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10 years of "Utopia"

2023-01-05 | Arts and Entertainment
10 years of

Ten years ago now, the British channel Channel 4 premiered Utopia. It was then a groundbreaking and misunderstood series of which only two seasons were produced and which enjoyed a larger audience in the DVD market and on download websites than the free-to-air broadcast. It innovated with a photography of cheeky filters and saturated colors, a striking visual language with references to graphic novels and a soundtrack in a TV series without precedent. Utopia, without an anticlimax or breaks, unfolded a brutal and funny plot built on vaccines, viruses created in laboratories, non-existent epidemics and ministers controlled by big pharma.

The background of the plot of the series

A leading pharmaceutical laboratory developing vaccines using genetic technologies turns out to be in reality a powerful neo-Malthusian organization formed by members of the British gentry with enough influence and access to place ministers, modify any kind of administrative record or destroy the reputation of anyone who confronts them.

Its origin is an agency created clandestinely by NATO during the Cold War to counteract the development of bacteriological weapons by the Russian bloc. After the fall of the Wall and thanks to the opacity it had enjoyed since its inception, it became definitively independent of any political or military control. By that time, the revenues from millionaire sales of vaccines allowed it to participate in other companies and to form an industrial group that included at least one of the industrial food giants (similar to Nestlè or Kraft, says one of the protagonists).

With an obsessive, genius and inhuman chief researcher, gigantic economic resources and the ability to twist the hand of any government, their developments and strategies will include creating diseases such as mad cow (spongiform encephalitis) or inventing non-existent epidemics (supposedly SARS and, in the course of the first season, Russian flu).

Being the good neo-Malthusians that they are, all their research is actually focused on the search for an effective way to sterilize 95% of humanity. Two options are emerging in front of the protagonists: Will the vector be the vaccine against the imaginary Russian flu or a certain foodstuff produced by their gigantic subsidiary?

In short: viral epidemics which, when they are not anything more than media montages to sell vaccines, are the product of manipulations in high-tech laboratories, genetically developed vaccines and ministers strategically placed by pharmaceutical companies. And in the face of this terrifying chaos, there exists a resistance on a micro scale of freaks and doctors fallen in disgrace.

Where does "Utopia" draw from?

The set of themes and even the characters in the story are so immediately evocative of the delusions of the anti-vax crowd and other followers of Bannon that, when viewed today, the series seems prophetic.

Ten years ago conspiracy theories seemed, by and large, muck from another time destined for extinction in obscure corners of the web. "Conspiracy's not really very now," comments a secondary character in one of the first scenes. Neo-Malthusianism did not have the political and media echo it has today.

But all the elements were already present.

The attraction of the ruling classes to Malthusianism goes back a long way. In its contemporary version (degrowth, deep ecology, etc.), its revival came at the hands of the Club of Rome, a think tank based in Switzerland with chapters in each country sponsored by local big business. In 1972, the Club commissioned MIT scientists with no track record in analysis - let alone criticism - of economics and history, to write a report, The limits to growth, asking them whether exponential growth - which never existed - could be sustainable. The result, The limits to growth, has become the reference of the neo-Malthusianists to this day.

The anti-vaccine movement in Anglo-Saxon countries is nothing new either. Fueled by more or less naturalistic puritan groups, it has existed since the first smallpox vaccination campaigns in the 19th century and has never completely disappeared.

Then, in 1998, British physician Andrew Wakefield published a study of 12 children that purported to suggest a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine and autism. The study has been thoroughly discredited — Wakefield was found to have manipulated his data and lost his medical license, and subsequent research has found no link between vaccines and autism. But as Julia Belluz reported at Vox, media outlets covered the study with excessive enthusiasm and credulity, helping fan the flames of anti-vaccine sentiment.

The Wakefield paper also came out just as the internet was coming into wider use, Colgrove said. It was an unfortunate historical coincidence — a new piece of misinformation being released “at precisely the moment when this new medium for the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories was really taking off.”

Wakefield’s discredited research and the media coverage and online conversation around it helped kick off the contemporary anti-vaccine movement. That movement grew throughout the 2000s thanks to a combination of factors, including a rise in anti-government sentiment and the emergence of a social media environment that tends to amplify conflict and controversy, Colgrove said.

The long, and strange history of anti-vaccination movements, in Vox

And finally, the idea of a secret organization linked to NATO that ends up creating its own agenda and becoming independent of governments is not strictly literary either. The Gladio Network and its destabilizing role in the Italian Years of Lead serve as a mold for the pharmaceuticals of Utopia.

The genius of the creators of "Utopia" was to see that underlying ideological reality and develop its dramatic potential into an excellently assembled and aesthetically appealing story. They didn't know that the antivax or Malthusian delirium was going to become mainstream, nor did they intend it, nor, above all, did they need it to make a great product.

Misunderstood ten years ago... and now even more so...

The blue skies and deserted landscapes of the Malthusian utopia

The electric blue skies and deserted green landscapes of the Malthusian utopia, one of the visual ironies of the series.

In 2020 Amazon released a remake of the original series. They removed scenes such as the school shooting to make it less shocking to American audiences. The plot became more obvious and light and the musical loop disappeared.

The American series did not even know how to maintain the basic tension between the visual discourse and the plot. Any European viewer, from the first image of each episode, was confronted with an England of electric blue skies added in post-production. A strangely utopian background on which the barbarities of some characters, clearly recognizable as members of the ruling class, struggled to impose their own Malthusian utopia. The message was not original but it was not to be left aside either: the utopias of the ruling class are the dystopias of Humanity, the original version reminded us.

Everything, including the cast, seemed to be designed to turn the attractive edges of the original series into blunt ones and give it the feel of a pure Spielbergian corporate drama in which the delusions of the ruling class are replaced by the drifts of an idealized Elon Musk.

Despite all this, much of the American philo-democratic press was outraged. They interpreted the series as dramatic fodder for the most demented part of Trumpism. "Gillian Flynn's remake of the Channel 4 series isn’t just unnecessary. It is spectacularly ill-timed," published Slate. Even the BBC felt called upon to intervene on behalf of the authors to politely remind us that the series was about restoring a literary genre - conspiracy theory - to which the weakness of the American political apparatus - and the low literacy of part of the petty bourgeoisie - had been resorting in times of crisis as a narrative and rhetorical model since the times of the kidnapping of Lindbergh's son.

What can we learn from Utopia?

  • During the last decade, the most insane and stultifying ideological discourses have come to the forefront, crossing the border from fiction to politics.
  • The movement reflects the absence of perspectives of the system as a whole: from the ruling class itself - which increasingly places itself, as the series itself recounts - in a more openly anti-human perspective, to the petty bourgeoisie, which covers up its political impotence with often delirious theories and rhetoric.
  • There is little or nothing to learn or take from all these luxuriant excesses. They are basically poison for mice, expressions of a stagnant society increasingly antagonistic to development and human needs.
  • In this context, the inevitable confusion between literary fantasy and political delirium makes the ideological apparatus more and more intolerant. If the new American version was scandalous and the media called it "dangerous", the original series, a mere good entertainment, would be unimaginable today. We are coming to an era in which the space that the audiovisual industry lends to the dramatic imagination will be narrower and narrower. A worse and increasingly war-oriented world will be matched by an increasingly mediocre fiction.