Series 1, Episode 2
Posted by Martin Holmes
22, January, 2013
When it comes to a great mystery there is something to be said for the art of abstruseness. You don't want to run the risk of revealing too much at once and sapping all sense of intrigue from the plot but likewise you don't want to be so mind-bogglingly confusing to the point of off-putting. Take for example the most popular mystery drama series of the past decade, Lost, a show that simultaneously represents both sides of the coin. When Lost first started back in 2004 it contained a perfect balance of vague mystery and strong character development, slowly drip-feeding just the right amount of information to sustain the appetite of the viewers. But as the show continued it literally became lost within it's own mythology, trapping itself in a tangled web of unanswerable questions, and driving away huge chunks of it's early audience. For many people the mystery ended up becoming something intangible rather than intriguing.
Utopia is so early in it's run that it has the chance to avoid those pitfalls. The pilot episode did a fantastic job of not only setting up the heroes and villains of the piece but in creating a true sense of mystery that you as a viewer want to learn more about. Episode 2 however came dangerously close to spilling too much information at once. The episode itself was still an entertaining 50 minutes, and all of it's plus points from the pilot were still in tact: the stunning locations, the masterful direction, the vivid colours (the purple meadow in particular looked beautiful), the powerfully atmospheric soundtrack from Cristobal Tapia De Veer, and the top notch acting, Alexndra Roach being the early stand-out. Yet there were points were information was revealed to the audience a little more than probably was necessary. It's understandable why show creator Dennis Kelly would do this, you only have to read Twitter comments during the show to see people demanding instant gratification and answers, and having likely read criticism of similar shows he doesn't want his characters to be needlessly allusive.
Last week the question on everybody's lips was “Where is Jessica Hyde?” or perhaps more importantly “Who is Jessica Hyde?”. Well in Episode 2 we found out. Jessica Hyde is a young, enigmatic woman with the tenacity of Sarah Connor, as handy with a gun as she is a shoelace, and who has been on the run for most of her life. She turned up at the end of the first episode to help our group of rag-tag heroes (who from here on out I will refer to as the “forumites”); IT consultant Ian, Welsh medical school drop-out Becky, and now visually impaired Wilson Wilson. After coming close to discovering the sequel to the graphic novel The Utopia Experiment, the forumites were being violently pursued by a pair of sadistic hit-men. Jessica Hyde takes it upon herself to save them, but this requires them leaving their old lives behind and spending the rest of their lives on the run, as Jessica bluntly puts it “adjust or die”.
Jessica leads the forumites to a currently vacated country mansion where they can hide out while she and Ian go and search for Utopia, beginning with its origins. Tension builds between Jessica and Becky as Becky's previous leadership role is usurped. Jessica keeps Becky at a distance, which you may initially put down to female jealousy, but later you realise that Becky may know more than she is letting on and perhaps Jessica is aware of this. The hunt for Utopia brings Jessica and Ian to the wife of Jack Tate (the now dead publisher of the Utopia novel), who Jessica discovers is an undercover CIA operative that works for The Network, thankfully the subsequent torture scene is no where near as uncomfortable as last weeks – no spoons in sight. The information gleaned from the CIA woman leads them to a man nicknamed The Tramp, who reveals information about a potentially deadly virus called Project Janus, and gives up the name of an MI5 operative who can help them called Milna, before Jessica strangles him to death.
Back at the mansion Becky and Wilson begin to bond over their current situation. Wilson uses his online know-how to arrange a meet-up with Grant, who is still on the run with the manuscript. Defying Jessica's “no bath” rule, Becky decides to take a soak, only to be surprised by the family whose house it is returning home from their holiday. I had two favourite images from this episode and one of them was definitely Alexandra Roach holding the family at gun-point while wrapped in a towel – Dennis Kelly certainly knows how to create a striking image. Jessica and the forumites leave the mansion and meet-up with Grant, who is in fact an 11 year old boy, not a Porsche driving, super-model dating city trader like he said online. Back at the mansion the quietly menacing hit-man arrives to find the family tied-up and blindfolded in the garage, he takes the gas canister out of his yellow bag and simply asks “Where is Jessica Hyde?” - my second favourite image of the episode was the close-up of the yellow bag with the black strap making it look like a smiley face.
