Utopia: as compelling as ever - and the body count is rising
Utopia retains a robust attitude towards violence as befits a drama with comic-book aesthetics
The first series of Utopia, broadcast on Channel 4 at the beginning of last year, cut against the grain of TV thrillers. Instead of Scandinavian realism and subdued, blue-filtered light, it was set in a hyper-real world of saturated colour and vast, interlocking conspiracies.
It was inventive, refreshing and compelling, but it failed to attract the numbers it deserved. Perhaps now, with the news full of conspiracy and cover-up, series two will find a more receptive audience.
It begins not where the last series left off – with Jessica Hyde (Fiona O'Shaughnessy) at the mercy of the sinister Mr Rabbit and her friends out of reach and oblivious to her plight – but with a long detour into the past.
Presented in the pinched, grainy format of cinefilm, the 1970s flashback stretches out to fill the whole episode, stitching a tapestry of real and fictional violence.
From the very first moment, the conspiracy is broadening and deepening. The killing of former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978 is drawn into the web, as is the assassination of the British ambassador to the Netherlands a year later. Soon, inevitably, the plotters find their path obstructed by Airey Neave.
Lurking behind all these deaths is Richard Carvel, father of Jessica Hyde and creator of Janus, the fertility-killing virus with which he plans to control the world's population. Previously no more than a name, here Carvel sets out his utopian dream against the backdrop of long hair, beards and the three-day week.
"I'm not talking about murder," he insists, defending his plan to render 95 per cent of the human race infertile – and for limiting reproductive privileges to a single ethnic group, which just happens to be his. After all, he says, "a world without race is a world without racial genocide".
If there was a fault with series one it was that the characters were sometimes too thin and brittle. By stepping back from the breakneck plot, the origins story of the opening episode adds a little muscle to their bones, strengthening them before they are thrown back into the action.
Arby, for example – the flat-voiced, dead-eyed hitman with the bright yellow duffel bag – has made great strides towards humanity. The nourishingly conventional relationship he has built with a woman and her daughter is all the more remarkable when we know what cruelty was inflicted on him as a child.
Not that Utopia has gone soft. Graphic in both senses of the word, it retains the robust attitude towards violence that befits a drama suffused with comic-book aesthetics.
As the plot reasserts itself, the body count is soon rising. Jessica Hyde has become, if anything, even more ruthless, and the tentacles of the conspiracy are reaching out again, drawing Arby back towards the dark centre.
Unlike most thrillers, which have to contrive a new threat to justify a second outing, Utopia could have run on seamlessly. That it pauses first to take on a little more baggage confirms that Dennis Kelly, the writer responsible for this unsettling world, is not finished with us yet.
Utopia continues tonight at 10pm on Channel 4. The first series is available on 4OD.
Holden Frith tweets at twitter.com/holdenfrith