Lee (Paul Ready) plays a torturer, shown here with favourite tool. Image: Channel 4.
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There are no clear answers in Channel 4’s conspiracy thriller Utopia

Channel 4’s Utopia is a complex and unpredictable thriller which refuses to give easy answers on the challenges of population growth.

Utopia is a Channel 4 conspiracy thriller with a complex and unpredictable storyline. The controversial show, which first aired in January 2013 and ends its second series this week, addresses Thomas Robert Malthus’s thesis that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”, or put in plainer terms, that the population is accelerating too quickly for the earth to cope. It suggests what might happen if the population were to spiral out of control and an elite network set out to prevent Malthus’s prediction from becoming reality.

Utopia focuses on a group of people who know one another through an online forum. What unites them is a shared passion for a graphic novel known as “The Utopia Experiments”. Bejan, a contributor to the forum, claims to have acquired the novel’s undiscovered sequel: “Utopia Part Two”. Grant, an 11-year-old boy who also uses the forum, breaks into his house to steal it. As he does he witnesses Bejan’s murder. His killers demand to know the novel’s whereabouts. The members of the forum find themselves running from “The Network” – an unfathomably powerful organisation led by the infamous “Mr Rabbit”, an individual prepared to go to any lengths to secure the graphic novel, believed to contain the genetic code for “Janus”, a protein designed to sterilise “90-95 per cent” of the human race and create a utopian future world for those that remain.

Throughout the first two series, director Marc Mudden has worked hard at depicting “bad guys” who are nuanced and complex. Although they commit terrible acts, certain aspects of their philosophy appear frighteningly logical. The human race is dependent on oil, gas and coal. Reserves are limited. What will happen without an efficient alternative for energy? By putting a limit on the earth’s population, the Network are trying to “save the world”. In their attempts to stop them, the group who see themselves as the saviours of humanity are effectively destroying it.

Another distinctive aspect of the programme is its female roles, which are far more aggressive and domineering than the male. Mr Rabbit – who despite the masculine form of address is a woman (MI5 agent Milner, played by Geraldine James) – is the driving force behind the conspiracy, which kills “thousands” along the way. She exercises her superiority in the second series when she and her second-in-command, Leah, order Geoff, their puppet minister in the department of health, to announce “V-day”: a worldwide vaccination (sterilisation) programme. Despite Geoff refusing in episode two because it is “political suicide”, Leah simply tells him to “do as you’re told”. V-day is announced two episodes later.

Utopia throws up an interesting moral dilemma. While the Network commits many acts that would be considered evil, the end goal of their misdeeds is a morally comprehensible (and even, some might say, compassionate) one, ensuring that humans in the future will be able to live without “tearing each other to shreds” – to quote Mr Rabbit. Surely the principle of ensuring it never gets to the point where “there’s 10 billion living on a planet that can only support one”, is right? At the same time, most would see the sterilisation of masses of people are morally indefensible, regardless of the outcome. Utopia raises the stakes and immerses us in a world where choices must be made, here and now. The show urges us to look beyond good and bad, moral and immoral, to the difficulty of the question at hand.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit