Thursday, 24 January 2013

UTOPIA – episode two


I reviewed the feature-length premiere of this six-part thriller last week for MSN, and enjoyed it a great deal. The second episode was less engrossing, which tends to be the case for shows of this nature. It couldn't impress us in the same way, but still managed to maintain a dazzling level of technical proficiency. The direction by Marc Munden is frankly superb, with gorgeous wide angle shots and an almost luminescent colour palette at times. Stylistically you really can't fault this show, and it envelops you with a strange tone you don't tend to experience outside of the movies.

I also appreciated how this episode refused to keep secrets, as we already have a pretty good understanding of what The Network is. They're a Cold War-originating black-ops outfit run by geneticist Philip Carvel and the codenamed 'Mr Rabbit', created to combat Soviet germ warfare in the 1970s. Carvel was tortured to keep working on projects when the Cold War ended, changed his name to Mark Deyn, went crazy as a result of his ordeals, and finally created the Utopia Experiment graphic novels during "art therapy" (which, bizarrely, seem to predict the future). We even learned who Jessica Hyde (Fiona O'Shaughnessy) actuall is: she's Carvel's daughter, who's been on the run from The Network since the age of four.

Lots of answers went some way to inuring this episode against too much criticism, but it was noticeable how most of the characters didn't get much development, and how often the story told us things without showings us things. It was something of an awkward info-dump at times. At least Dugdale's (Paul Higgins) subplot felt much better this week, as he's being manipulated by his bosses (who flexed their muscles by framing his mistress for a journalist's murder), and Neil Maskell makes for a seriously unsettling villain as hitman Arby. In fact, both gormless Arby and robotic Jessica give the entire drama a very odd feel—almost as if they're tripping on drugs and this is all playing out in their heads.

In recounting the events of episode two, I feel happier about Utopia than I did actually watching it. I think that's because this week's events didn't justify the 75-minute runtime (including ads), as there were plenty of times when the pace dropped to a crawl. I'm also a little concerned that we've had two torture scenes in as many episodes, even if episode two's (involving a female agent doused in water and threatened with electrocution) wasn't as unwavering in its intentions to shock viewers compared to episode one's ocular trauma.

I hope we get more depth from the characters of runaways Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and Becky (Alexandra Roach) soon, and some clarity about the Utopia Experiments comic. The idea of a mythical manuscript that foretells the future is the hook of the whole series, but I'm not sure how it connects to anything just yet. Or why it's of value to an organisation created to defend the nation from biological warfare. That's probably as it should be, admittedly, because there's still four episodes left to explain things... but there's something about Utopia that has me feeling uncertain. Style over substance is a common complaint to make, but it's something that might be applied to Utopia soon... unless the narrative and characters start to outshine its astonishing visuals, excellent locations, and quirky soundtrack.

written by Dennis Kelly / directed by Marc Munden / 22 January 2012 / Channel 4
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