Utopia 1.04 Review

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

Paul Brian McCoy: This week, Episode 4 of Dennis Kelly's phenomenal Channel 4 series, Utopia, debuted, but there was subtle yet significant change behind the scenes. Instead of the firm hand of director Marc Munden, this episode was helmed (as I assume the final two will be) by the directing team of Alex Garcia Lopez and Wayne Che Yip

Their most notable work before this was 3 of the first 4 episodes of Misfits Series 3 and four episodes of Secret Diary of a Call Girl Series 4.

Kelvin Green: I notice you say "firm hand" there. Do you mean to suggest that the programme lost something in the transition to the new directors?

Paul: I'm afraid I did.

Kelvin: Interesting! I felt that the episode was losing my interest a little, until the last ten minutes or so, when it grabbed me again. What did you think went wrong?

Paul: To be fair, I don't really think it went wrong. If I hadn't noted the change in the credits, I'm not sure I would have been able to put my finger on what was different. But there was definitely a little bit off from the previous three episodes.

The most significant thing was that I didn't really notice a narrative purpose behind some of the directorial choices. Where Munden was using the settings and framing his shots to help provide meaning and connections between characters and themes, this week it just seemed kind of random.

Kelvin: That's interesting. I can see that. This episode seemed much less dreamlike and more conventional than the others, I thought.

Paul: A great example of this was when they finally made it to the manor house where most of the episode is set. There are some lovely shots as the lighting reveals the setting, but some of it is so abstract that it's more like tricks with the light than something purposeful.

Wilson (Adeel Akhtar) shining his flashlight up into a chandelier was pretty, but I don't know that it added anything to the narrative. So it's not really a bad thing, it's just more about the look than the story.

Or maybe I'm just being obsessive.

Kelvin: No, I can understand that. The thing that jumped out at me the most -- although you did prompt me -- was that the episode was much darker than the previous ones. The bright colours were all there still, but everything seemed to have a blue filter on it, like in old films when they wanted to simulate night.

That, I suspect, was quite deliberate.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but even in the first three episodes, Letts' office was this murky, dark place, and I wonder if the darkening of everything in episode four is a visual sign that the protagonists are getting closer to the heart of the conspiracy of which Letts is part.

Paul: It could be. Looking back at previous episodes, I noticed that even though it was dark and murky, there was still enough ambient light to provide texture and highlights to the room. Not so this week.

And there was also Becky's "We're as bad as them now" line.

Thematically it works, but technically it could just as easily been sloppy lighting that luckily can be read thematically.

Kelvin: Indeed. It could just have been a production error!

Paul: I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, though. Mainly due to the strength of the writing. Another directorial choice that jumped out at me was the use of handheld cameras for a few scenes - mainly involving Grant (Oliver Woollford), for some reason.

There were at least two scenes where the camera moved in and around the action in a way that it really hasn't done before.

Kelvin: Oh, I hadn't noticed that.

Paul: Munden would occasionally move the camera into the scene, but it was always (at least to my memory) smooth motions, a pan left, right, up or down, or a slow zoom in or out. Unless it was an action moment like Jessica (Fiona O'Shaughnessy) strangling the Tramp.

Kelvin: Yes, that's my recollection too. I don't remember too many weird angles in this episode either, like those odd shots from behind Jessica's head.

It was less off-kilter.

Paul: Yes, except for one or two shots, like as they pull away from the manor and Arby (Neil Maskell) steps into frame. The camera angle was slightly off and it stood out from the rest of the episode because of it.

Kelvin: I suppose we'll have a better idea with the next episode whether the changes were the result of a deliberate choice. I hope they are.

Paul: Me too.

Kelvin: Even if I can't fathom what that choice might be.

Paul: There were still plenty of traditional (for this show) camera moves and shot set-ups, but to me they just felt like they were being used because that's the style of the thing and no other real reason.

Kelvin: I did also notice that those distant, panoramic shots seem to have disappeared.

Paul: There were a couple, but they didn't serve any purpose other than to establish a scene or two. There were more multiple shots of things like plants, or sky, or birds flying to set scenes.

Kelvin: Yes, the most striking thing about them before was that they weren't establishing shots.

Paul: Exactly.

Kelvin: They were weird and unusual, often in the middle of dialogue. Here, not so much.

Paul: There were always multiple readings possible.

This is like listening to a cover band. A good cover band, but a cover band.

Kelvin: Oh, that's a good analogy.

Paul: And I want to stress that I still liked it. The work was excellent compared to most things on television, but it just wasn't quite up to what's come before. Munden did the heavy lifting and now Lopez and Yip have to bring it home.

Kelvin: Yes, there was still a lot of really good stuff about the episode, even if the visual style wasn't as strong. I found it quite a touching episode, for example. There were some great character moments this week,

Paul: Yes. storywise, while being a little slower paced than the previous episodes, it was filled with great bits.

Kelvin: Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and Becky's (Alexandra Roach) date was perhaps the most prominent example. It was a sweet moment as it was, but then Jessica sneaks up and watches from afar, and instead of creepy, her desire to be part of something normal -- even though it wasn't normal at all -- was also a nice moment.

