Over seven years ago Dennis Kelly and Channel 4 made TV history with Utopia, a stylish, violent and original thriller following a group of comic book nerds who uncovered a grand conspiracy as they were pursued by deadly forces.
Cited as one of the best dramas Channel 4 had ever made but not attracting many viewers, the series was cut down at the end of its second series in what many considered a grave injustice – but now the idea is getting a second chance with a US remake from Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, transporting the action to Chicago but keeping (more or less) the same twisted story.
So will this new version be the continuation of Utopia that fans have hoped for? Well… probably not. This new retelling of the story is a decidedly mixed bag, dropping a lot of the original’s style and menace and making safer, more middle-of-the-road choices throughout.
When the new Utopia excels, it’s because Flynn departs from Kelly’s original story to add her own twists and extensions – when it disappoints, it’s because it’s just re-doing something that’s been done better before.
And in the first few episodes, that feeling is especially acute. We kick off the story more or less the same way as in the UK series, with a gang of online comic book fans meeting up for the chance to get their hands on a sequel to the cult graphic novel they’re all obsessed with.
Among them there’s conspiracy theorist Wilson Wilson, nice girl-next-door-with-a-secret Becky, milquetoast office worker Ian, catfisher Grant (who pretends to be a rich adult, instead of the pre-teen he is) and – new to the US version – Sam, an activist and the group’s leader.
Soon, they’re on the run from a mysterious organisation who’ll murder anyone to get their hands on the comic, and have to decipher its secrets to work out what their foes are planning – which is when they run into the real-life version of the comic’s protagonist, Jessica Hyde…
While watching the first couple of episodes of Utopia, it’s striking just how similar it is to the UK edition. Some details are new – the gang meet at a convention instead of at another member’s request – but the progression of the story is almost identical (including all the violence) making for a slightly awkward watch as you witness new actors try to inhabit characters played so brilliantly once more.
But while the original Utopia’s taut structure kept you on the edge of your seat, the more languid pace of this follow-up can be disappointing. Generally speaking the action is slow and almost baggy, with events from the first episode of the original series not occurring until around halfway through the second of this reboot, and the sharp directorial choices and bright colours from Kelly’s version replaced by more bland visual storytelling.
Meanwhile, striking performances from the UK Utopia’s cast – most notably Neil Maskell’s starmaking turn as the psychotic Arby – just aren’t matched by the Amazon remake’s (admittedly very game) actors, who just feel like poor replacements. Again, the best additions are those characters who weren’t in the UK version, including Rainn Wilson’s put-upon Dr Michael Stearns and John Cusack’s faintly sinister billionaire Dr Christie.
And as the series continues and these characters come more into focus, it feels like Utopia finds its feet more. Without giving anything away, the stories of these two men deepen and change the original Utopia story in interesting ways that do offer a few surprises, as opposed to just “re-skinning” an old scene.
In fairness to the production team, they won’t have to worry too much about these comparisons. The vast majority of viewers will probably have never watched the UK original, have no clue as to the fates of its characters, or how the whole thing fits in to Deel’s syndrome.
For them, this new Utopia might seem more spookily prescient than rehashed, with the original 2013 storyline about a deadly flu virus infecting children at schools while the safety of vaccinations is argued over a bit of a eye-widener given the current worldwide pandemic. Really, for fresh viewers this could be a brilliant slice of dark sci-fi that’s nothing like they’ve seen before.
But if you were a fan of the original version, this won’t fill the void that the UK series’ cancellation left. They may have all the eye-gouging action intact, but Utopia’s remake still isn’t a patch on the original.
Utopia comes to Amazon Prime on Friday 25th September. Want something else to watch? Check out our in-depth TV Guide.