Musings on Channel 4’s Utopia *SPOILERS*

I’ve resisted writing about Channel 4’s Utopia for the past four weeks. I’ve watched the show, as broadcast so far, and read the reviews. I’ve seen all of these rave critiques of a spiralling plot with cleverly woven webs of deceit, characters that are relatable and honest and stunning visuals. It saddens me to say I don’t agree.

Now I don’t want to pass judgement until I’ve seen all of it, obviously as a show of this nature could all beautifully come together at the last minute. But to me, this is all just a little bit too X-Files and has been done before. For the record I liked the X-Files although when I recently watched them all, it became utterly repetitive and reliant on its conspiracy arc episodes.

*SPOILER ALERT * If you haven’t seen the show and want to, STOP READING HERE and go watch it first. *SPOILER ALERT*

With the exception of Arby (explained later) and Wilson Wilson, who’s involvement has completely petered out now he’s out of his tin foil hat style environment, I find none of the characters engaging, alluring or find any kind of empathy with them. I find most of their dialogue rather clunky, obvious and uninspiring. The show itself goes through many silent periods before being overrun with far too technical plot exposition far too quickly for anyone to understand. In the first X-Files series Mulder constantly leaps to a massive, fairly uninformed, conclusion about twenty minutes in to an episode. Along with visceral dramatic diatribes directed towards Scully, who rightly looks at him like the arrogant psychopathic prick he persuades us he is. That’s exactly what this show does to the audience. They go all Mulder and we sit there like Scully going “Eh? Oh, fuck off.” The entire sudden realisation of The Network’s protein being in every food stuff – thanks to a villainous corporation noted in the comic manuscript we’ve barely had any exposition of (both parts 1 & 2) – is just too much too quickly and really quite unimaginative. In fact, I had no idea this big background villainous entity was even called ‘The Network’ until I read the reviews. Granted, I may have missed that in an earlier episode, but still it shows how little the script is willing to let on.

I choose the word ‘script’ on purpose here. Visually, the series is brilliant. Great locations and a stunning colourful and varied nod to the comic books and movies that has inspired it. The acting has been pretty awesome in places too. Emilia Jones as Alice in Ep. 4 was a fantastic performance, Fiona O’ Shaughnassey playing Jessica Hyde as the ultra violent, slightly child like, rouge (River Tam from Firefly anyone?). But none more so than Neil Maskell as Arby. Arby is the only character who appears genuinely interesting and so borderline psychopathic that you can’t help but want him to completely lose it. In fact, I will admire his plot and how his character is affected by the eponymous comic book that we’ve seen so little of. A genuine connection of discovery that nails it. But that is because Maskell has played it so expertly. A similar child like quality to Hyde, suggesting their shared past, but with a more true feeling of hurt, confusion and a slight innocence despite his actions. We don’t give a toss about the implausible global pharmaceutical conspiracy, we want a person to care about! Other than that, I don’t feel the series is actually going anywhere. Jessica Hyde was introduced far too early, leading to very clunky drawn out travelling/hiding scenes to wreak potential havoc on a love relationship we don’t care about. Jessica’s secret motives are so secret, we don’t care about them. Becky’s seemingly double agent ploy is so unexplained, we don’t care about it… You see where I’m heading with this.

I’m not intentionally being nasty towards the show or another writer’s writing (I’m not a critic per se, more of a practicing observer) but I honestly don’t care about anything except Arby. People who I’ve spoken to who’ve seen the show (not reviewers, genuine audience like me, you, anyone NOT reviewing), honestly don’t care about anything except Arby. Which makes me wonder why the rest of the show is so damned frustrating with its clunky style? It can get it right somewhere, so why not the rest? Don’t even get me started on the seemingly pointless and utterly infuriating storyline involving the civil servant Michael Dugdale which seems to be purely there as exposition for background evil. Or the sudden appearance of Milner, the stiff upper lip lady spy, who reels off government department acronyms like a child describing their Pokemon cards. These distract from the general plot and annoy me. A plot which now seems to be a weekly edition of “Who is?” Who is Jessica Hyde in Ep. 1, Who is Mr Rabbit now in Ep’s 3&4; with long, confusing and utterly boring expositions of how they effect the plot of our characters and seemingly lead them no where but to another “Who is?” moment.

I will watch the rest to see how it pans out because it will frustrate me if I don’t. And if you are enjoying it, fair enough. Do not let my diatribe put you off watching, inspiring or giving television producers the desire (excuse) to have a get out there and create some intriguing telly. But for me it’s not working. When I first heard the idea (after it felt like pulling teeth from the writer in the C4 interview to get anything sensical about it), I thought that it would have made a great kids TV show. Reminiscent of the Russell T Davies shows like Dark Season, imports like Round The Twist, and the like. It doesn’t need the violence and it would appeal to a young adult, maybe even younger, audience with the parents getting intrigued also. I think it makes a good adult show too but sadly, that isn’t being realised in my eyes.

