In Ripper Street, on BBC1, a man had poisoned a batch of flour so he could become famous as a mass-murderer. The heroic and saintly policeman had his associates twist the man’s broken arm to find out where that batch was. In Utopia, on Channel 4, two murderers working for the shadowy, Powerful, Evil Corporation (SPEC) asked a question of a man who did not know the answer, and maimed him. There was a build-up to the maiming, and we saw it all. The torturer, conversationally, described what he would do and in a quiet, gentle manner said “Now, now, stop screaming” and “Can you speak?”
That gentle manner, with the threat of his accomplice, got two men to co-operate in breathing the gas which killed them- calm, apparently reasonable authority, requesting something and making it seem as unthreatening as possible.
Utopia is an unsettling programme. The murderers are camp, and there is black humour in their interactions. Only the feral boy, his voice harsh though not yet broken, gets it: when his head teacher calls him in, and introduces the murderers as policemen, he does not bother protesting “I saw them kill someone” but jumps out the first floor window and limps off. But he has no false, comforting certainties to challenge. Ours are challenged when SPEC corrupts a senior civil servant and shows it controls a Government minister.
The murderers do what they must, to achieve their goals, without compunction. Questions like- what will people think? Will it work? which restrain me, do not affect them.They kill people by reassuring them: the victim should see the threat, and take action, so they blind him to it.
The ridiculous, impossible thing to do, when it is the only thing one can do- well, try it. The blind man shoots the torturer. The torturer is not all-powerful, or immune to chance.
I did not like Ripper Street’s Edmund Reid as a hero initially because he seemed so Wonderful: a figure like Doctor Who that comes upon a bad situation, and makes it all better. This Victorian Whitechapel is recognisably us, English-folk, but in a much dirtier, darker world, of clear threat and difficulty we do not see. Reid has an angelic care for other human beings. He refuses to judge anything as unconventional, only as destructive: he is gentle with the habitués of a Molly-house, where the men dress as ladies. He is extremely intelligent, spotting connections which would not occur to lesser men. Torturing his prisoner makes him human- at his wit’s end, he does something vile.
Why do we tell these stories? Because the comforting certainties crumble, and those lessons about Action and clear-sight are the ones we need. Habitual conventional responses cease to work.