The Point
Last updated: 05 March 2020. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Adrian Cruden reviews the hit TV series and looks at some of the issues it raises


"I see a desert planet and ten thousand million starving souls."

There is little in the way of Thomas More's imaginary sixteenth century "good-place-land" ("eu-ou-topos") in the recently broadcast Channel 4 serial Utopia, whose first series completed its run on 19 February. Written by Dennis Kelly and directed by the trio of Marc Munden, Wayne Che Yip and Alex Garcia Lopez, the six episodes quickly summoned up a dystopian combination of eugenics, electronic state surveillance, and corporate capitalism underpinned by an elitist philosophy redolent of Plato's philosopher-king Republic.

The story centres on a group of online enthusiasts of a graphic novel, "The Utopia Experiments", which (through interpretation by its aficionados) has predicted a number of major world crises, including SARS and BSE. When one of them informs the web forum that he has unexpectedly come into possession of a manuscript of a sequel written by the late author, Carville, they decide to meet for real to learn what it predicts for humanity. Within a short time, however, one of their number has been pushed from a rooftop, another has had an eye gouged out and all are pursued by violent, shadowy characters led by the cold-eyed, frozen-faced Arby, posing as police but using methods even the hardest fringes of the Met would disavow. Baffled by the events they find themselves at the centre of, the surviving group – postgraduate student Becky, IT consultant Ian and off-grid conspiracy theorist Wilson, are soon on the run, led by Jessica Hyde, an aggressively enigmatic stranger who tells them she is the daughter of Carville and that they are being pursued by a rogue secret security agency, The Network, originally set up by NATO to counter the Soviet Union but now "out of control". (Perhaps less credibly, Jessica explains that "The Network did things democratic governments couldn't." If only!)

Parallel to the group, we see the travails of Michael Dugdale, a senior official in the Department of Health, who is pressured via threats and blackmail by The Network to set up his Minister by purchasing a large quantity of the wrong type of flu vaccine as an epidemic threatens, leading to his replacement by one of The Network's people. When a subsequent outbreak of Russian flu occurs, the vaccine is coincidentally the only cure and, while hailed as a hero, Dugdale realises there is something profoundly wrong with the situation. Contrary to his new boss' assessment of his capabilities – "He's a fucking civil servant. I didn't expect him to take risks." – he begins to investigate the dealings of Corvadt, the large corporation with a range of interests in the food and drugs industries and the holder of the Russian flu vaccine contract.

The plot takes off in the direction of a eugenics conspiracy – Carville held extreme views on racial superiority and had advocated a human cull. As well as his graphic novel writing, he had been involved with genetic experimentation on human beings, including his own daughter Jessica, who has been on the run since she was an infant. It touches on a range of nightmare scenarios, including genetic or biological warfare against selected racial groups (a line of research actively pursued by scientists working for the South African apartheid state back in the 1970s and 1980s) before the group kidnap one of The Network's members, Conran Letts, played by an ever-excellent Stephen Rea. Thinking himself abandoned by the agency, he reveals that, in fact, the target is not discriminatory at all – rather, it is the entire human race.

The scene of revelation is chilling, not only for how it is played, but for how ultimately plausible it is. Faced with an exponential population increase from 2 billion when Letts was born to 10 billion by the middle of the 21st century and set against as a minimum the depletion if not exhaustion of many of our key resources, The Network is planning to wage a chemical war against humanity via the Janus Project. This involves a process of mass sterilisation (again, a programme actively pursued by the Indian Government in the 1970s and still seriously advocated by some on the ecological fringe). Russian flu, it transpires, is an artificially created and quite harmless disease, just as SARS and BSE were previous dry runs. The method lies not in the disease, but in the cure, the vaccine about to be used to inoculate the entire population of the UK, which will render between 90 and 95% of it sterile. The Network, it seems, sees this as a more acceptable and even humane means of managing a viable future for humanity, with the only alternative being a swarm of humans waging war over dwindling resources in a final apocalyptic ending of civilised life, if not of the species itself.

The issues posited are real – spiralling population and diminishing planetary capacity to sustain it. And, as just last month the Green Party of England & Wales faced complaints from deep ecologists for refusing to run advertising in its party magazine from the Population Matters group, the green movement is as divided as any other over the appropriate response. Greater social justice and equality might mitigate the impact of population on the planet – even now, if it was fairly distributed, there is enough food to feed the world, while suitably harnessed, solar energy could provide sufficient clean and endless power for the planet far into the future and almost regardless of population numbers.

And yet, in the absence of the political leadership or democratic demands to effect such changes, the premise of Utopia becomes all too salient. A desert planet with ten thousand million starving souls, as Letts pleads in justification for Janus, his polemic starting to divide the group as Wilson begins to come round to his way of thinking. Is this apparently horrendous act in fact preferable to the alternative of condemning future generations to war and famine? Does the end justify the means? Wilson ponders to Ian about the true nature of The Network and what the people running it are really like. "They killed your dad. They tortured you. That's who they are," his friend retorts starkly and still, in spite of his own suffering, Wilson ponders the option of which choice is ultimately the right one.

Utopia reaches an apparent climax as the conspiracy is stymied with the apparent support of the security services, but in fact there is more to come, with a second series in the making. Many questions remain – is Mr Rabbit Jessica's mother? What does Becky know that has not been revealed and where is she going, her theories about her father's death unresolved? And, although its repository was unfortunately obvious at least to this reviewer the moment Letts said it had been hidden in Carville's greatest work, what is Janus? And do we know its real purpose?

The series is stunningly filmed – the colourscape is redolent with deep pastel hues; the landscape makes what I presume is East Anglia into the American Mid-West; whilst location shots of roadside cafes and an apparent surfeit of toilet cubicles and suburban back gardens give a sense of the isolation of the group as it runs from its tormentors. The soundtrack is nearly as bleak, heightening the sense of detachment from the "normal" world which they have left behind, as well as of foreboding for the times ahead. And there are consistently strong performances, including from the two children (played by Oliver Woollford and Emilia Jones) at the centre of hiding the manuscript.

There is graphic violence and needless to say some of the mass media have picked up on this for some schlock horror protests, but that misses the point – the whole premise is based on ideology and the willingness of some to pursue what they have determined as the right course at any cost. The righteousness of The Network may be horrifying, but it would not be the first group to seek power over others to impose its sincerely held belief in creating its version of a better world, a Utopia. In such a narrative, the individual, and even the masses, become superfluous to the ideal, which will only come to perfect fruition by the removal of all obstacles. Given the urgency and totality of the crisis, survival becomes the sole morality and an artificially engineered Darwinism becomes the chosen method. In Utopia the vehicle driving this is a nightmare confluence of unlimited scientific experimentation, control of the food chain and health systems by giant corporations and the subservience of government to psychopathic capitalism, all very topical and relevant and consequently all the more chilling.

Utopia references a wealth of dark science fiction and thriller fantasies – from Soylent Green to Donnie Darko – and touches on the heart of what future is in wait for us. As with the argument in the Green Party over Population Matters, many progressives tend to avoid the question of the rapidly increasing population, arguing instead for fairer distribution and greater equality to resolve the pressure on resources and consequent destruction of the environment. Indeed, in the medium term, better health and education services are evidenced precursors for reducing family sizes and population growth. Yet given the short timescales we face, how realistic is this? And in the absence of an informed debate on the Left, do we open up the possibility of a somewhat more draconian element capitalising on the perfect storm of resource crises predicted by some as early as 2031?

None of us want to arrive in Dystopia, but how do we reach Utopia?

And who will determine the lie of that land?


                               Tryptich: Heironymous Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights



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