Public Service Announcement 26 of 2017: Outlander, Gypsy, Utopia

It’s nearly three years since Outlander was first broadcast on Starz in America, and over two since its UK debut on Amazon Prime. But that, one would guess, still leaves a healthy number of people who might want to watch it, which is presumably why Channel 4 has ponied up to bring it to British broadcast TV for the first time. Paradoxically, it’s become something of a phenomenon around the world without yet gaining much traction in Scotland, where it is set (and where Unpopcult lives); possibly because of the resident population’s limited tolerance for romantic time-travelling nonsense with a misty-eyed view of the country’s history. (I’m guessing. I haven’t seen it.) Maybe its availability to the mass audience will change that (tonight, 9pm, More4).

Netflix’s latest throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks is Gypsy, dropping tomorrow, in which Naomi Watts plays a therapist who “begins to develop dangerous and intimate relationships with the people in her patients’ lives”. Haven’t we seen something like this before? Anyway, the advance word generally hasn’t been great.

And finally, this isn’t new: but, for British viewers, it’s worth flagging up that both seasons of conspiracy thriller Utopia are now available through Channel 4’s on demand services. When it was first shown I said it might be the best British drama – not a genre for which I usually have much patience – for years: startlingly original, visually stunning, intelligent, unsettling. And all without relying on maverick cops, middle-class adulterers, or imaginatively terrorised women. Recommended: particularly the first season, particularly the astonishing first episode of the first season.

Utopia s2 ep 6

With Arby comatose in a hospital – I could never quite work out if it was a deserted one or not; presumably he was receiving medical care from someone? – the rest of the gang need to work out who the sleeper agent is (Terrance) and what he’s going to do (release the Russian flu virus stat). Then they need to find him. It’s a surprisingly straightforward plot for a show which has traded on its imagination, even if it’s put together with pace and the usual visual panache – red gradually replacing yellow as the main colour. And setting the climactic chase and shootout in a multistorey carpark is perhaps a little quotidian.

What happens round the edges of the main plot, though, is more interesting: Dugdale has taken the apparently untameable Grant in, but Dugdale’s wife seems to be the Grant Whisperer, although this in its way makes Grant even creepier; Becky (“Molecular chemistry’s a tricky fucker”) runs out of Thoraxin, although it turns out to be a moreish blend of opiates and caffeine, rather than a wonderdrug; Jessica plays dirty to try and get Ian; and just about every interaction carried with it the brooding threat of extreme violence.

Perhaps the real story, though, is the final conversion of Wilson from the person we saw in the first episode into – well, the new Mr Rabbit. (Ew.) He’s managed to find a “moral” way of seeing the Network’s plan through, and he’s prepared to kill in order to secure what he now envisions as the only way forward for humanity. This leads to an ending which, unlike season 1’s, very much opens the door to the further seasons writer Dennis Kelly wants. He might not get his way – viewing figures haven’t been quite as good as Channel 4 would have hoped, perhaps because season 2 hasn’t been quite as good as season 1. Although the first episode still stands as one of the best things I’ve seen all year.

Utopia s2 ep 5

An odd episode, with Arby, Carvel, and Grant heading to a moor, in the hope of jogging Carvel’s memory. In due course they are joined by Jessica and Milner, meaning that la famille Carvel is reunited, albeit briefly. Meantime Dugdale is – long story short – shoving a phone up his arse in order to rescue his wife and daughter, with Mrs Dugdale playing a blinder. Talking of which, Wilson completes his journey from anti-government tinfoil hat wearer to becoming The Man, when he decides that while Milner’s away he can play Mr Rabbit himself, thank you very much. And in a development which I must admit I didn’t follow at all, Geoff – until now the suave Network man in the UK government – comes up with a desperately poor blackmail plot. What did I miss here?

It should have been more thrilling than it was. There were some major deaths; at least, they looked like deaths, but we’ve had that before with Lee. There were some nice, if hardly earth-shattering, twists: inevitably, the McWorker we saw in the cold open (and nibbling on carrot as a snack; either his job has turned him vegetarian, or this is another Kudos rabbit reference) is the man with the future of humanity in his hands. And we found out which race Carvel has selected to retain its fertility post-Janus, and it’s a real boot in the swingers for previous eugenists, particularly the Nazis who tried to wipe out people like Carvel. But was there, perhaps, rather too much titting around on the windswept but photogenic moor? You know, I think there was. Actually, I thought this one of the weakest episodes to date. Never mind, the cast has been thinned out a little ahead of next week’s season – series? – finale.

Utopia s2 ep 4

“This is all about family”, Arby says at one point during this mesmerisingly good episode. And it is, more so than we might have anticipated when the show started: Arby tries to protect his partner and her child; Dugdale’s wife and child are being held by The Network; Ian’s brother is kidnapped by Milner; everyone’s been thrown by the news that Philip Carvel, father of Jessica and Arby, is still alive. And of course the cold open, one of the show’s best so far, in which a sleeper agent retrieves a canister (presumably of the Russian flu virus), then returns home and shoots his family and himself.

