the strong morning light is coming through the gaps in the curtains, and you've got the specks of fluff and dust floating about, and Fiona O'Shaughnessy is a bit odd-looking anyway, so the whole thing had this otherworldly feel.

Paul: We saw the light flare up again later behind Arby's head in the hallway as he was about to confront Jessica. Another subtle way of connecting them without overtly stating anything.

Kelvin: The lighting in this show is amazing.

Paul: Every aspect of the production amazes me.

Did you notice how when they were in the forest with Milner that it wasn't a natural growth expanse of trees? They were planned and planted in rows, visually reinforcing the idea that things were falling into place and becoming ordered now that Milner was on the scene

Or at least that's what I got from it.

Kelvin: It's so well-constructed, isn't it? Intelligent.

Paul: We even saw the return of putting people in boxes at that moment where Becky and Ian start to get frisky and isolate Grant, leading to that final shot of them having sex, but framed through a tiny opening in the door.

It's just brilliant.

Kelvin: Yes, I noticed that one. It's so good.

Paul: And then we have Michael off to steal biological evidence that can be tested, moving into the foggy landscape where everything and everyone becomes indistinct.

Kelvin: Yes, and it's shot so that we never see any of the other people on the island. They're either off in the fog, or they're round a corner.

Paul: A nice contrast after the tight focuses of his home bathroom and the lab.

Kelvin: "Are you having a wank?"

Paul: Ha!

Kelvin: Poor Jen (Ruth Gemmell) (Michael's wife). She's so likeable.

Paul: "She's great. Just great. It would be such a shame to see her raped."

Kelvin: Brrr.

Paul: Loved in that final scene how well-lit the room seemed while the Minister, Geoff (Alistair Petrie), was chatting with Jen, but as soon as she leaves and the door closes, we go back to heavy shadows and half-light.

Kelvin: Yes, again the lighting is amazing. I never saw the whole of The Devil's Whore, so now I want to go back and give it another try, based on how impressive Utopia has been.

Paul: I'm definitely going to check it out soon. I've had a copy for ages, but never got around to watching it.

Kelvin: I remember that The Crimson Petal and the White was beautiful and interesting in a similar way.

Paul: Is that worth a look? I don't even know what it's about.

Kelvin: It's essentially an 1870's version of Pretty Woman, only good.

Paul: Ha! 

Kelvin: Romola Garai's in it, and The IT Crowd's Chris O'Dowd is surprisingly effective in a dramatic role. It was very good, but I missed the final episode.

Paul: The cast list has some impressive surprises: Gillian Anderson and Mark Gatiss in a couple of episodes, as well as Richard E. Grant.

I should really check it out too.

Kelvin: I should make the effort to catch that last episode.

Did you notice how Grant kept on getting hurt this week?

Both Becky and Jessica had these intimate, nurturing moments with him, but as they tried to get to what they wanted, they put pressure on him, hurting him.

Paul: Yes! Very nice touch.

I loved that "Am I going to be normal after all this?" moment, where Jessica looks amused, chuckles and responds with "Let's drink some booze!" Just to get him drunk and try to get information from him.

Kelvin: Then almost threatening him with torture, then possibly considering killing him, then softening.

Paul: Grant lying in the bathroom, having just vomited, moaning about wanting his mum was Jessica's "kid with candy" moment, I think.

Kelvin: Exactly. They're raisins, by the way.

Paul: Oh!

Kelvin: I think.

Paul: I'll have to pause the video where they spill on the floor and check.

Kelvin: I think they're Sun-Maid raisins.

Paul: They're definitely chocolate covered.

Kelvin: What do you think readers? What is Arby eating?

Paul: Chocolate covered raisins sounds right.

Kelvin: A nice compromise!

Paul: On the floor, they look like little beans. My first thought was, "That's how you would fend off a vampire! Make him stop to count them!"

Kelvin: That was what I was thinking too!

We are such nerds.

Paul: Can't argue with that.

We should probably start to wrap this long, winding review! Any highlights you want to point out before drawing to a close?

Kelvin: We haven't talked much about Milner, but then we don't know much about her.

Paul: Her "Secret Origin of Mr. Rabbit" wasn't what I was expecting. Nor was I expecting the camera to slowly rise up until we were looking at a cloud-filled sky as she promised Ian that finding Rabbit was the way to make it all go away and allow them to go home.

Made me think that wouldn't be the end at all. And nobody would be safe.

Kelvin: Yes, and it's interesting how for her it's all about getting Mr. Rabbit, and she doesn't care about anything else. I like how everyone's focus is on little bits of the wider picture.

Paul: I loved Wilson's reactions in the chapel when he had the gun on "Grant Morrison" and then when Milner had him blow the dead man's head off. The expressions and the groans were so instinctual and uncontrolled.

Kelvin: Yes, Wilson still hasn't had much to do, but when he does appear, it's good stuff.

Paul: Now that he's back on his feet. I was worried last week.

There was also that beautiful shot of Jessica, centered and full front with children's pictures tacked up on the wall behind her, in that moment where Grant pulls the manuscript from under the mattress.

Her gentle, "Can I have it, please?" was very nice.

Kelvin: Yes, and it was a big moment for her.

A thawing.

Paul: Especially with DREAM on the wall behind Grant's head in the opposite shot.

Kelvin: Yes!

I was also pleased to see the episode end with poor, downtrodden Michael scoring a minor victory against the conspiracy.

Paul: God damn it is so rare to find a show like this with just so much going on on every single creative level. The writing, the acting, the direction, the lighting, the music, everything.

I also couldn't help but think that this is what that last series of Torchwood dreamed of being. Or Kelly saw that and decided to do it better.

Kelvin: Yes! It's like a good Torchwood!

Paul: I think I'm back up to 4.5 this week. Especially after the Torchwood comparison.

That mysterious Grant Morrison lookalike is the only thing that puts me off a perfect score. However, if history tells me anything, that will be explained later on.

Kelvin: I'm tempted to give it the full five. I had no problems with the episode, aside from really minor things like Wilson Wilson being sidelined.

So yes, five out of five for me.

Paul: We need a 4.75 star.

Kelvin: Oh dear. I've broken Comics Bulletin.

Paul: Tell you what. To save the site, I'll bump it up to a 5, too. That way everybody wins!

Kelvin: Huzzah!

Paul: I'll say the daringness of the opening offsets any doubts I have about shooting Grant Morrison in the head.

Kelvin: That's going to attract some odd search results!

Utopia airs Tuesdays at 10:00 on Channel 4 in the UK.

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 for Kindle 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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