Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Theatre of Futility: Channel Four's Utopia

In 2007 I began looking at the uncanny prophecies of Jack Kirby, beginning with the Face on Mars splash that Richard Hoagland and others had brought to light. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Even more startling were his prophecies of the Gulf Wars, which I began to unravel in 2007.

The Gulf War prophecies were just one of Kirby's startling predictions but were the most fascinating to me, in that they not only dealt with the CNN version of the events (these stories also featured virtual reality goggles and video-guided smart bombs, some two decades prior to their invention) but also the exegesis unfolding in the alt.research community, dealing with the search for Anunnaki relics and all the rest of that.

The ongoing research into Kirby has dealt with issues that many people in the pop culture mainstream would very much like to sweep under the carpet, particularly Kirby's near fanatical obsession with Ancient Astronaut Theory (long predating Chariots of the Gods) but also his essential Gnosticism (he envisioned the God of the Bible as Galactus, the merciless planet destroyer, and the Silver Surfer was his classic Gnostic savior).

These theories made their way into the Internet at large, including the Wikipedia entry for Our Gods Wear Spandex (even though none of it is discussed in the book).

In 2010 Cracked, the unfunny listicle site which takes its name from an unfunny MAD knockoff, did their own version of these pieces on the equally impressive predictions/ synchronicities of diehard Kirby apostle John Byrne (though Kirby's Challenger disaster prediction was a lot more specific than Byrne's) and padding them with a couple somewhat unimpressive 'predictions'.

I don't doubt that people at Cracked were reading The Secret Sun because I was also approached by a Cracked writer to do a piece on the Kirby stuff with him. But realizing you can't easily soundbite the Kirby stuff, it didn't happen.

But obviously some people at the UK's Channel Four were also reading, since the idea of a comic book "Nostradamus" predicting disasters and wars and whatnot became the basis for a series called Utopia, which also lifts all kinds of ideas from The X-Files as well.

The artist in question in Utopia is named 'Carvel', not Kirby, a name which still hits many of the same consonant sounds (b and v are both related labiodental consonant sounds), a trick writers like to utilize when disguising names in their fiction.

However it's presented, Utopia only pretends to be a "conspiracy" show. The series' writer/producer Dennis Kelly tells anyone who'll listen that he "doesn't believe in conspiracies", which is rather rich given the fact that his erstwhile employer the BBC is currently embroiled in a lurid and far-reaching conspiracy itself, namely the investigation into systemic sexual abuse of children by BBC personnel and personalities, currently being investigated under the rubric of Operation Yewtree.

Recent investigations have begun into suspicions that BBC reporter Jill Dando was murdered because she was investigating this conspiracy, and the sickening revelations about the loathsome Jimmy Savile and Gary Glitter never seem to end.

Still don't believe in conspiracies, Denny? Or is that an impolitic question?

Of course, what Denny really means is that he's not a lower class weirdo who doesn't get wonderful writing gigs and get invited to all the chi-chi parties in London.

Not like Utopia's conspiracy theorist Wilson Wilson (who was obviously written as white - and of course, racist - until C4 "diversity" dictums kicked in), who utters absurdities like "caffiene was invented by the CIA" and keeps Mulder's "I Want to Believe" poster in his bedroom.

The plot, such as it is, throws together a group of accidental rebels trying to survive while being pursued by a pair of made-for-TV hitmen (one sports a quiff, the other gobbles on chocolate covered raisins), who are searching for the unpublished sequel to a cult graphic novel called Utopia as well as a mysterious woman named Jessica Hyde.

The protagonists are pleasant enough: Becky, a Scottish student who claims to be researching Utopia for a paper, Ian, a black IT who still lives with his mum (he reads comics, get it?), Wilson Wilson, the unlikely-named Pakistani comics fan/'conpiracy buff' who still lives with his dad (this Kelly guy really pushes the stereotype here), 

Grant, a troubled young tough framed for a school shooting (Utopia originally came out a month after Sandy Hook), and Michael, another Scot, this one a civil servant who is being used by the conspirators because he is led to believe he knocked up the Russian prostitute he's been knocking boots with.

The main villains are played by James Fox and Stephen Rea, who do everything but twirl their mustaches. And that's only because they aren't wearing any (though Fox sports a devilish soul patch). They do chew as much scenery as they can get their teeth around, however.

There are lesser villains of the same stripe, all on loan from the same Saturday morning cartoon stock cabinet. In a rather daring move for C4, one of the villains is not a English man but a English woman. I bet someone got fired over that move.

There's an awful lot of running around and far too much explicit violence but when the nature of the conspiracy- a plan to sterilize most of the world using flu vaccines- is finally revealed any critical thinker wonders why it would be kept secret at all.

You'd think C4 viewers and Guardian readers would rise up into the streets demanding it, in fact I'm surprised they haven't already. Most of them have already voluntarily sterilized themselves, after all.

Kelly makes it a point to have two of the characters you'd expect to oppose such a thing agree with the conspiracy (one- and I won't say who- actually helps the conspirators), which of course reflects Kelly's own opinions. As well as all of the chi-chi people at those wonderful parties he wants to keep being invited to.

What Kelly is doing here is rather despicable, yet totally predictable in this day and age. He's taking the surface elements of conspiracy drama to lure his audience and then using them to instill a sense of futility and surrender in his audience.

And as with all conspiracy dramas, once the conspiracy is known and the players are exposed a lot of the fizz goes out of the pop.

 Chris Carter got no end of shit for trying to kick the ball down the road as long as he could on The X-Files, but he did realizing that nothing he and his writers could reveal could compete with the menace of an unrevealed conspiracy. The Syndicate was most frightening in the first two seasons when we didn't see them at all. Once you put a face on your fears, some of the edge is inevitably going to burnish off.


"It's over, give up, they're right, you know" is the ultimate message of Utopia. That message is like the buzzing of a gnat throughout the first series, until it stings you like a hornet at the series' end.

Worse still, the minute I saw the young boy I knew there'd be some kind of Yewtree business in the offing. And apropos of absolutely nothing (and against his will) we see Grant all dolled up in mascara, eyeliner, eyeshadow, rouge and lipstick for the last half of the series. It would be offensive if it weren't so predictable.

It got me to wondering if there's another reason so many of these people don't want us believing in real conspiracies.

Utopia seems particularly trenchant- and not in a good way- as we face the worst Ebola outbreak in history and as borders seem to be inconveniences to the mustache-twirlers in the real world. We're told not to panic, but it's highly doubtful we'd be told to panic.

Tectonic forces seem to be at work this summer, and the entire world seems to dancing towards a knife's edge, some more quickly than others. Utopia offers no comfort in this. Quite the contrary, in fact.