10 Dystopian TV Shows

10 Dystopian TV Shows first published by BFI, 7 April 2022

Includes capsules of: The Prisoner, Threads, Twin Peaks, Serial Experiments Lain, Dead Set, 3%, The Handmaid’s Tale, SS-GB, Watchmen, Squid Game

While by no means the only, or even the first, dystopian novel, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – first published in 1949 – has become the quintessential articulation of dystopian ideas. Emerging from the ashes of the Second World War, it imagines an alternative global dispensation wherein a fascist police state keeps everyone in check via an autocratic system of gaslighting propaganda, mass surveillance, permanent war and social and sexual repression. 

Here terms like ‘Big Brother’, ‘Thought Police’, ‘Room 101’ and ‘doublethink’ – which have since entered common parlance – were first coined and introduced to the world, and it is primarily the oppressive ideology of the future imagined by Nineteen Eighty-Four that has made the adjective ‘Orwellian’ a near synonym for ‘dystopian’.

Ironic, then, that a novel which centred ‘telescreens’ as a two-way mass medium for control should have entered the British consciousness in part via a teleplay adaptation broadcast on what was then the UK’s only TV channel. Following their success with The Quatermass Experiment (1953), director Rudolph Cartier and screenwriter Nigel Kneale reunited to create a part pre-filmed, part live version of the story for BBC’s Sunday-Night Theatre

Starring Peter Cushing as Winston Smith, and cleaving close to the bleak despair of Orwell’s original, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) was not in fact the first television adaption of the novel (one had aired for CBS’ Studio One the year before) – but its transmission, and the controversy that it created, massively boosted sales of the novel, helping make Orwell a household name.

As it arrives on Blu-ray, DVD and digital for the first time1Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) is released by the BFI on Blu-ray/DVD, iTunes and Amazon Prime release from 11 April 2022., here are 10 dystopias created for television that have followed in its wake.

The Prisoner (1967 to 1968)

Creator: Patrick McGoohan

The Prisoner (1967–68)

“Have you not realised that there’s no way out?”, the ever-changing administrator ‘Number Two’ asks ‘Number Six’ (Patrick McGoohan), who, after his surprise resignation from a job in the secret service, has been abducted to the isolated Village (in fact Portmeirion in northern Wales). “Quite a beautiful place, isn’t it?”, Number Two will continue, “Almost like a world on its own.” Indeed, this community, all at once charming, eccentric and multicultural but also authoritarian, oppressive and inescapable, is a microcosm of contemporary Britain at its best and worst, both utopian fantasy and dystopian nightmare.

McGoohan’s unnamed (but reluctantly numbered) hero refuses to cooperate with or submit to the establishment around him, and so comes to personify individualism and resistance – although resistance to what exactly is never quite clear. This surreal 17-part mix of pop art and paranoia exposes the suspect side of the swinging 60s.

Threads (1984)

Director: Mick Jackson

Threads (1984)

First screened, like Cartier’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, on the BBC, and released, significantly, in the same year envisaged for Orwell’s austere allegory, Mick Jackson’s pre-, mid- and post-apocalyptic drama imagines Britain stripped of its underpinnings in a flash, and shifting from initial authoritarianism to outright anarchy, and finally to a backward scavenger agrarianism. 

Like Nicholas Meyer’s The Day After (1983) and Peter Watkins’ The War Game (made in 1965, but first televised in Britain in 1985, the day after a repeat broadcast of Threads in the week before Hiroshima’s 40th anniversary), this turned Cold War anxieties into incendiary television, bringing the horrors of global nuclear war into the supposed safety of the British living room, and graphically showing the nation’s unpreparedness for the aftermath of societal collapse, radiation fallout and nuclear winter. Presented, like Watkins’ film, as a vivid faux documentary, it left a generation collectively scarred by their small screens. 

