Warning: May Contain Spoilers; and graphic descriptions.
Flashback to Rome, 1979: A father and his daughter. A doctor, Philip Carvel, and a young Jessica Hyde. The beginning of it all. They sit in a cobblestone courtyard. He is drawing her a picture (a precursor to his comics career?); herself, and a crowned frog, in vivid pastel technicolor. She is amazed. He is summoned to talk to a woman and an Italian man in a parked car. She starts grilling him about something called Janus; the driver gets a silenced bullet in the temple. The gunman lingers for a moment, pumping rounds into the dead Italian. The doctor in the backseat informs the woman he has altered Janus; she could never use what he made. He is a meek, bearded man. The woman threatens to torture his 4-year old daughter, if Janus is not delivered by the end of the week. These are bad people. These are bad times. And this is all before the credits roll.
So begins the hotly anticipated second season of the British dystopian sci-fi series, Utopia, airing on BBC Channel 4. The first season stunned with it’s crisp, vibrant, colorful visual design, and its relentless cynicism and over-the-top violence. The story revolves around a group of young friends who met on a internet forum for fans of a certain obscure graphic novel. There’s not many copies, and the story is unfinished. It seems that a certain young comic fan found the unreleased conclusion in some comic shop. The other hardcore superfans are unbelieving – they arrange a meetup.
It turns out, within those surreal, nightmarish, apocalyptic pages, there is the secret to Janus; and certain parties, known only by the sinister sobriquet “The Network”, will stop at nothing to learn it’s meaning. They’ve been looking for it since 1980, are ruthless and unstoppable. These four comic fans are sucked into a world of government conspiracies, as they are brutally tortured to extract the whereabouts of this rare and precious comic book, sucked into this new world with one re-occuring mantra: Where is Jessica Hyde?
Where is Jessica Hyde? It rings like a bell, an insidious hook, as memorable and as infamous as “Who Killed Laura Palmer?”. Sure enough, Jessica Hyde emerges, soon enough, and the four leads, Becky, Ian, Wilson, and Grant, whose lives will never be the same.
Utopia Season 1 was a non-stop adrenaline ride, that is not for the faint of heart. It’s violence is cruel, quick, and everywhere. It has the modern cutting quickness, no punch is pulled, every episode jampacked.
So far, it seems that Season 2 is going to be more of the same.
Season 2 started off with a bang. Both literally and metaphorically. First of all, nearly everyone that you meet in the first episode is killed. Brutally murdered even. And the episode’s tense conclusion happens on March 29, 1979, at a little place in Pennsylvania, known as Three Mile Island.
The story then flashes back even further, to 1974, the beginning of the relationship between Philip Carvel (Tom Burke), Jessica Hyde’s father, and his relationship with Mr. Rabbit, who goes by the name of Milner (Rose Leslie) in her day job at the MI5. Carvel is an idealistic if pessimistic young scientist, totally brilliant and probably out of his mind. But really, he’s just being realistic. This takes place in 1974, against a backdrop of Union strikes and budget cuts. Shortages and power outages and garbage strikes. Not even the bodies are getting buried. The labor government is on it’s way out. This is the eve of the Thatcher Era.
Carvel: What do you think would happen to a planet with 10 billion people on it, that can only support one?
Milner: We would rip each other apart.
Milner is the most ruthless psychopath I’ve seen on screen since the torture scene of Reservoir Dogs. I think she kills absolutely everyone she meets, during the episode, including her own husband, who she drowns in a bathtub, when he hears to much. She’s like Stalin and Goebels all rolled into one, and more than willing to do her own dirty work. After all, as she says, we’re creating a new race. We’re creating UTOPIA.
Towards the pursuit of creating his perfect world, Carvel resorts to using his own children as subjects for his experiments. His eldest son, a baby Arby, was an experiment to suppress violence, which ended up working quite the opposite. The boy seems to have no empathy, no reaction, no response. In one of the episodes’s most chilling moments (there were many, practically nothing but), Carvel’s wife tries to get a reaction from baby Arby, by bringing him a rabbit to play with. Earlier in the episode, Carvel tried to get a reaction from the baby by cutting the head off of the rabbit (it’s not shown, but is very much intimated at. This show is not for the faint of heart.) The baby finally reacts, and starts to play with the bunny, and the mother is relieved. Only momentarily, however – when she returns, later, with a snack, the baby has pulled the rabbit into bloody, fuzzy pieces.
