Down the Mr Rabbit Hole: some initial thoughts on Channel 4’s Utopia

The 2nd series of Utopia finished a couple of weeks ago. I was planning on doing a long post about it straight after, but, I just had too many ideas spiralling off in different directions.
If you haven’t seen the programme yet, firstly, mate, you should know right now that I’m going to spoiler it up so badly for you if you keep reading. And secondly, the gist of it is it’s a conspiracy thriller in which a mismatched group of comic-book fans find themselves on the run from (and attempting to the foil the plans of) “The Network”, which is a shadowy organisation of terrorists who have infiltrated the highest levels of the scientific and government establishment, and who intend to sterilise the majority of the human race in order to prevent the future famines, wars etc that they posit will occur as a result of the current levels of demand on the earth’s dwindling resources unless they intervene.

As such, the programme’s central theme is one of medical, political and environmental ethics. It poses a classic philosophical thought experiment that raises such popular imponderables as the prisoners’ dilemma, do the ends justify the means, the greatest good for the greatest number, utilitarianism, and so on and so forth.

Series 1 is all up on Netflix and series 2 on 4OD right now.

Apparently 3rd and 4th series are under consideration and rumour says David Fincher has already been planning an American remake for HBO. Like David Peace’s ‘Red Riding series’ (also adapted by channel 4), has a strange feeling of alarming prescience that  makes it not merely topically but uncomfortably close: a distorting mirror held to a disturbed reality, a bad dream threatening to come true. Even the most cursory awareness of current events should make it all too easy to feel the possibilities this programme enacts.

Warning: spoilers; really long post; more ahead. I’m sorry.

Pharmakon: the god of writing’s cursed medicine and the ‘scientist who does a deal with the devil’

One might readily describe Utopia as a pharmaceutical thriller, and the tension between the positive, health-enhancing potential of scientific research and its equally murderous, corrupting, ruinous side is both the central core of the tv programme itself and the source, I would imagine, of the name ‘JANUS’ for the virus. Sharing a name with the two-faced Roman god of transitions, beginnings and doorways, Janus is a term used metaphorically in general speech to mean a paradoxical object or situation that contains its own opposites – and that suggests the flavour of god-like-ness that the text foregrounds so clearly, particularly in the first episode of the second series where Milner repeatedly calls Phillip a god.

We see this double-edged medical sword refracted in both more minor plot elements, such as Phillip’s experiment with Arby (/RB) as a toddler to try and ‘inhibit violence’ which has precisely the opposite effect to that which was intended (which is something that so-called genius scientist Phillip Carvel seems to be all too familiar with), to the complex business surrounding Becky’s (alleged) illness.

The JANUS virus is intended to sterilise the majority of the human race by altering their DNA. The Network has insisted that this be alteration be determined by ‘junk DNA’ that has no racial or ability-based application – i.e. that sterility is assigned on a random basis, thus preventing the virus’s potential application as a tool of eugenics. This is the idea, anyway, but as we see Phillip decided to racially link the virus after all. But since the vaccine part doesn’t work anyway, he’s just, you know, condemned everyone to death, because he is terrible at literally the only thing he is supposed to be a genius at. You had ONE JOB, Phillip, maybe two, and you stunk at both of them out loud.

[Fun fact: famous murderer Ian Brady wrote a book called The Gates of Janus: Serial Killing and its Analysis (Feral House, 2001); perhaps we might vaguely bear this in mind when considering a man who would play god in determining the worth of other human lives.]

In ancient Greek, the word ‘pharmakos’ (φαρμακός), and its variant ‘pharmakon’ (φάρμακον), can mean, apparently, all of the following:

medicine, drug, potion, spell, sacrament, remedy, poison, druggist, poisoner, magician, sorcerer, talisman, cosmetic, perfume, intoxicant, philtre, recipe, charm, substance, artificial colour, paint

and in ancient Greek religion meant a ritualistic sacrifice or exile of a human scapegoat or victim.

These words are where we get the term “pharmacology” from.

Immediately I am sure we can see how this is relevant to Utopia, on several levels. The emotional sacrifices made by The Network’s members, and the sacrificial deaths of those who would stand in their way. Think of Becky’s symptoms, illusory in cause but real in physical experience, derived from the heroin she has been tricked into thinking is medicine; think of the vaccine that is instead to be also (and ends ups as only) a steriliser, a pre-abortant, a preventer of future humanity.

The term ‘pharmakon’ is one that Derrida famously nuances in his reading of Plato’s Phaedrus (in ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, Dissemination, 1972), following and pulling apart this chain of meanings like Carvel’s tinkering with the chain of DNA, to demonstrate a contingent and illusory relationship at the heart of various philosophical and conceptual binaries: apparent opposites that, Janus-like, face both ways, containing their own negative image.

In Phaedrus, King Thamus is offered writing by Thoth (the Egyptian god of writing) as a pharmakon or ‘remedy’ for memory. Thamus declines this gift because what it will bring him forgetfulness rather than memory – rather than fix the memory problem that he has it will serve instead as a reminder, a crutch that will weaken the afflicted part – and so writing is a poison not a (or as well as a) cure.

Derrida’s use of pharmakon is also something that resounds throughout ecocriticism (critical writings from an environmentalist perspective or on subjects relation to human interaction with the natural environment), which, when you think about it, makes perfect sense. [There is also a strong strand of political criticism to Derrida’s pharmakon that I would like to think about in terms of Utopia in a future post, but right now I haven’t considered it enough to write about it.]

Through his interpretation of this myth, he argues that the apparent oppositions of medicine/poison, good/bad, true/false, right/wrong, negative/positive, interior/exterior and so forth, already contain their own antonyms, and that the pharmakon of writing itself is irreducible to binary concepts that it constructs. I can’t help thinking of Futurama’s joke about horse-racing:

‘And it’s a dead heat! They’re checking the electron microscope. And the winner is — number 3, in a quantum finish!’ ‘No fair! You changed the outcome by measuring it.’