Paul: Agreed.

Kelvin: Also, Grant's genuine joy at seeing Jessica again was a wonderful bit.

Paul: As was her alien insect reaction. And the creepy kiss at gunpoint.

Plus we were right! Chocolate covered raisins!!!

Kelvin: I did smile at that bit!

Paul: I can't wait to watch Arby and Jessica interact next episode.

Kelvin: Oh yes. Arby seemed to show genuine pleasure at meeting Jessica again. He's fast becoming my favourite character, which is a bit odd considering he's a mass murderer.

Paul: Raisin Boy has become the Wild Card.

Kelvin: Yes, he could bring the whole thing down. They have done a great job of making him sympathetic.

Paul: They have. An amazing job, really. And I admit, I was a little disturbed and concerned that when he asked Letts (Stephen Rea) "Where is Jessica Hyde?" they were able to provide an address without even thinking hard.

I did love his and Jessica's exchange: "You're going to take me to the manuscript" at gunpoint. "Of course." Smile. "That's why I'm here."

Kelvin: Me too. It was a great moment. Someone else who was pleased to see Jessica.

I noticed this week, although I think it's been done earlier, that Jessica's weird posture, with her sticking her belly out, seems to echo Arby's more, er, rotund figure. Another point of similarity between the two.


Paul: Maybe. Her movements are just so inhuman at times... I don't know what to make of it. Similar to Arby's awkward movements but different. Their damages are different, but similar? I don't know.

Neither fit in with normal people AT ALL.

Kelvin: Yes, that much I'm sure is deliberate. It makes their meeting all the more interesting. I can't wait to see how it turns out.

On the subject of that address that Letts gave Arby, there is a weird contradiction in the way the conspiracy is portrayed. I noticed it most clearly this episode.

Paul: Go on.

Kelvin: They have the power and connections to kill anyone they like, but there's also something amateurish about them, with Letts running his own errands and Michael's lawyer threat seeming to have real weight.

I don't know what to make of it.

Paul: That's true. Part of it, I think, relates back to some of our observations from last week. We were wondering who could be the big bad that oversees Stephen Rea, and it turns out he's just a figurehead, really. The Assistant (James Fox) is actually giving him orders!

And the lawyer threat was being appeased just in case, I think. Releasing that info would cause trouble they'd rather avoid, but I don't think it would have amounted to much in the end.

It appears that these bad men in nice suits are just public faces after all.

Bad Men in Nice Suits is the name of my band, by the way.

Kelvin: It's a good name. Very 80's.

Paul: Our side project is The Public Faces.

Kelvin: Ha! First album: Where is Jessica Hyde?

Paul: Perfect! Or maybe "Psycho Pirate"?

Nah, that's a great single.

Kelvin: Ha!

Psycho Pirate is a DC character, is he not?

Paul: He is! That's the first thing I thought. He was also instrumental in Grant Morrison's Animal Man run.

Kelvin: My DC-fu is weak, but I thought I recognised the name and I wondered if it was a reference.

Paul: I wouldn't be surprised.

What did you think of this week's developments with our heroes?

Kelvin: All very interesting. Wilson is becoming quite ruthless, Becky's up to something but it's not as simple as it looked at first, and Ian's attempts at spycraft were endearing.

Paul: I can't believe some, one or two really, online reviewers were all complainy about how nothing happened this week.

Kelvin: Really? Loads happened!

Paul: I know! Wilson's character arc is one of my favorites so far. Watching him go from the comic relief to a seriously disturbed, almost shattered, fugitive has been gut-wrenching.

Kelvin: Yes, I was worried at first that he would be the comic relief throughout, but they've done so well in expanding the character. All of the characters, really.

Paul: I was starting to feel like even though Ian has been front and center for most of the show, he hadn't really been developing much. But then I realized that his growth is more toward emotional normalcy, oddly enough.

It's subtle, but nicely done.

Kelvin: Yes, he's growing up almost.

Paul: Exactly!

Kelvin: Yet, at the same time, he's playing out a spy fantasy.

Paul: Yeah. The other characters are becoming damaged, or revealing ulterior motives that push the development of their individual stories, but his is the least reactive and the most normative.

He's had the least actual interference with his family, too. No deaths or massive frame-ups to isolate him.

Kelvin: Yes, aside from being separated from his brother, he seems to be doing quite well on the run. Which is what his new MI5 handler tells him!

Paul: The ladies are all about Ian.

Kelvin: Yes, they do seem to be!

I think that's what Becky's "I'm in trouble!" was about too. Whatever her mission is, she's become attached to Ian.

Paul: She's out of pills, too. Whatever the pills are for.

Kelvin: I assume the disease that killed her father. She lost control of her hands for a moment this episode.

Paul: I thought that was happened there, but I wasn't sure. Makes sense. So her motives might not be as notorious and mysterious as they were hinted at.

Kelvin: I think there's still a bit of mystery in that it's not clear who her secret masters are. It doesn't seem to be the conspiracy, although that would explain how Letts got their location.

