'Utopia in the Age of the Pandemic', by Ultan Banan. Ruminations on politics.

Utopia in the Age of the Pandemic

Utopia. Now there’s a piece of television. I’m not talking about the Hollywood rehash, I haven’t gone there (why would I?) and have no plan to; I read Gone Girl and it’s a first-class thriller, but with Utopia, Flynn took on something that could not be improved. And maybe improvement was not the goal of the reworking, but I’m nevertheless reassured (and even pleased) to hear of the inferior cut of Flynn’s rewrite. The original stands as some of the best television to ever come out of Britain (I’d rank it up there with This is England and Black Mirror) and to chance a remake was perhaps an act of questionable hubris.

Of course, it’s not true that the remake never bests the original. The American take on The Office is widely regarded as having outstripped its British predecessor, and I’d say the US Shameless did a similar job (the first three series notwithstanding). But there are some things that should not be fucked with. Utopia is one.

I rewatched it recently, and was no less enthralled by it than I was when I first saw it six or seven years ago. The writing, the cinematography, the score – come now, when have you ever heard a score that so perfectly accompanied and encapsulated a series? Flawless work, and I’ve been enamoured of Cristobal Tapia de Veer ever since (The White Lotus? Superb). Characters, beautifully depicted in all their flawed, vulnerable and comic glory. Plot. Dialogue. Dennis Kelly really nailed that script. I watched The Third Day last year, and while I enjoyed it, it didn’t quite have the raw ferocity that Utopia has.

But enough gushing. I’m a fan, and I’m still waiting, hoping expectantly (like thousands of others) that one day we may get to revisit Mr. Rabbit.

It’s an interesting watch, in the world of today. I’m not here to peddle any out-there theories about government conspiracies to poison us all and render us sterile, and commit mass genocide and worldwide depopulation, but watching the series in the current climate cannot fail to raise a few questions.

I do believe that, worldwide, we have just been subjected to one of the most potent, widespread and disproportionate media campaigns of all time, one that far outstrips the efforts to sell us the Iraq War. I remember that campaign, too – endless stories in the press about the unforgivable opulence that Saddam Hussein lived in while all around him his people suffered (as if those selling us the war were not pontificating from their own mansions), and the pure evil cruelty of his sons. Stories peddled in generally ‘respectable’ news outlets, stories that we can look back on now and say, Yeah, this is an out-and-out hit piece. Not that he wasn’t a bastard, but you shouldn’t get to pick and choose your bastards, cosying up to them when they do your bidding and turning on them when they don’t. We had endless such pieces on evil Saddam and his regime, all with the purpose of selling us a bogus war.

Not everyone bought it. One of the biggest protests of all time came out onto the streets of London to protest Blair’s eagerness to make a war criminal of himself, two million people, which is massive. But did the kleptocrats listen? Did they fuck. War went ahead, and two million dead Iraqis later, we know it was all a sham.

What has any of this to do with Utopia? Well, much like in the show, I believe we have all seen a similar media campaign, fear-mongering, a stoking of our most basic insecurities and terrors, all with the effect of making us compliant to the wishes of the powers-that-be. What are those wishes? On that, I’m not going to speculate, suffice to say that, to a large extent, the fear campaign has worked. The world over (the ‘developed’ world, at least), people are having some of their most basic rights trampled on, ripped up, discarded, and all in the name of this invisible (and let’s face it, as we now know, not-so-scary) bogeyman. Weren’t we all persuaded that our lives were in grave and unequivocal danger? Subjected daily to pictures of people on ventilators, medical professionals in Hazmat suits, cities being sprayed down for the infection, the plague, the pestilence. Truly, there was some apocalyptic shit afoot. Or so it seemed. What now appears to have happened is that we were subjected instead to a horror that existed largely in the media – not a real horror, just the threat of a horror, the façade of horror; you know like that scene in A Clockwork Orange where Malcolm McDowell has his eyes pinned open and subjected to images of war… that was us. For a whole year. Locked in our homes, the television broadcasting images of death and destruction. Apocalypse. We were the experiment. We were the subjects of the Aversion Therapy.

But it’s all fine now. They have the answer for us. They gave us our shots and we’re okay now. The shots don’t seem to do much but they keep pumping it into us, and in that we’re comforted. And hey, the apocalyptic reels have slowed a bit and we all feel somewhat reassured. Isn’t life better now?

Apocalypse makes for great television. And not only in fiction. We had our own ‘real-life’ apocalypse, and we watched it avidly for over a year. We’re still loaded with it; perhaps it’s part of our DNA now. Just as long as there’s the mirage of a cure…

I’m not really one to go looking for messages in fiction, but if Utopia has one it may well be this: We can always be counted on to be complicit in our own subversion. In a world of apocalyptic certainties, we are all Mr. Rabbit. 

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 ‘Utopia in the World of the Pandemic’, by Ultan Banan. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.

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