I recently had the opportunity to watch the first two episode of the BBC Two adaptation of China Miéville's novel The City And The City which will start on April 6th.
In the last year we have had some amazing high concept sci-fi shows come our way. I’m a big fan of WestWorld, Altered Carbon and Black Mirror. All the American shows have a gloss and sheen but we brits like to have a grimier cynical take, which is why Black Mirror always stands out. This same approach is taken with The City and The City. This is a European noir murder mystery wrapped in a high concept sci-fi world.
The high concept in The City and The City is that two cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, exist in the same space but in different phases of existence. Citizens of both cities can travel to the other across a heavily guarded boarder. Each city has its own history and social structures, as well as a heated rivalry.
The press release describes the series as:
The body of a foreign student is discovered in the streets of the down at heel city of Besźel. Cases like this are run of the mill for Inspector Tyador Borlú (David Morrissey) of the Extreme Crime Squad - until his investigations uncover evidence that the dead girl had come from another city called Ul Qoma. But the relationship between the two cities defies comprehension and will challenge everything Borlú holds dear.
The show plays with this concept brilliantly in its use of design, colour pallet and cinematography. The city of Besźel is established as a 1980s Eastern European former communist state, all drab concrete and crap cars. The city of Ul Qoma on the other hand is a modern cityscape of steel and glass. Establishing this concept and the world quickly is useful because you are dropped into this world and expected to keep up with what is going on.
The police procedural element is standard enough and easy to follow. Confusion creeps in as you’re escorted around Besźel and its complex political and social structure. While they are talking English for the most part non-English words and phrases are used, to highlight that this is a different world, with little to no explanation. Further to this, the story moves along the dank corrupt corridors of power in the city of Besźel and the viewer needs to keep up to understand who has authority over whom.
Half way through the first episode I was a little lost, however by the end I was so absorbed by the world and the details that were being presented that it didn’t matter. I understood that the show was making me part of the investigation. I didn’t need to know everything at the start because enough information will be parceled out as the story progressed. It’s up to me to be quick enough to pick it up and keep it straight in my head.
This world and story is brought to life by a great cast. David Morrissey brings a gravelly gravitas to the core of the show, which is what I would expect from him. The rest of the cast is led by Mandeep Dhillon as the fun and sweary Besźel Constable Corwi. She and Morrissey are great foils for each other, an anchor for the viewer and representations of a culture that is changing over generations. They are joined in the second episode by Maria Schrader as Senior Detective Dhatt of the Ul Qoma police force. She is more than a match for Morrissey, carrying a level and air of authority with ease. Having German born Schrader representing Ul Qoma is a great move; she brings a modern European sensibility and energy as the story progresses.
What I have seen so far is strong; it pulled me into the mystery and the world. I’m itching to watch the rest of the series. The second episode ends on a cliff hanger that will take the story in a different direction and if it is as textured and well thought out as the start, it’s going to be ace. I have also purchased a copy of China Miéville's novel so I can enjoy the source material as well, but won’t be reading it until I have watched the full series. There is so much depth and detail to this world that I’m expecting to get very different experiences from the different mediums.
In summary, this is a strong show that I really hope finds an audience on the BBC. It will have you talking about it the next day. The concept and the ideas that have been fleshed out deserve discussion and attention. The City and The City showed me that British Sci-fi can compete and I hope you try it out.