Utopia bounded onto British television eight years ago, taking Channel 4’s prime time Tuesday spot in January of 2013. Immediately it was clear that this show was going to be something different. Right from the opening credits of the first episode, there were bright yellows, intense scenes, and a general sense that this show was an aesthetic and complex art form. Indeed, to this day it remains unlike anything else I have ever come across on British television, and one of the best series of them all.
The show is striking with a bold, cinematic colour scheme focused on bright yellows, very unique characters who all have their own quirks, and very different camera angles and settings. From the very first moment, we are thrust into a world where violence is necessary, children are not spared, and corruption trumps moral values when it comes to survival. The striking yellows stand out in almost every scene—they are always there, either in a background or an item of clothing.
Jessica is injected with Janus, the biochemical creation her father made and the centre of the story, in a yellow hospital room. Her father’s home during the time he made Janus is also painted yellow, as is his room in the psychiatric hospital. At the end of Series 1, Jessica is locked in a yellow barred cell after being apprehended by some scientists and politicians who are after Janus. The colour yellow is intrinsically linked to Utopia by its appearance in almost every scene, and its excessive use throughout. But it is also significant to Jessica herself, many of the most important moments of her life occurring against its backdrop.
This show was something fresh and different, lighting up UK TV screens with a rich concoction of mystery, violence, and moral dilemmas. The storyline weaves in and out of complex questions, ones that strike up provocative thoughts and considerations for viewers. The fast-paced narrative and the callbacks to real-world events grip you and refuse to let up, until you have watched the entire 12 episodes and are desperate for more.
At the beginning of the series, there are two main narrative arcs—one that we are privy to, and one that we are not. We are introduced to a group of online friends who are bonded over their shared love of a graphic novel, and we also have mysterious men threatening and murdering people all in the name of locating an elusive “Jessica Hyde.” There are also scenes of a civil servant, Michael (Paul Higgins), and his job; however, it is not initially clear which arc he fits in.
When we first enter the world of Utopia, “Where is Jessica Hyde?” is the question on everybody’s lips. The question recurs frequently throughout the opening scenes of the series, and it seems as though some very powerful people want to get hold of her, whoever she is.
Because we are initially introduced to the narrative as two separate narrative arcs, and one of these is based entirely around locating Jessica Hyde (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), she immediately stands out from her supporting characters. The two men predominantly searching for Jessica are an unlikely pairing. The more confident of the two—Lee (Paul Ready)—seems self-assured and capable, but is very eccentric in his style and appearance. He wears suits, always in bold colours, often yellow like much of the set.
Lee is a very eccentric character. He carries a brightly coloured bag with him, also yellow. It contains his equipment for the torture he enjoys inflicting so much and it has thick black handles, which, when the bag is put down, droop until they create an arc, making the bag look like a classic smiley emoticon. The other, Arby (Neil Maskell), hardly speaks, moves very slowly at all times, and seems to have a psychological deficit of some kind. Both are socially divergent and give the impression that, although they understand each other, anybody outside their working partnership might struggle to properly communicate with them. Nevertheless, they seem determined to locate Jessica and waste no time in getting to work.
Because the two men are so different as people, it seems almost as though the search for Jessica is all that binds them together. It is clear before we even see her for the first time that she is important. She is not just a compelling character in her own right, but her existence infiltrates into and affects the lives of every single character in the show.
Elsewhere, Becky (Alexandra Roach), Grant (Oliver Woollford), Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), and Wilson (Adeel Akhtar) became friends in an online forum dedicated to The Utopia Experiments, a graphic novel concerning predictions of real-life events such as epidemics. A member of the forum acquires a manuscript of a second graphic novel, a sequel, and hands it over to the four friends. They are an ethnically, generationally, and occupationally diverse group. We quickly learn that these five characters are pivotal to the adventure and the narrative of Utopia.
Because the initial plot is split into these two parts, we are intrigued by Jessica Hyde. We wonder about her connection to the four friends, and why she is wanted so badly by two very dangerous men. She has been set apart from everybody else for the first episode, to give her her own dramatic introduction. Before we are even introduced to her, Jessica Hyde of Utopia compels us in ways we can’t fathom.
Our eagerly anticipated introduction to Miss Hyde is blunt and surprising. After the intense search for her, the audience can be forgiven for expecting someone spectacular, but the woman who appears on the doorstep of the house where the group is hiding looks quite normal. And then she opens her mouth: “My name is Jessica Hyde. Come with me now or you’ll all die.”
