In George Orwell’s dystopian conspiracist novel 1984 the population of Airstrip One have their lives controlled by the mysterious “Big Brother”, head of the political party that runs Oceania and its three superstates in a world divided by war.
In Orwell’s ulterior reality the people of Oceania live under the intense scrutiny of telescreens equipped with cameras and microphones, constantly watching the populous and making sure nobody breaks the party’s rules or threatens its control.
China Miéville’s The City And The City breaks down this idea of censorship and suffrage into two warring cities built side by side to each other governed under the feared control of Breach.
Inspector Tyador Borlú (David Morrissey) is a detective on the Extreme Crime Squad based in Beszel. It’s impoverished and volatile city compared to its wealthier and heavily policed sister city, Ul Qoma.
Borlú is on the case of the murdered student Mahalia Geary, a citizen of Ul Qoma found dead in the back streets of Beszel who was in search of a mysterious third city known as Orciny.
Orciny is the secret middle city believed to exist between the lines of Beszel and Ul Qoma. It is written about in the banned text City In The City, authored by the prickly David Bowden (Christian Camargo), as a utopia of peace, equality and freedom of speech.
Borlú is determined to solve the murder of Geary whilst under the all-seeing eye of Breach, while perilously holding to the hope that the case can shed light on the disappearance of his own wife Katrynia (Lara Pulver), who he believes was taken by the people of Orciny to the Elysiumal streets of the third city.
The imagery is designed in a dream-like confused style, beautifully controlled by the direction of Tom Shankland, paying homage to the book’s genre of weird fiction. The cities look fantastic, with Bezel presented in this grimy black and yellow theme whilst Ul Qoma is stark, sterile and light.
The City And The City is thought-provoking and more relevant than ever in this modern time of the real Big Brother, referred to in our ulterior reality as Facebook.
The show plays on the traditional themes of conspiracy and control that have encapsulated readerships, TV audiences and movie-goers for decades. Unlike many that get it wrong, it does it brilliantly, helped along by outstanding performances from David Morrissey, Danny Webb, the delightful Paprika Steen, and Mandeep Dhillon as Borlú’s foul-mouthed partner.
The full series is up on BBC iPlayer now.