Meanwhile distressed civil servant Michael goes from zero to hero after his hasty decision to buy Russian Flu vaccine proves prescient when the Shetland Islands is hit by the flu leaving a number of people dead. While the Department of Health applaud Michael's decision he worries about what the vaccine itself contains and demands a sample that can be tested before it is administered to the general public. Michael is swiftly and sternly told not to concern himself with the vaccine by shady lobbyist Letts and his assistant. Their ominous words were probably enough of a deterrent to Michael, but just to make sure, they frame the Russian prostitute that Michael got pregnant for murder of a journalist. As Michael watches the news report he begins to realise The Network are much more powerful and influential than he first imagined.
So just who are The Network? According to Jessica Hyde, The Network was created by a geneticist called Philip Carvel and someone called Mr Rabbit. An organisation created to combat a germ-warfare programme set-up by the Soviets in the 70s. When the Cold War ended various governments backed away yet Carvill and Mr Rabbit had no intention of stopping. At some point Carvel wanted out, so they tortured him to keep him working and held his daughter hostage. Eventually Carvel snapped and went mad, but before The Network could kill him he was somehow smuggled out, given a new identity and hidden in a psychiatric hospital – his new name was Mark Dane – the man who wrote Utopia – Jessica Hyde is his daughter.
It's this part that came a little too close to expositional info-dumping. The first episode was the perfect balance of question and answer but I just felt that Episode 2 began to teeter at little bit too much towards the latter and risked losing the intrigue. However I don't think it quite went over the edge, enough mystery remains to keep the story captivating. First of all we don't know how much we can trust Jessica Hyde as a reliable narrator, she may be bending the truth, obscuring details or even making the entire thing up. Secondly we have a new mystery figure in the form of Mr Rabbit, who he is, whether he is still alive, and what role he played in The Network. On top of this we have Project Janus and the true motives of Becky. Lets just hope the balance between information and intrigue equals out in the upcoming episodes.
The manuscript is currently in the hands of a private school girl that Grant met and took a shine too, despite her referring to him as “twat”. I suspect we'll be seeing her again soon, hopefully before the hit-man gets to her.
So who was Becky on the phone with? Whoever it was she told them that the manuscript exists and that Grant knows where it is. Is she working with The Network? Or does she have her own motives? Wild theory - she was on the phone to the hit-man who we also saw talking on his mobile earlier in the episode, the hit-man described himself as a “specialist”, so he could be working completely independent of The Network.
“Back soon. Don't have a bath.”
Becky learns that Wilson's dad was murdered yet decides to keep the information from him.
Interesting fact - in 2008 I wrote a pitch for a television drama idea called The Search, about a group of people that all went missing on the same day. The story followed a group of friends and family of the missing that got together via an online help forum to discover what really happened to their loved ones. The idea was that the missing had been taken by an organisation that performed various experiments in the name of the greater good. Here is an excerpt from the pitch document regarding the motives of the organisation:
“The aim was originally to set up a town free of materialistic needs and wealth...a modern Utopia. But the plan was more sinister than it seems, the SIU (Special Investigation Unit) also create and experiment with weapons and there plan is to wipe out the entire human race, just leaving a small community of pre-programmed people.”
Now if I had actually sent that idea out to any production company or agency I'd be worried that Dennis Kelly somehow got his hands on it. However, I never persisted with the idea and nobody ever saw it but myself, so I rest safe in the knowledge that it was a great idea and my mind works in a similar way to Dennis Kelly's but with less violent thoughts.
This week's reading:
The Soviet germ-warfare programme Biopreparate is based on truth: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB315/index.htm
Shenley Psychiatric Hospital where Mark Doan/Philip Carvill was held was a real place: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/81/a3277181.shtml
Channel 4, Tuesday, 10pm
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