There’s a lot going on in episode 1 of Utopia. There are two men searching for a graphic novel and asking everyone they meet if they know where a Jessica Hyde is, three people are meeting for the first time (in real life anyway, they’ve communicated online), a young boy is wandering the streets and causing trouble, and a politician is being blackmailed after unwittingly getting a prostitute pregnant.
All these things are connected though, and the episode does a good job of giving each storyline adequate time to establish itself in the overall picture, and sets Utopia up as a potentially very good new drama for Channel 4. The connection is a graphic novel called ‘The Utopia Experiments’ and for as yet unexplained reasons, the original manuscript of the novel is very valuable to those two men, who are certainly not shy when it comes to crossing the line in order to retrieve it.
So in this first episode, those two men (led by a particularly terrifying Neil Maskell) walk into a closed comic book store, killing three men (one terrified child’s fate is undetermined) as they search for the manuscript and are unsatisfied when they all claim not to know who Jessica Hyde is, or where she can be found. When they find the man with the manuscript, Maskell’s character casually pushes him off the balcony of his flat, while his accomplice later tortures a man called Wilson Wilson (Four Lions’ Adeel Akhtar) by using chillies, sand and bleach in his eyes before adding a spoon to the equation.
Wilson Wilson is a man who has met two other people, Ian and Becky, who have arranged a meeting to talk about the manuscript, without knowing that the man who had it is now lacking in the brain department (because it’s splattered on the ground). Wilson is a bit of a conspiracy nut, and he’s wiped all evidence of his existence from the internet (no bank accounts etc) and also has a nuclear bunker. When no-one else shows up for their meeting, they end up in his bunker getting drunk. The next day, Ian is arrested after being accused of sexual assault of a 13 year old girl (he’s innocent), while Becky is also questioned.
The politician is played by Paul Higgins (Jamie in The Thick Of It), and he is forced to push through an order for a vaccine against Russian flu, despite the governments concerns about how real a threat that is, something which causes a colleague to lose his job. It’s a very different role for Higgins, playing a much more reserved and under pressure guy than the man who favours ‘Motherwell rules’ in The Thick Of It.
Grant is an 11 year old who is effectively something of a street urchin. We see him trying to break into a car, when he’s caught by the owner; he acts like he wants a fight, before smearing dog shit on his hand and running off. He’s part of the internet forum that led Wilson, Ian and Becky to meet, and he breaks into the flat of the man who has the manuscript, but arrives just as the two shady men have arrived to question him. While they are dealing with him, Grant takes the manuscript and runs off. The men know who he is, but he’s so far managed to avoid them.
So there is a lot going on in this first episode (Michael Smiley, Maskell’s co-star in Kill List has a brief appearance as a detective before being bumped off), but I enjoyed it, and it has already managed to establish an atmosphere of suspense and tension that make it interesting to watch. A woman claiming to be Jessica Hyde introduces herself to Ian, Becky and Wilson at the end of the episode, and it feels like that suspense and tension will continue to build as the series progresses.
This is a very good start to Utopia; there are good performances to go along with the drama, and I’m already looking forward to the next episode.