But the development this week which probably has the greatest implications for the overall story arc is the partial revelation about Carvel’s alteration to Janus. One of the show’s strengths has been the way in which the thinking behind Janus, and therefore The Network’s presumed endgame, is attractive, almost benign; possibly, even, the best way out for humanity. (Which is why conspiracy theorist Wilson Wilson has bought into it, to the point this week where he’s prepared to kill to protect it.) The ultimate proof of the essential morality behind the plan was that Janus is racially blind: it might well be turning most of the human race sterile, but it would do so on a random basis, so that’s OK. However, we find out in this episode that Janus involves some element of racial selection, which becomes even more sinister as it comes hand-in-glove with the news that Carvel himself was in the Bełżec extermination camp as a child, meaning that he will be entirely aware of where racially-based eugenics leads.

The episode is garnished with the usual stunning visuals and atmospheric soundtrack, plenty of deaths, some very black humour – the Romanian interpreter being the best example, of course – and a deeply unsettling worldview. Or perhaps it’s just that I’m deeply unsettled by Jessica Hyde and her seduction of Ian, and Arby’s knowing detachment from the process of snuffing out a human life. This was Utopia at something close to its best.

Utopia s2 ep 3

It’s looking as if season 2’s plot might be an upgrade on season 1’s, but not radically different: The Network (I think) wants to convince everyone to be vaccinated against Russian flu, so has plans to cause a worldwide pandemic, and for that matter panic, by releasing another strain of flu, known as Jimmy Deesh – L.

With less work required on the part of the viewer to uncover what’s going on, there’s more fascination to be found in the shifting motives and allegiances of the characters we know from the first season. Thus Dugdale is in with The Network for some reason – protecting his family?- and is prepared to rat out an earnest geek-chick scientist who’s found out something about the new, non-Russian flu, and who also fancies him. Arby might be playing both sides, although he too is looking for a deal to protect the mother and daughter we saw him living with last week. Wilson – on Team Network from the first season – is forced to team up with Lee, who of course was on point for the infamous eye/spoon incident, something to which Lee keeps alluding.

All fair enough, although I’m having a little more difficulty seeing Milner’s new-found vulnerability as entirely in keeping with her season 1 persona: Jessica escapes; Anton is, inevitably, identified as Philip Carvel, thought dead (which doesn’t mean he is Carvel, of course); and as a result of both developments Milner is so far off her game that she inadvertently discloses to Ian that she knows Beth is with him and the rest of his gang. (Beth, incidentally, is being deployed rather as Deb was in later seasons of Dexter, on creative swearing duties: “Oh my fucking fuck!”)

Like episode 2, then, it’s very good; and, like episode 2, the issue is whether “very good” is quite good enough after the outstanding first season.

Utopia s2 ep 1; s2 ep 2

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.

Public Service Announcement 31 of 2014: Utopia

On the strength of its remarkable first episode I called Utopia the best British drama I’d seen in a long time, a verdict I was happy to reiterate when the season was over. Visually remarkable and narratively daring, with a gratifying wit and nastiness, the first season was little short of extraordinary, even if the final episode left me wondering whether there was anywhere for a second season to go. But writer-creator Dennis Kelly clearly thinks there is, and it therefore makes a welcome return to our screens this week.

The really exciting news, though, is that the Daily Mail wants to ban it, because the first episode of the second season apparently uses the 1979 assassination of British politician Airey Neave as a plot point, suggesting that he was killed at the instance of The Network – the shadowy organisation at the heart of season 1 – rather than by Irish terrorists. Cue outrage: “By placing real events in the midst of fantasy, it could easily lead many younger viewers to think the lies are true”, says the Daily Mail – the Daily Mail! – showing a lack of self-awareness which is breathtaking in itself. “I struggle to find the words to describe the extent of my disgust at (this) piece of so-called television drama”, says Lord Tebbit, who then has a pretty good go at it anyway.

Channel 4 has, of course, wearily pointed out that Utopia is “entirely fictional”. I suppose it should be added, for the sake of completeness, that a (no doubt completely fantastical) conspiracy theory to the effect that Neave was actually murdered by British security forces has done the rounds for years, rather than being invented by Kelly; and that 35 years after the then prime minister James Callaghan said, ”No effort will be spared to bring the murderers to justice and to rid the United Kingdom of the scourge of terrorism”, no-one has yet been tried for, still less convicted of, Neave’s killing.

Bottom line – it’s season 2 of Utopia, and the Daily Mail thinks that Channel 4 shouldn’t show it. That’s more than enough for me (Monday and Tuesday, 10pm; thereafter Tuesdays).