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Utopia Preview

Channel 4’s conspiracy thriller starts tonight, but while it’s definitely odd, is it SFX? The jury’s still out

Once upon a time, it was obvious when SFX should cover a TV show – it either had spaceships or ghosts in it.

Okay, that’s a vast oversimplification. It was never that simple. But telefantasy shows used to be telefantasy shows. Even if the TV companies tried to convince you that their show about time travelling detectives was “drama” not “urgh… sci-fi!”

It’s not like that any more. The problems started with Lost . When that launched we were kinda certain that it was an SFX show, but not everyone was so convinced. Sure, there was the polar bear on a tropical island, but it could have escaped from a zoo (“An alien zoo!” we retorted – with fingers crossed). And there was something big hiding in the trees (“A dinosaur!” we predicted … hoped; “Natives just trying to scare the survivors,” sceptics responded). It took a long while before Lost truly revealed its colours. Luckily we were right.

We weren’t quite so on the ball with Person Of Interest recently. Hell, it didn’t look sci-fi, just a bit high tech. How we were to know the crime-predicting computer was some precursor to Minority Report and about to gain sentience?

That’s why we asked the makers of the forthcoming Da Vinci’s Demons outright if it was an SFX show and not just a grown-up version of CBBC’s Leonardo . It looked like it could be an SFX show, but hell, those weird bits in the trailers could just be hallucinations or cheese-fuelled dreams. (They told us yes, it is an SFX show… very SFX – but we’re not allowed to say quite how “very” just yet.)

As telefantasy and mainstream TV have gradually merged, and the great unwashed aren’t as reticent about watching geeky-shit anymore, the boundaries between what is and what is not an SFX show have become blurred. Things that look supernatural turn out not to be; things that look like procedural show suddenly introduce super-science or ghosts.

Which is why we’re hedging out bets with Channel 4’s new drama Utopia which starts tonight. We’ve seen episode one, and there’s nothing technically SF or fantasy about it. But it’s certainly downright weird, so it could go all a bit Twin Peaks in the forthcoming weeks. In which case we’re giving you this heads up, but we’re not reviewing it. For the moment at least. Until the flying nuns with laser eyes or the robot dinosaur or zombie plague makes their presence felt.

What definitely makes it of interest – other than the weirdness and the fact it stars that guy from Misfits who never got a decent storyline – is that it concerns a graphic novel called Utopia . Or rather, Utopia ’s never-published, semi-mythical sequel, which allegedly predicted all sorts of global disasters that took place in the last couple of decades of the 20th century. A motley bunch of online Utopia fans are united in the flesh for the first time when one of them posts that he’s found the sequel… But he may regret going public with that information, because two very unpleasant men are on its trail as well. Meanwhile, a hapless, philandering government private secretary is blackmailed by a shady organisation into doing their bidding.

At the moment we’re doing our own bit of predicting: the outcome will be a massively convoluted conspiracy of some sort, but not sci-fi. We could be wrong. We’re sure you’ll let us know.

It‘s certainly a stylishly crafted and unique-feeling show, full of arresting images, gimmicky editing and self-conscious longueurs. At times it almost feels like the director of one of those in-vogue, deliberately paced Scandinavian thrillers has decided to remake The X-Files ; it might even have benefitted from being shot in Polish and given subtitles. If anyone remembers Lars Von Triers’ Kingdom , then it’s vaguely in the same stylistic territory. Though not as gross. Though there is a very gross moment involving chili peppers, sand, bleach and teaspoon.

The plot has enough hooks to keep you intrigued, which is fortunate since the characters won’t. Whether its a fault of the writing or a deliberate stylistic choice, they come across more like chess pieces being manoeuvred into position rather than real people, and none of them is particularly likeable. Okay, some are supposed to be loathsome, but even the ones whom presumably you’re supposed to engage with are stiff, sketchy and mannered. They make Samuel Beckett characters look like the life and soul of the party.

By the end of its (slightly overlong) running time, you may be balancing up whether you interest in the mystery outweighs your irritation at the lack of anyone to care about enough to tune in next week. The cliffhanger may just convince you to stick around for another week…

Utopia airs tonight on Channel 4 at 10pm

More Utopia pics here

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Dave is a TV and film journalist who specializes in the science fiction and fantasy genres. He's written books about film posters and post-apocalypses, alongside writing for SFX Magazine for many years.