In the first series of Dennis Kelly’s Utopia the entire audience was led to believe that a plucky group of youngsters, a shadowy group known as The Network and a fugitive named Jessica Hyde were all searching for a graphic novel called ‘The Utopia Experiments’. The book, written by Jessica’s father Philip Carvel, was thought to have contained the genetic make-up for a vaccine known as ‘Janus’ which would sterilise all but 10% of the human race. But, in one of the first series’ final scenes, it was revealed that it was Jessica who The Network wanted as Carvel had injected her with the vaccine before he’d died.
As Kelly set up plenty of twists at the end of series one he decided to answer them in a unique way. Instead of jumping back into a modern day setting, episode one took us back to the 1970s where we learnt how Janus was first conceived. With the modern day Milner (Geraldine James) only having been revealed as a bad guy in the final moments of series one, it was interesting to see her true colours. The 1970s version of Milner (Rose Leslie) was part Bond Girl/part serial killer as she brought in to Carvel’s (Tom Burke) theories about over-population. Although Carvel felt that cutting down the human race was a good thing it was harder for him to deal with it when Milner started to bump off people he knew. The separation of ideals and emotions was a recurring theme throughout both episodes of Utopia with the members of The Network talking about killing others like they were arranging a lunch date. The one emotional attachment that Milner found hardest to let go was her admiration of Philip, who attempted to betray her on several occasions. Even in their final interaction, during the Three Mile Island Explosion, you could tell that Milner didn’t want Philip to suffer any more than he needed to. These flashback scenes showed that Milner wasn’t just your average villain but instead was an idealist who killed people to achieve an ultimately great goal.
The prequel episode also gave us some context into the characters of Arby and Jessica both of whom are children in the 1970s. Originally known as Pietre, Arby was a blank-faced toddler who struggled to speak and who had been heavily medicated by his father. Carvel essentially used his son for several thought experiments involving pet rabbits and raisins. The scenes involving the rabbits were quite extreme but at the same time fans of Utopia would be used to these sort of horrific moments. Pietre’s part in these experiments made him even more distant and therefore he was easily brainwashed by The Network after he was abandoned by his father. As we learnt last series, the name Arby was taken from the initials of Raisin Boy and that nickname now makes a lot more sense. In the flashback scenes, Jessica is presented as a lively young girl who is taught to shoot at an early age by her guardian Cristos. The younger actors that were chosen to play Jessica and Arby bore a great resemblance to their older counterparts and therefore it was easy to believe they grew into one another.
One of my issues with bringing back Utopia was that there didn’t seem like there was anywhere left to go. But Kelly thought otherwise and based these two episodes around a modification that Philip supposedly made to Janus before he went to the insane asylum. Currently keeping Jessica (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) as their prisoner, The Network believe that she knew of this modification and are inflicted all sorts of torture on her. Despite being the one held captive, the majority of the guards are terrified of Jessica and she is treated like some would treat a serial killer. Jessica’s latest torturer Ross (Allan Corduner) is approaching her slightly differently and befriends her in order to learn the truth. But Jessica once again gets the upper hand and uses a Taser as well as pages from The Bible to exact her revenge on The Network.
The other major Network scheme is the plan to roll out Janus over the world at the same time in order to achieve their ultimate aim. To do this they create ‘V Day’ a charity appeal that would mean that everybody got the supposed Russian Flu Vaccine at the same time. ‘V Day’ is a perfect take on the celebrity appeal videos which appear on the television fairly frequently in this day and age. However, I don’t believe that there is any conspiracy behind Comic Relief that relates to the sterilisation of the majority of the world’s population. The Network also plan to bump off sleazy scientist Donaldson (Michael Maloney) who is currently still bribing Becky (Alexandra Roache) to keep her alive. To achieve their aim they attempt to use Arby (Neil Maskell) however it seems that he’s quite content in his new life as a suburban stepdad. The reappearance of Lee (Paul Ready) changes everything as he threatens Arby’s new life and his new family. Arby’s new hatred for The Network means that he has now become the protector for our main characters who all reunite before the end credits.
Possibly the best thing about Utopia is that it doesn’t fit in to any one genre which makes it a com-pletely unique drama. Kelly’s script is clever, funny and contains brutal violence with each element being well-balanced throughout. The first episode brilliantly portrayed The Network’s influence over the government at the time and how they were basically responsible for Margaret Thatcher’s election victory. Meanwhile episode two contained a plethora of movie references with Jessica’s incarceration being a great homage to Silence of the Lambs and one of Arby’s lines being reminiscent of a famous quote from The Terminator. The theme at the heart of Utopia ,that of over-population ,is an interesting debate in and of itself and is a problem that everybody has a viewpoint on. As well as a brilliant script, Utopia is visually arresting with both episodes having very different colour schemes. The first episode, set during the Winter of Discontent, contains mainly drained out colours which make the majority of the scenes seem awfully drab. This is in stark contrast to the second episode in which bright colours are utilised most notably shades of yellow which appear in almost every scene. The production design as a whole is brilliant with Jessica’s cloud-adjacent prison cell being a notable triumph.
As with series one, the ensemble cast of Utopia are all at the top of their game and really make you care about their characters. Neil Maskell must take most of the credit as he’s successfully turned Arby from cold-blooded hitman into a sympathetic protector. Maskell perfectly portrays Arby’s childlike innocence which is now being used for good rather than evil. As the younger versions of the character, siblings Mason and Harley Rooney perfect the blank stare that became synonymous with Arby throughout series one. Meanwhile Geraldine James begins to incorporate elements of Rose Leslie’s version of Milner as the character has shown her true colours. Tom Burke really anchored the prequel episode well and was great at conveying Carvel’s descent into madness. Utopia even had an impressive supporting cast whose roll call included Sylvestra Le Touzel, Ian McDiarmid and Kevin Eldon. Suffice to say I’m completely hooked on Utopia once again and I really can’t wait to see what happens next.
My Three burning questions after episode two:
1)Who is Anton (Ian McDairmid) the Russian scientist who has currently been living in Tony Bradley’s basement? Could he possibly be Carvel or maybe Cristos?
2)Is Jessica lying about the modification? She told Ross that she had no idea what it was but this is most likely to be a double cross.
3)What happened to Dugdale’s (Paul Higgins) family? At the end of the last series he and his wife had adopted the orphaned Alice so why did we see him tucking into a microwavable meal-for-one?