A captivating look at Janus’s ’70s origins.
Utopia’s returned, and in superb fashion! We are not immediately dropped where we left off however, instead taking a dive into the mythology of this remarkable, zany series. This first episode of the new series is technically a prequel, a prologue, an extra hour that finally gives us many of the answers we’ve been waiting for. Transported back to the 1970s, we meet the brilliant scientist Philip Carvel in his prime, played by Tom Burke (The Musketeers), as he is drawn into the conspiracy led by MI5 Agent ‘Mr Rabbit’ Milner (Rose Leslie) to rid the world for good from all those pesky billions taking up earth’s diminishing resources.
A young Carvel is brought to the attention of ambitious idealist Milner at a congregation of elite scientists and VIPs at a manor estate. The two hit it off straight away with their shared beliefs and attraction to each other (never in an explicitly romantic way – he is married with a young son, Arby, and Milner is in a loving relationship with the sweet-natured but alcoholic Tom). Frustrated by the stupidity and short-sightedness of others, Carvel is easily seduced by the offer to work with Milner on the super-virus, a chance to play God and make a momentous impact on the world for the future of the human race. The Janus virus he creates targets human reproduction, meaning that if unleashed, 95% of the population would be rendered infertile, leaving a far reduced human race to live in their own ‘utopian’ world.
Yet, while Milner throughout holds close to her moral dictum of the ‘greater good’, at first it seems that Carvel simply wants to use his genius to cull the population as he sees fit. Gradually though, this changes completely. Milner’s complete obsession with the Janus plot means no one is safe, even those she loves, when the plan itself is put at risk. Carvel on the other hand wants rid of Janus as his life at home brings into focus the love and family at odds with his scientific endeavour. Milner isn’t evil, not really, but her and her loyal henchman are a force to be reckoned with. Powerful and morally corrupt enough to sway government elections, murder scores of scientists and innocents, and torture children. After Carvel speaks to her about the liability of her addict boyfriend, Milner heads home and, sticking to her principles, drowns her lover in the bath after coldly ordering the destruction of a plane full of passengers.
From one coldly calculating character to an emotionally odd one, we should quickly talk about Arby. It is heartbreaking to see how Arby’s childhood paved the way for his madness in adulthood. A quiet and eerily unemotional child, his father’s experiments on him (including severing a live rabbit’s head in front of him) didn’t help the boy but rather generated more of a monster. One who craves attention from his parents but whose behaviour leaves them neglectful. When Jessica, Carvel’s second child is born, the scientist realises his errors with Arby and dedicates himself to saving his daughter while trying to prevent Milner getting her hands on the Janus virus.
This sudden morality makes him a target, and his efforts to hide the virus are almost thwarted when Milner sets a torturer upon him and Jessica. As to be expected from this show, when someone says they’re going to rip your fingernail off, it means that Dennis Kelly (Utopia’s creator) is going to graphically show it. After escaping and freeing Jessica, Carvel’s is dropped at a mental institution, and his saviour takes Jessica on the road with him, calling the young girl ‘Jessica Hide’, after one of her drawings.
Questions do remain, and it would be great to see how Milner became the idealist she is here or how the Mr Rabbit legend really started, or how her right-hand man was recruited to her side and stayed loyal throughout her scheme. How can Milner be so vicious yet seem to have a disarmingly huge heart for those she loves? What happens to Jessica during her years on the run to make her into the weird character she is in the present?
The acting is spot-on, with Rose Leslie capturing Geraldine James’s portrayal well while injecting something special of her own into Milner’s character. Tom Burke is delightfully broody and sharply intelligent as Carvel.
There are no flaws to be found here. This is bonkers television that is utterly unlike anything else out there right now. Utopia examines real-world problems through its over-the-top, unflinching and visually splendid style. Episode 2 returns to the present day and our series 1 gang, but in a way this engaging first episode leaves me wanting to spend more time in the past. Should we call for a miniseries spin-off?