Sunday, 25 August 2013


What's a conspiracy thriller from Channel 4 doing with an entry on a comic book blog? It's not adapted from a comic, it doesn't focus on themes that are particularly synonymous with comic books, and it's not written by someone who even appears to have an interest in comics, let alone someone who's actually written one. It is, at first glance, a strange thing to include here.

Utopia is a part of the subgenre of shows that has become popular in recent years. It takes bits of alternate history and conspiracy thriller and whirls them together in a near future setting to produce something compelling. In Utopia’s case the near future sees a world plagued by food shortages and a skyrocketing global population. Setting it apart from its peers is the fact that the answers to everything regarding this conspiracy have been hidden in the original manuscripts of a comic book series called (cue metafictional gasp) Utopia.

The general idea is that the comic was written by one of the conspiracy’s architects after he went mad. Somehow this madman managed to script and draw a comic book and get a first issue published. The second, unreleased, issue is what the various factions in the show are after, as it reveals the truth of the conspiratorial plans.

Truth be told what we see of the comic doesn’t make it seem particularly interesting. It’s basically something to keep the narrative moving. Channel 4 missed a trick there. Had they brought in someone ambitious and or clever enough I’m sure a standalone issue two could have been produced that fitted in with the show and could have been sold to make the channel a little extra bunce.

There’s more to Utopia’s mention here than it featuring a comic book though. The show feels like it could have been written and worked as a comic. We frequently get stylish shots that wouldn’t look out of place in a comic. Even something as simple as a trip to a petrol station looks like it would be at home in the four colour world thanks to the way it’s shot here: the screen filled with primary colours and every movement happening for a reason. It’s a very well-produced programme.

It’s that use of colour that’s particularly comic book. I’m not in any way knowledgeable about technology but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the show had been treated visually to emphasise certain colours more. Skies are a brilliant blue, leafy fields are an intense green, lilac fields are an intense shade of… erm… liliac. The opening scene alone is enough to tell you that the show is going to be like a comic book in motion, featuring as they do a memorable set (a comic book store, no less), actors who wouldn’t look out of place in a comic wearing clothes that are incredibly distinct, and a visual homage to the red blood smear that Watchmen made famous. Even the show’s logo is striking: Utopia written in all caps on a bright yellow background (look up at the top if you don't believe me). You can envisage it on the shelf in a bookstore.  

If it were a comic book Utopia would be a grisly one. Violence comes often and is almost always gory. Across the six episodes an astonishingly high body count wracks up and there are some particularly gruesome scenes. The first episode features an unnerving torture scene involving a spoon and a man’s eyes while episode three boasts a high school shooting. These are not things that should be glorified or included in works of fiction lightly. Thankfully they make it into Utopia for a reason, but it still marks this as a show that’s very much for a mature audience. Channel 4, quite possibly the Vertigo of British television.

Being that it’s in the subgenre that it is Utopia is obliged to use certain standard character tropes. There’s the social misfit unstoppable thug, the computer expert who can hack anything, the girl who’s not all she appears, the nutter child, the secret agent who’s not all they appear, and the outcast who operates on the fringes of existence, well versed in the ways of surviving the rigours of their near future hellworld. Such familiar characters can make for predictability in places but as the cast is uniformly excellent (with the sole exception of Emilia Jones’s dreadful portrayal of schoolgirl Alice) the show gets away with it.

Also, by using such well-worn character tropes Utopia is able to get on with characterisation quicker: we know what computer hacker Wilson Wilson is all about within about three lines because he is so clearly being written as a standard issue computer hacker. That frees writer-creator Dennis Kelly and his team up to drop in information specific to Wilson. It also allows him to more easily wrong-foot us later on.

This approach is suitably comic book. There are dozens of comics scattered on the shelves these days that fit the near future conspiracy thriller tag, and Utopia further ties itself to the printed world by giving us characters that don’t tend to appear on television outside of comic adaptions. Mr Rabbit, one of the men who masterminded the conspiracy, the aforementioned Wilson Wilson, and Jessica Hyde, the character who operates outside of society’s conventions to get the job done, all spring immediately to mind there. They all seem far more comic book than TV.

Events in the sixth episode were deliberately written so as to leave things open for a second series should Channel 4 wish to commission one (which they’ve since done). That meant tying up certain plot elements while leaving others dangling. One of the threads that seemed to be neatly dealt with was the importance of the comic book manuscript. That means I’m unlikely to cover Utopia’s second series on this blog, but I’ll still be watching it. And I strongly recommend the first to anyone who likes good TV. Being a comic book reader is just a bonus.

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