Two cities. One inspector. And a murder that uncovers some dangerous secrets. Yes, after months of anticipation, The City & The City has arrived on BBC Two, and where does one even begin? Based on China Miéville’s novel of the same name, the four-part drama — which starts off in fictional city of Beszel — follows Inspector Tyador Borlú (David Morrissey), who is investigating the murder of young girl, Mahalia. When evidence suggests that Mahalia came from Ul Qoma — a city that shares a dangerous relationship with Beszel — Borlú realises that this case is much bigger than he ever could’ve imagined — and that it might have links to his missing wife. As I’m sure you’ve guessed from the description, The City & The City isn’t your average BBC drama. Arguably the broadcaster’s most cinematic outing yet, the series seamlessly blends science-fiction with your typical cop drama and, surprisingly, the result is something wonderful.
Perhaps a show made for the binge-watching era, The City & the City is incredibly complex and requires the viewer’s full attention. Being unfamiliar with the source material, I had no idea what to expect but, alas, the show grips you from the opening scene and has you asking all the right questions. What’s going on? Who are Breach? What’s up with the segregation between Beszel and Ul Qoma? Screenwriter Tony Grisoni doesn’t leave us in the dark for too long, cleverly revealing the answers to these questions only when the narrative absolutely calls for it. In other words, we’re given the information just before we’re totally confused. Yes, it’s a lot to take in, but once you’re familiar with the conflict between these divided cities, you’ll not want to back out.
Morrissey delivers a great performance as Borlú, who’s continually conflicted throughout. Like every good protagonist, Borlú has his own demons, and they all stem from the disappearance of his wife, and he’s certain that her disappearance has something to do with the mysterious Breach —an organisation that manifests when someone illegally crosses from Beszel to Ul Qoma. The troubled inspector’s interest in this divide is essentially what spurs the story on. He’s literally caught between two worlds. Despite this fictional setting being worlds away from our reality, there is much that we can relate to in The City & The City — especially Borlu and his conflict. Moreover, much like The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopic setting is used to intensify the political and social themes, which are more relevant to us now than ever before.
Tom Shankland’s direction certainly deserves a mention. Even if The City & The City was a total disaster (which, thankfully, it’s not), it’s a visual masterpiece. The four-part drama is incredibly cinematic, and I must commend the creative decision to blur the backdrops, as it only intensifies the fact that everything in Ul Qoma is off limits. It’s almost as if we, the viewers, are not permitted to look either.
My only gripe with City & The City is the voice-over, which is only seemingly invoked when it’s time for the audience to learn some information about the dystopian world and its laws. I’m not against voice-over, but when it’s nothing more than a tool to deliver information to the audience it comes off as lazy. ‘90s dramedy Ally McBeal would be an example of when voiceover is used properly. The appeal of Ally was that we, the viewers, were inside the young lawyer’s neurotic mind, meaning that voice-over was essential to the story. In The City & The City, I don’t know why we’re inside Borlú’s head and as a result, the voice-over felt out of place. I haven’t read the book, so perhaps I’m too hasty in my judgement but there were certainly other ways to deliver the complex information to the audience.
The City & The City isn’t the BBC’s first foray into a science-fiction/dystopian genre — how could we forget Hard Sun? — but it’s arguably the first time that the narrative has lived up to the concept. Hard Sun was great in theory — a seemingly compelling storyline and damaged protagonists. However, dodgy dialogue and poor execution let it down. Thankfully, The City & The City succeeds where Hard Sun failed. Voice-overs aside, a strong performance from Morrissey and an incredibly intriguing narrative puts The City & The City ahead of its competition.
It’s been a tough year for British drama. With a few exceptions like Kiri and Save Me, there haven’t been many success stories. The City & The City won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but whether you’re a fan of sci-fi, or someone who prefers compelling character-driven drama, this four-part series has a bit of something for everyone. It’s certainly more niche than BBC’s usual outings, but I was pleasantly surprised by the first episode, and I have high-hopes for the next three.
The City & The City continues next Friday on BBC Two.
Contributed by Stephen Patterson