Paul: Next week should clear some of that up with her scheduled meeting.

Moving on to the newest recruit, Alice (Emilia Jones), I was a little concerned when she started going on about Crime and Punishment, thinking it might be a little heavy-handed. However, those final moments of the episode brought it all together for me.

I was afraid it was just going to be abstract stating of a theme, instead of actually influencing behavior. And for some reason, I wasn't expecting her to be the one to make that move.

Kelvin: Yes, Alice's breakdown was one of the parts of the episode that turned me off a little, but as you say, it culminated in a finale that was shocking even though you could see it coming much earlier.

Paul: I loved how the whole episode was framed with her trauma, from opening with her screams in the van to closing with the long shot of her gutshot victim. I'm sure there's something that could be said about the shotgun blast as symbolic recurrence of her earlier scream, but I don't want to get TOO clever clever.

Kelvin: Ha! Yes, it was her episode, I suppose. I think that's perhaps why I struggled with it a bit as I'm not sure the performance was up to it during most of the episode, aside from the opening and closing moments.

Paul: She did a pretty good job of mood swinging back and forth. And Grant's reactions were perfect mixes of astonishment and concern. Getting shoved into a caretaker role wasn't something I was expecting to see out of Grant.

Kelvin: Yes, I shouldn't be too harsh as it would be a difficult role to pull off for an adult let alone a child actor.

And I agree about Grant. It was interesting to see him adopt that more caring role, although we saw a flash of that right at the beginning of the series when he tidied up after his mother and covered her drunken body with a blanket.

Paul: I'd forgotten about that. Good point.

Kelvin: That little moment showed he wasn't just a thug, but yes, his scenes with Alice were a much more important expansion of that.

Paul: We forgot to mention it last week, but it looks like you were spot on with the Culling of Humanity explanation of what Utopia was referring to.

Kelvin: Perhaps. I still expect to see some, er, unexpected twists. I'm not sure I trust the speculation of a bunch of scared comic geeks.

(No offence, readers.)

Paul: True that. They seem to be putting the pieces together a bit easily.

Kelvin: Exactly. The scenes of them figuring out the plot strike me as a bit too Star Trek: The Next Generation to be authentic.

Paul: Me too. But I can see them going that way. It would bring all the threads together nicely. Just a bit predictably. I'm still not sold entirely on trusting Milner.

Kelvin: No, there are too many questions, too many mysteries. To be honest, I'm not even convinced that there is a conspiracy, at least in the form that everyone believes.

Which, by the way, is something I really like about the programme.

Paul: Well, somebody somewhere wanted that GCHN1 Protein inserted in as many foods as possible!

Kelvin: Indeed, but I'm wondering if it's not just a bunch of corrupt civil servants, rather than the global shadow government the protagonists have been told about by Milner (Geraldine James) and Jessica.

Paul: Hmm. Could be.

That's a stark contrast to the mysterious Secret Origin of Mr. Rabbit we heard last week.

And Monroe (Mitchell Mullen), the CEO of Pergus Holdings, reacted like Mr. Rabbit was very real.

Kelvin: That's true.

Paul: Speaking of corrupt civil servants, I guess the only character we haven't really touched on this week is Michael (Paul Higgins). Poor Michael.

Kelvin: Ah yes, poor, poor Michael. In many ways, the most heroic character.

Paul: And the most doomed.

Kelvin: He's tackling the conspiracy head on, despite what they might do to him. Although, as he says, he now has nothing to lose.

Paul: He worries me.

Kelvin: How so?

Paul: I just feel so bad for him. I don't want him to be destroyed.

Kelvin: Yes, I do fear for him. I think my worry is that they'll have him capitulate in the end, like the civil servants in The Killing.

Paul: I'm kind of expecting him to end up recruited, if only because it would defy expectation. I'm also curious about how his storyline is going to meet up with the others. If it will.

Kelvin: Yes, I'm still surprised that it hasn't connected yet. I wonder if there has already been a connection, but it's been so subtle that we didn't spot it.

Paul: I dunno. But I'm patient. I can wait for it.

Kelvin: Me too, and I'm loving the wait.

Paul: I love how our biggest (only?) complaint this week is that the excellent direction didn't have an extra level of narrative meaning.

Kelvin: It shows how good Utopia is.

Paul: It certainly does.

Kelvin: No offence, but I hope your lot don't remake it!

Paul: No offence taken. I hope the same thing.

Kelvin: Unless they get someone like Lynch to do it.

Paul: It would have to be someone like him, or it just wouldn't be worth attempting.

So are you ready to score this bad boy, or did we forget something?

Kelvin: I think we've covered most of the episode. I'm ready to give it a score.

Paul: I'm thinking a solid 4 stars this time. Mainly due to hiccups in the direction.

Kelvin: I wasn't bothered quite as much by that, so I'd like to go with a 4.5, but I don't think we have a 4.25 icon for the average, so I'll go with a 4 too.

Paul: To quote Grant, "Fookin' YES!"

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 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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