16/01/2013 12:35 | By Dan Owen, contributor, MSN TV

Utopia: Channel 4's conspiracy thriller is a must-see

TV review: Channel 4's dark and much-hyped thriller Utopia is definitely one to watch.

Cast of Utopia (© Cast of Utopia. Image Channel 4)


Utopia is a six-part thriller about online forum members brought together after one of them finds the sequel to The Utopia Experiments; a cult graphic novel that allegedly predicted future events.

Unfortunately, this discovery brings them to the attention of two sinister men working for The Network...


The big talking point will be the disturbing torture scene in which likeable conspiracy theorist Wilson (Adeel Akhtar) had chilies, sand and bleach poured into his eyes.

It was a tense variation on Marathon Man's iconic dentistry scene; with "where is Jessica Hyde?" becoming the new "is it safe?"


Only in the sense it was the least compelling element, the subplot with a near-suicidal civil servant (Paul Higgins) working in NHS drug procurement hasn't quite sunk its teeth in...

Full review

Dennis Kelly co-created the sitcom Pulling and adapted Roald Dahl's Matilda into a successful West End musical, but he changes gear considerably for Utopia.

This conspiracy drama introduced us to five members of an internet forum - most notably student Becky (Alexandra Roach), IT worker Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), and geeky Wilson.

"Utopia is a slow-burn thriller"

They agree to meet and discuss the unearthing a fabled comic-book, only to find themselves dragged into a nightmare after two of them were killed by disquieting assassins.

Utopia is a slow-burn thriller that aims to establish a mood and draw the viewer in, which it did to impressive effect thanks to the cinematic direction of Marc Munden (The Devil's Whore), who filled the screen with smart, colourful and sophisticated visuals.

The cinematography was stunning, and I particularly liked the use of a background howl of wind to unsettle viewers.

The only frustration was how Utopia's spell was frequently broken by commercial breaks; which convinced me to record and fast-forward the ads next time.

It took a while to grasp what was going on (and to be honest it's still mostly unclear after 85 minutes), but the general premise was neatly delivered.

Utopia makes a compelling start

Viewers were always kept on the hook thanks to its uneasy atmosphere, the excellent performances, and a handful of terrific moments - not least the chilling opening scene set in a comic-book shop involving a gas mask, and the aforementioned eye-torture.

My guess is that the villains are working for an organisation intending to usher in doomsday, which can only be avoided by someone willing to change the destiny outlined in The Utopia Experiments comic, but that's perhaps too simple-minded.

There are five weeks left for the plot to seriously thicken.

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  1. 78 %
    Yes - it was stunning
    419 votes
    22 %
    No - it was boring
    115 votes

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Utopia certainly isn't going to appeal to everyone - the overnight average ratings of just over one million viewers would appear to underline that. It definitely deserved more.

I hope people stick with it; the pacing is quite slow and largely mystifying at this nascent stage, but things should pick up once we get a firmer grasp on the characters and a feel for where the story is headed.

It's rare to have such a distinctive thriller on our screens that feels totally unpredictable, so I'm glad Utopia exists.

My only concern is knowing such TV shows can start meandering if they're not careful, or end poorly under the growing weight of weekly expectations.

Here's hoping Dennis Kelly avoids such pitfalls because this is a stylish, austere, peculiar, memorable and puzzling new drama. With any luck, it won't disappear up its own backside.

  • Verdict: Intriguing opening episode; let's hope Utopia scales even higher heights.

    Star grade

What other reviewers said

The Telegraph - "A pleasure indeed, albeit an occasionally guilty one."

The Independent - "Utopia is nasty. Then again, Utopia wants to be nasty."

What people on Twitter said

‏@jackwhitehall - "Totally hooked tho can't wait for next week and the second half of the series directed by the fab @wayneche!! #utopia."

@judxs - "#utopia is the most confusing tv drama ever"

‏@mirrorjeffers - "Must say I've not seen many British films at cinema shot as well as this. Visually superb #Utopia"

The views in this article are those of the author alone and not of MSN or Microsoft

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