9th March 2013
The Utopia Experiments is a legendary graphic novel which is rumoured to have predicted the worst disasters of the late twentieth century. Dismissed as the fevered imaginings of a madman by most, it is never the less idolised by a handful of others and has a cult following - with a website dedicated to its mythology and a membership comprised of conspiracy theorists, skeptics and the usual collection of internet trolls.
So when a small group of previously unconnected people suddenly find themselves in possession of an original copy of the manuscript, their lives suddenly and brutally implode. Relentlessly pursued by a shadowy and murderous unit called The Network, this unit will stop at absolutely nothing to keep its origins and true meanings secret.
But with The Network engrained in every part of every day life - from business to the government, the group are finding it hard to keep themselves out of sight as they are hounded by the police and arrested on jumped up charges. So when help appears to come in the form of the mysterious Jessica Hyde, who promises to help keep them safe in turn for seeing the manuscript, what choice do they have but to take her for her word?
With The Network in hot pursuit, and with the bodies of their friends, families and anybody else they happen to meet piling up all around them, the rag-tag group must join Jessica's journey and help uncover the truth - a truth which will eventually reveal itself as a danger to the whole of mankind with the only solution to unmask the elusive Mr. Rabbit.
As The Utopia Experiments is a legendary graphic novel, the visual images have also been presented in the style of a graphic novel. This has resulted in a fantastic transfer which contains some wonderful cinematography, breathtaking widescreen landscapes and a range of colours which are mainly made up of blue, yellow or green.
With an above average bit-rate throughout, the quality of the images reproduced on the DVD are nothing short of remarkable, and with a Blu-ray version also available, I suspect that its image quality will be gobsmacking. Naturally, given that it is television material, the print is clean and free from any signs of damage. Even though the colours are deliberately restricted, the darker scenes remain pristine with some excellent black levels and no signs of pixelisation or artifacting.
Whilst the picture is a bit of a cracker, the sound is an unfortunate let down. Being television material (although, surely, a consumer release would have been expected at the commissioning stage) the sound is only presented as a 192Kbps Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. Sure, the series was made on a shoestring budget for Channel 4, but the lack of a 5.1 soundtrack does take some of the shine off the production.
Never the less, the dialogue is clear enough and there's plenty going on to help keep your attention. Still, in an unfortunate development which is cropping up more and more in television and film productions, the musical score can be a little too overbearing at times as it crashes into the dialogue and various scenes. If there needs to be one improvement, it's the need to tone down the music.
The six episodes in the series are spread over two discs with a good collection of extras and a pleasantly animated and scored menu system which wouldn't be out of place in a much more expensive production. Along with the episodes, the various features have subtitles whilst the first episode on the disc is accompanied by an interesting, and rather detailed, Audio commentary with writer Dennis Kelly, director Mark Munden and producer Rebekah Wray-Rogers.
Over on the second disc, the ten minute The World of Utopia featurette offers something unusual in a DVD feature - it warns you not to watch it until you've watched the episodes. With wacky camera work, close ups and split scenes not looking out of place in a graphic novel, Dennis Kelly and the various cast members are on hand to explain the origins of the series and their thoughts on conspiracy theories.
The eleven minute Analysis of stunt scene with Directors Wayne Yipp & Alex Garcia looks at the car crash stunt scene from episode five. With yet more wacky camera work, close ups and split scenes, it's a detailed, and actually rather interesting look, at what is essentially a not very interesting stunt.
Next up is the ten minute Fly on the Wall of Director Marc Munden filming. Doing exactly what it says on the tin, the featurette follows Marc Munden and crew members as they prepare to film the school massacre scene. With crash mats galore and the careful preperation of firearms it's an interesting behind the scenes look at the filming process.
Finally, there's seventeen minutes worth of Deleted Scenes. With eight chaptered scenes in all, the quality of the timecoded images are good, but it's not hard to see why the scenes were removed from the final cut of the programme. With some scenes simply trimmed for timing purposes, it also includes some completely cut scenes - including one where Milner finds and integrates a Russian scientist called Fridrika Giersdottir.
Created by Dennis Kelly, who also co-wrote Pulling with Sharon Horgan and the musical version of Matilda with Tim Minchin, Utopia has attracted a great deal of controversy - mainly because of the amount of graphic and brutal ultra-violence that makes A Clockwork Orange look like a children's programme. This is especially evident in one episode where there's a mass shooting in a school (even if the deaths were "off camera"). Given the amount of recent shootings in America, you could potentially argue that it's a little tasteless.
I would go as far as saying that Utopia contains too much violence (and that's not something you'll hear me say very often) with violence used for violence sake (although, you could argue that it's only following the same pattern as just about every graphic novel going). It also goes without saying that Utopia has an 18 certificate - a certificate that even Quentin Tarantino would be very proud of.
From its first transmission on 2nd November 1982, Channel 4 has consistently produced innovating and ground breaking television. We're already aware of its wonderful comedy – such as the likes of Peep Show and Father Ted – but it's also making a name for itself with superb thrillers such as Misfits and Secret State. And now with the arrival of Utopia, that innovative television has been taken to another level.
Utopia is a remarkable piece of television and, as usual for those brave commissioning people at Channel 4, it deserves just as many plaudits as it deserves the criticism for its excessive violence. There's no doubt Utopia is a worthy purchase, but if you want a completely mind-blowing experience, you should skip the DVD shelf and head straight over for the Blu-ray edition instead. However, if you like your drama/thrillers without the violence you should probably stay well clear.
- The World of Utopia - with Dennis Kelly
- Fly on the Wall of Director Marc Munden filming
- Analysis of stunt scene with Directors Wayne Yipp & Alex Garcia
- Deleted scenes
- Audio commentary on Episode one with Dennis Kelly (writer), Mark Munden (Director) and Rebekah Wray-Rogers (Producer)