Utopia, Frame By Frame

by Misha Lepetic

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia
is not worth even glancing at.”
~Oscar Wilde

Wilson2I've recently become obsessed with a TV show, which is rather unusual for me. I like to tell people that, after HBO wrapped The Wire, I went ahead and sold my TV. Perhaps more melodramatic than true, but this is nevertheless close enough for essayistic purposes. The present show, however, could not be more different than the gritty realism of David Simon's character-driven creation. Created by Dennis Kelly and broadcast by Channel 4, the UK's fourth public service broadcaster, Utopia had a short run – only two seasons of six episodes each. Late in 2014, it was decisively announced that the series would not be renewed for a third season, but I think this was for the best. My grandfather once related an old Arab proverb to me: “One should always stop eating when it tastes the sweetest”. I don't know if this is really an old Arab proverb, but there are certain things one just isn't inclined to Google.

At any rate, one thing that is certainly true for Utopia and shows like it: if you thrive on massively complex, increasingly far-fetched scenarios, the longer you go on, the more likely you are to trip over your own plotlines, and all hopes for a tightly orchestrated dramatic tension eventually evaporate. The most instructive recent example, which still rankles with fans, is how Lost wrecked itself on reefs of its own devising, despite the impressive hermeneutical gymnastics deployed by some in its defense. I would imagine that few producers and executives enjoy contemplating a similar fate for their own endeavors.

The hazard for Utopia's genre – the paranoid thriller – is especially acute. And settling on the proverbial ‘shadowy international conspiracy' as the principal plot mechanism only doubles down on the risk, since it is tempting to mop up any inconveniences using said conspiracy. Nevertheless, I have always had great faith in the British when it comes to the respect required to make conspiracies, erm, plausible. That's right – a conspiracy needs to be treated respectfully if it is to have any currency.

Obviously, we must at this juncture invoke the masters of the genre, such as Albert Hitchcock and John le Carré. More recently, Chris Mullin's novel A Very British Coup comes to mind, not only for the fact that it was also adapted into a serial by Channel 4 in 1988, but also because the premise – the consolidation of Margaret Thatcher's grip on power in 1979-1980 with the help of MI5 – forms one of many casual subplots thrown off by Utopia. If you always suspected that Labour got shivved in that election, this is the show for you.

ArbyThe British are also decidedly superior at conveying paranoia, at least in the English-speaking world (although the Russians may have a cultural advantage here). By my reckoning, Duncan Jones' Moon is one of the masterpieces of paranoid sci-fi filmmaking of the last 25 years, and essentially relies only on the talents of Sam Rockwell's acting and Kevin Spacey's voice. The loneliness of Rockwell's character – the sole human resident of a lunar base, locked in to a three-year contract – is a different kind of loneliness than that of Dave Bowman, Kubrick's astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Bowman's case, he is coddled by an alien intelligence whose intentions may be unknown, but never come off as sinister. Weirdly, there is a kind of comfort in the cosmically inscrutable nature of his fate, which is one of instrumentality. Rockwell's character, by contrast, struggles to understand the purposes for which he has been deployed to the lunar base, in this case by his corporate sponsors. It is therefore appropriate that those purposes are decidedly practical and driven by economics, to the exclusion of any moral considerations. In order for the paranoid genre to reach its fullest expression, it seems best to have only a few people around, and for the ultimate author of one's fate to be present and known, if only just out of reach – something that Kafka understood most intimately. In an ideal world, paranoia and claustrophobia are generative of one another.


Kubrick also occupies an interesting reference point when considering the visual appeal of Utopia. Almost every scene is shot from a one-point perspective, which was favored by Kubrick (and, truth be told, Wes Anderson). The psychological effect of centering the camera angle with its subject matter generally forces attention and creates drama and suspense – think of the hotel hallways in The Shining. Now you see the twins, now you don't. For his part, Anderson subverts the dramatic in favor of the ironic (you can view supercuts of the two directors' use of one-point perspective here and here, respectively). But in both cases the result is one of visual depth. Those hallways go on for a long time, perhaps forever.

For its part, Utopia drives the one-point perspective to new levels of zealotry. Remarkably, however, the end result is that depth is entirely sucked out of the frame. A crucial reason for this flatness is the equally fanatical use of color. Before you begin finding your way around the characters and plot, the first thing that hits you is the extraordinarily acidic nature of the palette. Blues are not warm but cyan and teal, and there are exquisite purples and pinks. The greens take on a lurid quality, and the yellows and oranges are nothing short of radioactive. Just as the one-point perspective is ever-present, for the length of the series there is no respite in the assault of color. Somewhat remarkably, this is not exhausting to the eye. The relentlessness consolidates itself into a sort of queasy consistency. Taken together, the resulting flatness forces a paradox onto the viewer: a kind of hyperreality mashed right up into an utter disregard for reality. What are we really seeing here?

