“Nowhere else works like the cities”. This is the first line of BBC1’s new drama based on the 2009 ‘weird fiction’ novel by British author China Miéville, an exotically named man actually born in Norwich. His book has been adapted for TV by screen writer Tony Grisoni.
The cities in the title are Besźel, which looks like the Eastern Bloc of 30 plus years ago mixed with cafes and people from 1970s Istanbul and Ul Qoma which is glimpsed only briefly in the first episode. These streets look brighter, cleaner, and more advanced. The colour pallets are quite different in each city; dingy yellows for Besźel and clean blues for Ul Qoma. Like the inhabitants, the viewer always knows where they’re looking.
The two cities actually occupy much of the same geographical space, but the inhabitants wilfully ‘unsee’ the areas they’re not allowed to view. Early on Commissar Gadlem (Ron Cook) gets out his overhead projector, and lays two acetate maps on top of each other. That’s a good way to get your head around it.
If a citizen of Besźel interacts in any way at all with Ul Qoma they’re carted off by what is essentially the secret police – referred to as Breach. Worse still, Breach don’t arrive; they manifest, which makes them sound aliens or the forces of evil in a horror movie. Apparently we’re led to believe this is the best way for these places to exist, as before Breach there was only bloodshed. That sounds exactly like the sort of thing a repressive regime would remind its citizens as often as possible.
So, to the story. David Morrissey is Inspector Tyador Borlú, the troubled grief-stricken detective, trying to find solace in his work. The dead wife trope is standard fare in cop shows, but interestingly played out here in these strange twin cities. Secretly he hopes Mrs Borlú has run away to Ul Qoma but of course he’s not allowed to think like that. It’s handy for us to be able to hold on to police procedural clichés here – these strict rules and conventions keep weird sci-fi grounded, a method which helped make Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes so compelling and successful.
I have an immediate soft spot for a slight young woman who swears at her superiors in the way that Constable Corwi does. Played by Mandeep Dhillon she is a dutiful pottymouth cop who says she never stops working and I believe her. Shout out here to the medical examiner who looks just like Howard Moon from The Mighty Boosh, although I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the costume designer’s intention. Safe to say like Bollo, I’ve got a bad feeling about this.
Trouble arrives in the form of a dead girl dumped on wasteland. Not a prostitute as the police initially suspect, but an American tourist not respecting the rules. She was a PhD student helping on an archeological dig, visiting both cities, coming and going as she pleased which is completely illegal. We see her parents arrive at the airport on their way to identify her body. They’re greeted with tourist training, and flyers that say “When in Besźel see Besźel”. Easier said than done.
The City and the City is extremely cinematic and lovely to look at. The out-of-focus sections are the areas the characters, and the audience, are not allowed to see, like a spot irritating at your peripheral vision. The way that the cities are placed in time and space is very carefully done. Props, cars, clothes, lighting and colour pallets all suggest the dingy Eastern Bloc or the dayglo modern. The attention to detail reminds me of Amazon’s adaptation of The Man in the High Castle. This is a made-up reality, but the rules are clearly explained and thoughtfully represented.
The way the characters have to exist made me think about averting your gaze to unpleasantness in our cities. This is something we’re increasingly expected to do in real life, as we experience a homelessness crisis in the UK, encouraged by an appalling lack of adult mental health services and the introduction of Universal Credit, basically a way to make benefits for people most in need more difficult to access. What did we expect from a Tory government? True, the best sci-fi is a comment on and a reflection of society. Can someone tell the government it’s not meant to be a fucking instruction manual on how to beat down on your own citizens.
Speaking of citizens, the standard goodbye in Besźel seems to be ‘be safe’. After hearing it a couple of times, it sounds like Orwellian doublespeak, more of a threat than a kindness; a warning to you to curb your behaviour and curb your curiosity. Don’t look up, don’t stare off into the distance, don’t take a moment to think. That sort of act is seditious and dangerous to your health.
I read somewhere a review says that the voice-over was a bit intrusive. I don’t think so. The book is all from Inspector Borlú’s point of view so it fits quite nicely in my opinion. It’s a more literary way to explain what’s going on rather than the lazy convention of putting all exposition on TV news reports which seems to be what every other film and TV show does at the moment.
The City and the City was a rare book for me; something shelved in the sci-fi section that I enjoyed and that stayed with me long after I’d finished it. I wasn’t sure how it could possibly be adapted for screen, but I knew it was an irresistible story for someone willing to take on the challenge. This rich and well-developed world translates beautifully to the screen in a way I didn’t think possible. It’s another great dystopia that speaks so eloquently to those of us suffering through 2018 and worrying about the future. And given current form, it’s exactly what BBC drama needed. I’m going to savour this.
All four episodes of The City and the City are available now on iPlayer. I’m off to watch the next episode now. Brave enough to find out more about this world? If so, Digital Spy presents your Lonely Planet guide to the cities.