‘Utopia’: Episode 1 review

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The production company behind glossy BBC hits such as Spooks, Hustle and Life On Mars have jumped channels with this latest high-concept series featuring conspiracies galore and a graphic novel at the heart of its plot.

Five internet forum dwellers, who celebrate the aforementioned cult graphic novel, agree to meet up when one of them claims to have the legendary manuscript of Part Two of ‘The Utopia Experiments’, which had remained a myth and stuff of internet forums/conspiracists.

Three of them manage to make the pub meeting – bored I.T. drone, Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), would-be PhD student Becky (Alexandra Roach) and conspiracy theorist Wilson Wilson (Adeel Akhtar). Quickly, however, they realise that there are others also looking for the manuscript when two of their fellow fans fail to turn up – and one is found dead the next day.

The others in question are two rather brutal killers who are intent on finding the manuscript and a mysterious female called Jessica Hyde. And they find the manuscript pretty damn quickly despatching its owner at the very same time. However, they lose it to 11 year old forum-er Grant (Oliver Woollford) who witnessed the murder and subsequently did a runner.

From here, things get serious for the gang as they find themselves arrested (for crimes they didn’t commit) and hunted down by the deadly duo.

As first episodes go, this is a belter. The opening scene is full of menace (as indeed the whole episode is) and the mystery of the graphic novel and just what the hell is going on will keep you glued throughout. Added to this enigma is the side-plot (which undoubtedly is interlinked) of civil servant Michael Dugdale (Paul Higgins) and his embroilment in murky Russian blackmail and pharmaceuticals; which only further excites the proceedings.

The cast, which includes luminaries such as Stephen Rea and James Fox, is an eclectic selection of fascinating oddballs: Misfits star Stewart-Jarrett plays the disaffected twenty-something with likability; Roach (the Young Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady) is similarly low-key but immensely engaging, carrying the weight of her dead father; whilst their trio is completed by Akhtar (Four Lions) whose conspiracy-based persona is a joy to watch as it’s not overly exaggerated or clichéd; perfectly nuanced.

Higgins (TheThick of It) is sympathetic to some extent with his nervousness pervading all his scenes and killers Arby (Neil Maskill) and Lee (Paul Ready) make for a chilling and sometimes comical pair. Astutely played by all.

Utopia is paced perfectly and the direction is gorgeous though grim; director Marc Munden (who performed some fantastic camerawork on The Crimson Petal and the White and The Devil’s Whore) treats the drama with utmost sincerity and gravity. Never flashy or needlessly speedy, Munden lets the story tell itself and the characters reveal themselves.

The violence is handled superbly, with the deaths shocking but not gratuitous whilst the torture scene in the last third will make you feel quite ill without every displaying anything explicitly unpleasant.

The script, from writer Dennis Kelly (BBC Three’s Pulling), is taut and minimalist at times. You really have to pay attention to what’s going on (and repeated viewings will give further enjoyment) but its denseness has a mythical quality to it; much like the graphic novel it portrays.

We’re only in January but it looks like Channel 4 have got one of THE shows of 2013 on their hands. Let’s hope this very high standard continues through the six episode run.

Airs at 10pm on Tuesday 15 January 2013 on Channel 4.

> Order Series 1 on DVD on Amazon.

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