This is also the four friends’ introduction to Jessica. As she quickly explains to them, she is on the run from a group called “The Network,” who are now also looking for Becky, Grant, Ian, and Wilson, after discovering they have a second manuscript of The Utopia Experiments. The Network wants this manuscript, and they also want Jessica. Jessica explains that this is because her father is the scientist responsible for writing the manuscript and that he is now in a psychiatric asylum.
Jessica has short, uneven brown curls, staring blue eyes, and a youthful, athletic appearance. Physically, this gives her a weak and innocent appearance, but she doesn’t have the poise of a victim, neither does she behave like a villain. Her background is sketchy, and the group is cautious.
They are also stunned by her statement, and Becky—the most outspoken of the four—is frustrated and distrustful immediately. However, it takes just a few scenes for the supporting characters to trust Jessica. In just her first few lines of dialogue, she has already humiliated Ian, proved herself knowledgeable, displayed great confidence, and demonstrated a high intellect. As Ian points a gun toward her, she only laughs and lists the ways he gives away his lack of knowledge about the weapon. She moves quickly and snatches it from him, before laughing and giving it back. Her laugh is almost childlike, but this short exchange has already shown that she is confident and that she is willing to put trust in the group, forcing them to trust in her. Her character lives up to the anticipation we were all feeling.
Despite lacking some social kindnesses and etiquette, Jessica quickly proves herself to be brazen, and resourceful. Her selfishness is canceled out by her survival instinct and desire for self-preservation, for it is this selfishness that allows her to stay safe, and the group quickly realise that sticking with her and trusting her will likely keep them safe too.
A prime example of this comes when they leave the house together. Jessica, in trying to convince Wilson to leave, promises him that someone will pick up his father from work so that he can join them. It later becomes obvious that this promise was simply a fabrication in exchange for Wilson’s co-operation. Jessica is ruthless and selfish, but for the sake of her own longevity and the survival of the group.
And so, Jessica becomes one of the group’s number. At this point, they are all on the run from the same people and become fugitives together. Despite her timid appearance, she is immediately shown to be capable of great ruthlessness and violence. Whatever fight she lacks physically, is more than compensated by her mental agility. Nobody matters to Jessica more than herself, and nothing will hold her back from something she wants. This is something she has inherited from her father. Neither person cared about collateral deaths, something they have both expressed out loud on numerous occasions, and both are (or were) focused on an end goal. Nevertheless, it seems as though Jessica is glad of some friends after being on the run by herself ever since she was a child.
It is precisely because she looks and sounds so unassuming that she has such a compelling nature: you can’t help but be enthralled by how quick-witted and able-minded she is. Each time a scene shows her to be these things, the audience is taken by surprise because it is in contrast to what we expect from her appearance. If she was predictable and kind there would be less about her to wonder about and to examine. Instead, Jessica is energetic, engaging, and keeps you on the ball. O’Shaughnessy does a superb job of bringing the character to life. She maintains a wild look in her eyes, and moves nimbly and quickly, keeping us on our toes visually as well as when we reel from her sharp words or coarse actions.
There are times when Jessica does show compassion, usually towards Grant, who is young. Perhaps she sees some of herself as a lost child within him…or perhaps she just sees him as someone who will be easier for her to manipulate because of his relative naivety. For a brief period of time, Jessica takes Grant away from the rest of the group, teaches him about life, and is, occasionally, physically affectionate. She uses him to hide some important documents by giving them to him for safekeeping, but her affection still seems genuine.
Now that our two storylines have somewhat woven into one—that is, Jessica is now at one with the main group of characters—the narrative takes us on an adventure of evasion. Throughout the twists and turns of the tale, Jessica’s personality is consistent and her wit never fails the rest of the group. As we learn more about her it becomes ever clearer that she is smart and fearless.
Despite this, it becomes increasingly obvious that she has severe unresolved traumas that cloud her judgment and sometimes seem to motivate her to do things that might not benefit the group as a whole. This doesn’t come fully into its own until the second series, where we are really guided through the traumas she and her family suffered as a result of her father’s scientific work.
It is revealed to us that her father Philip Carvel (Tom Burke) was an esteemed scientist. He created Janus, a biochemical agent that is capable of mass sterilization, and that an opposing group has been after ever since they discovered that it exists. The Utopia Experiments manuscript holds the scientific information necessary to create Janus, and the chemical itself is within Jessica after her father didn’t know how else to hide or preserve it without handing it over. We learn that, due to her father’s work, as a young child Jessica was threatened with torture, lived in a home with a violent sibling after her father experimented on him, and was at the liberty of Philip’s eccentric, and frankly devastating, whims. Ultimately, she is left essentially orphaned after the orchestrated death of her mother and institutionalisation of her father.