Like most of everything in this show, this won’t make a great deal of sense, or have as much of an impact as on people who sat through every nail-biting moment of the first season. I am guessing that the baby will grow up to be the cold-blooded assassin that goes rogue in the first season. Which would make him Jessica’s brother. I’m not sure they revealed that in the first season.
With Jessica’s birth, Carvel has a change of heart, but cannot bring himself to destroy Janus and all of his years of hard work. Mr. Rabbit will stop at nothing to get Janus, including torturing a 4-year old Jessica Hyde. In probably the episode’s MOST chilling moment (there were many, practically nothing but), a polite British gentleman, comes to Carvel’s laboratory, and informs him he is to be Jessica’s torturer, and begins to express, in graphic and minute detail, what he is going to do to the pretty little girl (this show is not for the faint of heart). Later on, we find out out he is no bluff, as he performs “brutal and classic” torture methods to Carvel, and informs him that each exact operation will be performed on Jessica, that she will feel exactly what the scientist is feeling, until he talks.
Utopia is a cruel show. It’s made up of cruel people. It’s a cruel world.
Utopia is so much more visceral and effective than most horror that you see, as it is rooted in the real world, with real world problems. In this world, at this very moment probably, governments disappear people who know too much, who threaten to destabilize the status quo. We are living ‘midst overpopulation, and scarcity, and shortages. In that way, Episode 1’s setting in 1974 is particularly resonant, as a harmonic and predecessor of today.
For me, personally, being a lifelong admirer and student of British culture, while not belonging to it, I enjoy and appreciate the historical insight, and glimpse into what those times were like in that country. I mean, we have the musical legacy of punk rock and industrial music, to bear witness to those dole gash scars in the collective psyche, but it’s hard to really, really imagine what it would be like, with garbage piling up around your ears, with unemployment skyrocketing, union strikes, labor unrest. No Future, as the Sex Pistols said.
It is resonant with today, however, which is probably why they’ve released this show, at this time. These are our fears; this is what keeps us awake at night. It started in the ’70s, or our awareness of it, anyway. Global warming, overpopulation, the spread of consumerism. All of the rust and decay of society, like a beat up old Chevy Nova that’s been sitting on the salted streets of Detroit all winter long. They attempted to gloss over this decay with the bright, flashy optimistic futurism of the ’80s. That’s coming back now, too. Mark my words, you will just see more and more interest in old punk music, science-fiction, retroactive cyberpunk New Age occultism, self-help, meditation, mysticism, drugs, etc. We are living in a harmonic on the ’70s, and Utopia is attuned to that frequency.
And is bloody terrifying because of it.
Season 2, Episode 1 was bloody fantastic, just as beautiful and colorful (although mildly muted, as befits the time) as Season 1, and bodes good things. It’s a rather disorienting place to begin, as so much of Season 1 revolved around the comic book collectors, and they don’t show up at all. Episode 1 is entirely pre-history, but it shows us exactly who Jessica Hyde is, where she came from, and why she is particularly, singularly driven. You would be to, if you were taught how to shoot guns when you were four years old.
You’re going to have a difficult time, if you’re just climbing on board now, but I’m sure it’ll be enlivening, even if you’re playing catch up. If we have any readers/viewers who are just seeing this show for the first time, what did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Because the BBC is amazing, you won’t have to wait an entire week, as the next episode plays tonight, 7.15.14, at 10 PM, London Time, which is 7 PM EST, and 3 PM, here in PST.
I’ll try and report back, if not, I’ll catch you next week.
For those lucky (?) enough to be in the UK, all episodes of Utopia can be streamed via the Channel 4 website: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/utopia
For those that aren’t, I highly advise you find a way to see this program, if you love edgy horror that makes you think.
If you want to know more, here’s an interview with Utopia director Marc Munden
And if you STILL want to know more, check out the #AskUtopia tag on Twitter, where users were able to send questions to the series creators. Find out EXACTLY how much people think the series relates to modern times.