[This is a joke about the Observer Effect, a theory that suggests that the act of observation will make changes to a phenomenon being observed/recorded. Anyway, let’s steer away from my shaky understanding of science and merely sum up the idea that I was aiming for: that is, by writing something down you have altered it.]

Not only is JANUS a binary-deconstructing pharmakon of poison/medicine, but also, the graphic novel that Phillip creates is simultaneously a reminder, preserving to memory the events surrounding JANUS, and an encoder, obscuring them, and ultimately of course Phillip is both mentally ill, morally compromised, emotionally conflicted, at war with his own past and purposes, and also engaged not only in an act of remembering that can only rewrite his perception of the events that took place, but in recording them, he is altering them using the cursed medicine (of writing) too.


One of the many connotations of the pharmakon is ‘artificial colour’ or ‘paint’: this seems strangely relevant to Utopia. First of all, we see impossibly bright, lush, over-coloured grass (or grass-like substances like corn fields) in the landscape shots that are so prevalent, both in sub/urban settings and rural ones. And secondly, how much that type of the highly saturate, hyper-real highlighter-bright colouration is one of the most noticeable features of the show as a whole.


it’s like looking into the eye of a duck, and sucking all the fluid from its beak

The neon, acidic green and yellow of the show’s palette – which uses fluorescent, eye-searing shades not only for objects and settings but also credit screens and marketing materials — emphasises artificiality and a kind of verdant, sterile abundance in which nature appears to flourish but something is not quite right, something is subtly, off. 

As Vilte from The Next Simulacrum puts itUtopia is both ‘absurdly stolid and exquisitely cruel’, and her relating of this to colour is exactly on the mark. It raise our hackles immediately from the first scenes. Indeed, I would go further and say the cruelty of the comic shop murders scene is woven into its very fabric (infiltrated into its very cells) by the use of colour; we can see the bright acid yellows of the shop fittings reflected in Arby and Lee’s dispassionate, expressionless faces, quite literally colouring their outlook — making them seem as lifeless and cold as wipe clean surfaces or strip lights. The greenish cast to their skin makes them inhuman, alien.

One is reminded of the eerie glow like something radioactive or kryptonite, the chemicals in a mad scientists’ lab. It is an acidic, bile-like colour of corrosion and bodily ill-health, ofsickness (e.g. someone ‘looking green’ when they might throw up). The artificial colour palette inscribes the things we see with a combination of advertisement-like commoditised over-perfection that lends so many of the interior rooms impersonality, fakeness and unease — like a paint catalogue or a Habitat show room — but also of something tampered-with, not to be trusted, a visual lie. It is like the invisible threat of contagion made visible, made patina, that covers the programme as a whole.

utopia collage

The main effects of the show’s use of colour is a sense of unreality or perhaps hyper-reality, that somehow our own eyes can’t be trusted to tell us what is really going on, that what we are seeing with such stark vividness can’t really be real, or perhaps is just too real for us to be able to process. The fact that such bright colours can actual hurt our eyes makes a clever analogue for the pain inflicted by the organisations we witness and by the uncovering of the truth.

The colouration of the landscape conveys that this is some kind of utopic or dystopic future or another place from the world we live in – a sort of no-time no-place unreality. It also helps to underline the show’s recurrent theme of artificiality, of sterility, messing with nature, connotations of scientific labs. It makes me think of those the well-known experiments with getting people to eat food coloured blue or black and their subjects feeling disturbed or repulsed by the unnaturalness of it. (I think Eric Schlosser talks about this in his book Fast Food Nation). Certainly that same sense of dis-ease, of off-ness, is a lingering presence throughout. (Which in turn reminds me of the recurring trope of Arby’s raisins: the cursed treat, the poisoned nourishment, the visible sign of childhood innocence exploited and destroyed.)

A forum poster describes it as ‘the mirror opposite of Hannibal [‘s] colour palette’. Likewise this visually beautiful but disquieting use of colour reminds me, as does the shot construction and filters and use of landscape, of a reverse-coloured version of Red Riding. When I was teaching film studies last year one of my students, talking in an exam paper about British ‘heritage’ film making and its visual markers, said “brown is the colour of history.” I absolutely loved this statement, it’s so true and so amazingly bluntly put like that, it really makes you think about what it is the filters and visual effects in film and television convey to, and construct for, us as viewers. Everyone jokes about Red Riding being entirely brown — and indeed many of the films I work on for my thesis are so dark visually, that I have to edit the images to make them lighter if I want to use them in slide shows, hand outs etc. There was a great Steve Bell (I think?) cartoon on the back of either the Guardian or the Observer around the time Red Riding was on (2009) with brown suits and brown interiors and a character saying (words to the effect of) ‘In the 70s everything were brown. Me house were brown, me car were brown [etc]’, which lends credence to the brown = ~the past~, as my unknown student surmised.

[Sidenote: I constantly regret not cutting this cartoon out when I saw it, because no amount of inventively phrased google searches will yield me a copy of it — in fact I will give any reader who sends/links me a picture of it an actual genuine prize through the post, I’m not even just saying that.]

As we recognise that using dark and murky colours is a way of visually coding ‘the past’ and grittiness and probably ‘elsewhere-ness’ onto things, it also becomes perhaps more clear what Utopia is doing when, first of all it creates the opposite of that effect, and second of all strategically deploys and adapts it to visually indicate that the 1970’s episode is a one-of departure from an otherwise broadly linear narrative, while still remaining such intense hues.


Derrida, Jacques ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, from Disseminations [free PDF here]