Once we as viewers have the full story, the show becomes a discussion about Philip’s intentions and whether or not Janus is a morally acceptable creation. We watch Jessica learn about her father and navigate the situations this brings. Ever since her father’s institutionalisation, she was entrusted to a man named Christoph. Because Janus was inside her it was necessary for her to go into hiding so that she was protected from those hunting for it. However, as a child, she did not actually know that Janus existed outside the pages of The Utopia Experiments manuscript.
She is strong, fierce, clever, secretive, and unusual—all the things that draw attention to a person. Her strength seems to come from having to be independent for the vast majority of her life, including her childhood. That she survived this commands great respect. Her intelligence, ferocity, and secretive nature also reflect this—Jessica Hyde has only ever trusted herself, and this is why she is still alive.
But Jessica is also a very unusual character. She is not a typical heroine, and there are a lot of things about her that make you feel you would not like her as a person, even if you respect her for all that she has accomplished. It is difficult to like her—she is blunt in a not-so-charming way, she is cold and cruel, and she cares very little for others unless they have something she can take from them. Sometimes it appears she even enjoys taunting Becky. And yet these are the characteristics that give her her strength, resolve, and courage. Her lack of caring for others gives her the tools for self-preservation above all else. Despite not being able to necessarily “like” her, it would be impossible to not be intrigued by her. Her quirks are enthralling and her backstory is desperately tragic, piquing your interest and being revealed slowly so as not to lose you.
Jessica is not compelling because she is likeable, Jessica is compelling because she is interesting. Although she is somewhat of a sociopath, she has many redeeming qualities—and there is nothing dull about her. Her complexity makes her feel human, despite the far-fetched narrative at times. In fact, all the characters in Utopia feel real. Becky’s random leg bruises are never edited out, there is a believable awkwardness in the group when the friends meet in person for the first time, and there is a complexity to every character. This realism goes right down to the lack of romanticisation in the relationships, friendships, and dialogue between the characters.
This is true of the sets too. Each location feels very real, especially the comic book store—situated between a Barnado’s charity shop and a hairdresser’s. Part of Utopia’s charm is this realism for me, and this is also part of Jessica’s charm. She is not a shallow character by any means. The complexity of each character makes you feel as though you are watching another person much more than you feel that you are watching a manufactured personality. Jessica herself is the most complex, and therefore the most intriguing.
As the real world has progressed since Utopia’s release, the actual narrative itself does not seem so unrealistic as it once did. With references to real-life events, such as the assassination of Airey Neave (Milne, Philip’s closest colleague, assassinates Neave), Utopia goes above and beyond to feel like a carefully executed, incredibly plausible tale. The over-saturated colours and the deep idiosyncrasies of the characters do not detract from this, they somehow manage to enhance the effect. Every scene is breathtaking and realistic, and it feels impossible to look away. The real-life debates of morality that predominantly take place in the second series open up some vital questions about over-population, and about the future of humanity.
In the latter episodes of Utopia, it is revealed that not only is Jessica Hyde a key player in the narrative, but she is also the root of all that her father worked on. Each new secret that we are introduced to seems to lead back to her, with her being the link between many seemingly unrelated events.
Once we know Janus, the biochemical, is at the root of the entire plot, we realise the extent of Jessica’s significance. Her life is the narrative because her life is keeping Janus alive. The random murders, the dozens of uprooted lives, the torment and the anger, they all lead to Jessica. This is not her doing, it is the gift her father gave to her, which turned into a deadly curse.
Initially, Utopia was run by Channel 4 for two seasons. After this, it was sold to HBO, but nothing came of this after budgetary disputes. However, recently—September 25, 2020—a remake of the original Utopia was released by Amazon Prime Video, adapted by Gillian Flynn. There are eight episodes, and all are available to watch immediately.
A lot of the controversy surrounding the original series, which may have contributed to its cancellation, was centered around its violence and adult nature. Perhaps we are now in a time where this will detract less from the story itself, which will now be able to generate interest in its own right. Utopia was more than we were able to handle in 2013.
Hearing the news that this new venture would be a remake as opposed to taking the existing series further was a little disappointing—the foundations laid will be incredibly difficult to improve on, and the story felt like it had so much more to give. This being said, if this version takes off better than the original, it’s possible that we might see it taken to new heights and new narratives in the future. I have high hopes for the potential of this remake, but also many reservations. The original show ran what is now eight years ago, and its impression on me is as strong as the day I first saw it.