It seems fitting that, after a first season which was crammed with bold, brilliant statements of intent, Utopia should return with perhaps its biggest statement yet: a 70s-set episode which acted as a prequel to the events of both seasons, with an unfamiliar cast playing younger versions of characters we’ve seen, weaving real-life events into a conspiratorial tapestry. As if to thumb his nose at people like me banging on about the show’s striking use of widescreen, creator/writer/Dennis Kelly and director Marc Munden decided to show the whole episode in what looked like an old-school TV 4:3 aspect ratio.
And it all added up to one of the best episodes of anything I’ve seen all year. We get to see how Jessica and Arby’s father Philip starts work with Milner on Janus – the young Arby, incidentally, is the creepiest on-screen child since Victor in Les Revenants (The Returned) – and the consequences of Philip’s adjustment of the virus’s formula, including the Network threatening Jessica through Philip: “Should the time come, I am to be your daughter’s torturer. I’ve been asked to explain the process to you.”
Returning a conspiracy drama to the 70s is a wise move in itself: that decade was and is, of course, the richest of soil for the planting of conspiracy theories – I was reminded throughout of Francis Wheen’s entertaining and meticulous book ‘Strange Days Indeed’. Kelly brings together a number of historical events including the abduction and murder of Aldo Moro, the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, the crash of flight TWA 841; and, of course, more controversially, the 1979 assassinations of UK ambassador to the Netherlands Richard Sykes, and Conservative politician Airey Neave.
As for the Neave business: there are a number of issues here, and I’m happy to concede that some people might well have been squeamish, even if I wasn’t, about the show’s use of actual footage of his wrecked car and Margaret Thatcher being told about the incident, although if I interpreted it correctly she was simply told that someone had been injured, not that it was her friend. (One could, I suppose, wonder about the ubiquity of the Zapruder footage in both factual and fictional treatments of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, footage which shows an actual human being having his brains blown out, and whether the Daily Mail has been demanding an immediate end to its use to avoid distress being caused to Kennedy’s family.)
Otherwise, though, in my view the show’s hands are entirely clean; and for the Mail to shed crocodile tears about the anguish caused to Neave’s family by the show is the height of hypocrisy, given the paper’s M.O. in general. Perhaps, for example, it will decline to publish any further articles speculating about the death of Dr David Kelly, in case Dr Kelly’s family is further distressed; or perhaps that’s a courtesy it isn’t planning to extend, given that it evidently still hopes that there’ll be a smoking gun somewhere with Tony Blair’s fingerprints on it.
Finally on this topic, it should be said that the Daily Telegraph, which also fretted about the use of Neave’s death, applauded the episode itself, thus showing itself capable of discriminating between news, comment, and artistic merit. The Mail, though, doubled down by publishing an utterly demented review, which – even if I quite like the assumption that I must be young – repeatedly insults the viewing audience, but in a manner which suggests, damningly, that it’s the Mail’s TV critic himself who is unable to differentiate between fact and fiction. (Of course, this might be a prerequisite for employment with the Mail.) Or perhaps he is simply unfamiliar with the concept of a work of fiction which draws on historical events.
Tl;dr – fuck the Daily Mail. This was an astonishing hour of TV. Up against that, the second episode, which returns to the present day, had to content itself with merely being very good. It’s something of a getting-the-gang-back-together episode, which always means a bit of scene-setting: Ian’s back in IT, and house-sharing with Grant; Becky’s still bargaining for Thoraxin to keep Deel’s Syndrome at bay; Jessica’s being interrogated by The Network, still trying to find out how Philip altered the formula of Janus. And Arby, improbably, has settled into something approaching domestic happiness, although that doesn’t last: Lee drags him back to his old life, in a scene which simmers with menace. We are introduced to one or two new characters, although it may be Anton who is the most significant – presumably he’s Philip? Or Christos? Or a survivor of episode 1’s gas leak? Or… hell, I don’t know, but he’s part of the mythology somehow.
It all looks as good as ever: we’re back to the widescreen for episode 2, and the glowing, almost unearthly colours heighten the sense that we’re seeing something which bears a resemblance to reality, but perhaps shouldn’t be taken literally. Although even since the conclusion of season 1 there have been enough real-world developments to suggest that Utopia, with its insistence that Governments are always and everywhere up to no good, might be a show for our times. The delightfully unpleasant wit remains intact – Lee winking at Wilson was both shiver-inducing and funny – and assuming Kelly can avoid season 2’s plot simply reheating what we’ve seen before, Utopia will continue to be essential viewing.