Will Defiance Defy or Defile?


It seems like a brilliant idea and a brilliant concept.

Here’s a “bring you up to speed” bit. SyFy in the US (the people that have brought you Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, Eureka, etc.) are launching a new show called Defiance over Spring 2013. Its premise is that aliens crash on a near-future Earth with an ark of animals and people and begin to terraform and cohabit with the humans.

Fair enough. But they are also releasing a game. Not a tie in, but a constant companion to the series. The game is set in a different city to the TV series (game in San Francisco, TV in St Louis) but it runs side by side with the TV universe. The stories, mythology and events of the series happen at the same time in the game. Characters jump from the series to the game and back out to the series to talk about what’s happened in the game. It’s what they call “Transmedia.” The game itself is a Massively Multiplayer Online First Person Shooter (MMOFPS) that will be on 360, PS3, PC and will have an iPad version. Here’s the website about it that gives you all the info and videos that you need.


This has been in development for 4 years. In that time, from the TV perspective, SyFy made and cancelled at least two major (costly) series; Caprica and Stargate Universe. They’ve ended Eureka and have given a very big paycheck and primetime slot to Vince McMahon for WWE’s Smackdown. That fact that this isn’t a tie in and the whole duality of both the TV and MMO game makes me nervous because it is completely new territory. The game doesn’t make me nervous at all as a single entity. The game, if it’s a good game, will succeed, regardless of the TV series. Or it won’t (e.g. APB).

This is where my fears lay however, the TV series. For those of you who know anything about how television works you may get this immediately. For those of you who don’t, here’s how it goes:

  • Big series is developed. Lots of money goes into it.
  • Series premieres to rave reviews and large audiences. TV rakes in advertising money and distribution rights.
  • TV Execs immediately commission second series.
  • Series begins to fall mid season where not much happens. Viewer numbers tumble.
  • Series goes on mid season break. Viewers get annoyed with pointlessly long gap and forget series.
  • Series returns with more viewers but less than the premiere. Execs move it around the schedule to get best audience, but ultimately lose it because they keep moving it around.
  • Viewers fall completely with only peak at the end of season inevitable cliffhanger.
  • Second series starts and audiences drop to a third of what they were.
  • TV Execs continue to move the show around, hoping they stumble upon an audience like they’re drilling for oil.
  • Series is cancelled by mid season break.
  • Avid followers begin uproar; execs cite how much money they’ve spent.
  • Series ends and Execs have stirred the fans into such an angry frenzy, they’ll bleed money from the huge DVD sales.

That’s pretty much it. With a show idea like Defiance, it has three major problems that will lose the casual massive audience it needs to prevent that from happening. Firstly, it’s Science Fiction. This is a harsh but true problem. With the exception of Star Trek: The Next Generation, there hasn’t been a successful mainstream Science Fiction show produced in the US in recent times that has kept a casual audience. In the UK, Doctor Who may be the only example of this. But as soon as you start putting in aliens, spaceships or whatever, casual audiences turn off. Secondly, its allure is innovation. This works incredibly well in a movie environment where it is a one off. But once its been done, its old and people will forget it. For all of Avatar’s innovation for example, there is hardly anyone that will argue that the story was more wooden than Joan River’s face. As a TV series, Avatar would have been a very expensive blue turd.


Thirdly, the idea of the computer game will possibly end its appeal. The risk is that the show begins to cater to the universe its in rather than the audience itself. The casual audience will scatter immediately leaving only the gaming audience who will either be a large community that love the game and find the TV show a distraction, or a small community that enjoy both equally but not enough to keep SyFy pumping the money into it.

I really am interested to see how this pans out because it’s a major risk from SyFy. But with great risk comes great innovation. If it works and it’s successful, it will completely rewrite the entertainment industry. Which will probably lead to Fox doing exactly the same thing, only much cheaper and with no care on what the show is about. But I fear that the American big audience, which it is mainly aimed for, will disappear. All that will be left is a core cult of people that the TV execs simply cannot justify spending multi-million dollar budgets on.


This is an intriguing multimedia proposal, but there is one other side note. Near-future alien/human crossover shows never last very long or aren’t very good. Examples being Alien Nation, Earth: Final Conflict, V, Alf… Ok maybe not Alf, but you get my point. Even the Terminator series only lasted for two seasons and those were human looking robots! There is an often mistaken theory in all walks of the entertainment world. If you throw enough money at it, it will be successful. I just wonder if the money spent on this could have been better spent on developing many new series instead of one absolutely mega blow out. We shall see.

Edit: Just discovered Bear McCreary is doing the music. It will be awesome.