Too often we mistake – or perhaps more accurately, accept – striking visual effects as a semi-autonomous phenomenon, existing within a film but not necessarily fully integrated into it, either. This blunting of our critical faculties may be the most pernicious legacy of CGI in cinema today. The fact that “The movie was crap, but the effects were really great” is considered an acceptable thing to say about a film at all (if not an actual endorsement!) illustrates just how far we have fallen. But the use of color and perspective in Utopia is so extreme that it clearly warrants further consideration.


UnderpassThe event that sets the Utopia universe in motion is the discovery of a manuscript, thought to be a sequel to a graphic novel, The Utopia Experiments, that was originally published in the late 1980s. The original novel is less a coherent narrative, and more of a cryptic set of drawings that imply the tale of a brilliant geneticist who has made a deal with the devil. All that is known of the author is that he was a paranoid schizophrenic who created the drawings as part of his art therapy while institutionalized. Soon after, the author/patient died in the same institution. Twenty-odd years later, a marginal yet robust community of enthusiasts continue to discuss and parse the novel and its possible meanings via an online discussion forum. Through chance timing, four of these participants are called together by a fifth, who claims he has just acquired the sequel manuscript. This motley mixture of the curious, bored, afflicted and conspiratorially minded constitutes the core protagonists of the series.

However, the first people we meet are the nemeses of this group, the representatives of the aforementioned ‘shadowy conspiracy'. Arby and Lee are cryptic, implacable killers who come to a comics shop, attempting to track down the manuscript ‘sequel'. The importance of the manuscript, or rather what it may hide, is demonstrated by the fact that, in the opening four minutes, about as many people get offed.

Needless to say, Arby and Lee don't recover the manuscript, but procure a lead that sets them on a collision course with the first group. But more importantly, what is established, in a sort of strange loop fashion, is the key to both the substance and the presentation of Utopia: the graphic novel is both the object of desire, and the lens through which that world is seen. For to watch Utopia is, literally, to watch a graphic novel unfold on the screen, panel by panel. This has been attempted previously, the prime example being the 2009 film adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen, but Utopia has no precedent source material, so it is free to invent itself from whole cloth. Hence the very deliberate use of color and one-point perspective I discuss above – the resulting flatness makes each scene easily imagined as a frame in a graphic novel that is itself entirely imaginary.


LeeAs visually rewarding and intellectually stimulating as it is, do not think that Utopia shirks violence. In keeping with the aesthetic of a paranoid conspiracy theory graphic novel, plenty of people meet untimely ends. Pretty much everyone seems to be a good shot; when they aim for the head, they tend not to miss, and they rarely aim for any other part of the body. Children are not only murdered in cold blood, but become murderers themselves. There is a stark unsentimentality, and not a small dose of psychopathy, that befits a narrative that ultimately concerns itself with the end of the human race, or rather its possible salvation.

But this also introduces a further interesting consequence of the integration of substance and presentation: as the stakes rise implacably higher and the characters find themselves in more absurdly improbable and dangerous circumstances, the ‘graphic-novelization' of the visual style acts as a vaccine against our disbelief. Once jarring, the cinematography offers us license to accept what is happening. I think that if the series had been filmed in a more conventional, that is to say, realistic way, losing the audience would have been far likelier, regardless of how tightly scripted both seasons have been.

To say more about Utopia risks running into spoiler territory. In fact, there are quite a few timely issues that are either alluded to, or form core parts of the narrative. Some historical events that were appropriated by the show's writers even riled up the public, although I doubt that this contributed to the show's cancellation. Suffice to say that, except for some shoddy microbiology, I didn't really find myself rolling my eyes at each next big reveal, mostly thanks to the series' clever construction.

That said, throughout Utopia, there are plenty of Easter eggs for sci-fi enthusiasts: Bejan's fall off the terrace of his London high-rise is a reference to The Comedian's similar demise in the opening of Watchmen; a common spoon becomes an object of meditation for Wilson Wilson, but for entirely different reasons than it did for Neo in The Matrix. Utopia also has a close kinship with Black Mirror, about which I have written previously, but whereas Black Mirror is concerned with excavating the intended and unintended consequences of the relationship between society and technology, Utopia does not indulge in the dark satire that is Charlie Brooker's stock in trade. It is more otherwordly than didactic, and yet does not lack its own moments of leavening humor, which are expertly sprinkled. Nevertheless, both shows truck with the idea that we, either as individuals or as a society, are not nearly in control of our destinies as we might like to believe. Decisions have alrady been made, ostensibly in our collective best interest, whether we like it or not; such is the nature of Utopia.