Twin Peaks (1990 to 1991, 2017)

Creators: Mark Frost and David Lynch

Twin Peaks (1990-91)

When FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) first arrives in Twin Peaks, a logging community in Washington State “five miles south of the Canadian border”, he sees an American idyll: the fresh mountain air, the pine smell, the old-fashioned decency of the locals (and even of the good-natured police), and the perfect quality of the coffee and pie in the archetypal diner. Yet the flip side of utopia is dystopia – and like the teenaged girl whose brutal murder Cooper has come to investigate, this place, too, has a double life, where homespun innocence conceals crime, corruption and the forces of darkness. 

Unfolding (so far) in three series (plus prequel feature Fire Walk with Me, 1992), David Lynch and Mark Frost’s groundbreaking epic is a mind-bending mélange of surreal soap, gnostic weirdness and cosmic horror, where the American dream comes with a sinister subtext of perverse patriarchy.

Serial Experiments Lain (1998)

Director: Ryutaro Nakamura

Serial Experiments Lain (1998)

The 13 episodes, or ‘layers’, of Ryutaro Nakamura’s anime came out at a time when the internet was still in its relative childhood – when fears of what we might be losing of ourselves to our avatars and the ether were coupled with pre-millennial anxieties about an impending bug that might bring the whole system crashing down. Turning all this into an uneasy coming-of-age narrative, the series follows shy, dreamy 13-year-old Lain, as she finds her emergent sense of identity constantly undermined by her virtual presence online. 

Negotiating the weird, often menacing new world(s) of the ‘Wired’, where the boundary between reality and fantasy is blurred, and altered egos and demonic entities observe and obstruct her every move, Lain’s adventures in Wonderland are like a mash-up of Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, David Cronenberg and David Lynch, all recoded with lysergic animation.

Dead Set (2008)

Creator: Charlie Brooker

Dead Set (2008)

While post-apocalyptic narratives are distinguishable from dystopian ones, there can be considerable overlap. The global zombie plague that propels this pre-Black Mirror five-part miniseries from Charlie Brooker firmly aligns it to the post-apocalyptic. Yet where hospitalisation prevented the protagonist of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) from noticing the undead outbreak (a trope adapted from John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids), here it is the characters’ locked-in status on the set of a reality TV show that blinds them to the catastrophe unravelling in the outside world – and that the show is expressly Big Brother allows this metatelevisual satire to accommodate all kinds of dystopian resonances. 

The set of Big Brother, normally a locus of intrusive surveillance, arbitrary instruction and Machiavellian tactics, here becomes a last holdout for humanity – even as several contestants prove as vapidly braindead as the drooling shufflers beyond. 

3% (2016 to 2020)

Creator: Pedro Aguilera

3% (2016–20)

“This is a microsociety – it’s the natural order of the world,” says Marco Alvares (Rafael Lozano), of the Process that he and other 20-year-olds are undergoing to determine which 3% of them will be chosen to leave the impoverished Inland for the “perfect world” of the Offshore. Yet shortly before speaking these words he had gratuitously beaten a woman to death for hiding food. 

Pedro Aguilera’s four-season saga posits a Brazil of the future (yet oddly recognisable from the present), split between haves and have-nots along supposedly meritocratic lines. Yet the utopian Causes on both sides are subverted by all-too-human qualities of entitlement and betrayal – and the Process that is the only mechanism for social mobility is a literally elitist elimination game wherein to lose is to be condemned not to death but to a lumpen life of penury. A microcosm of society indeed.

The Handmaid’s Tale (2017–)

Creator: Bruce Miller

The Handmaid’s Tale (2017–)

In a future of widespread infertility where the remaining fecund women are forced to serve as surrogate mothers (or ‘Handmaids’) for ruling families, June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) seeks to escape sexual enslavement and be reunited with her husband and daughter.

Margaret Atwood has always insisted of her 1985 dystopian novel that she “didn’t put in anything that we haven’t already done, we’re not already doing, we’re seriously trying to do, coupled with trends that are already in progress” – in other words, hers was a speculative aggregation of documented realities. Originally, Atwood’s portrayal of a white supremacist, theocratic totalitarian patriarchy institutionalising rape in America was extrapolated from the contemporary ideologies of the religious right and the Reagan administration – but by the time Bruce Miller’s teleseries adaptation came along (now past its fourth season), its allegories of atavistic atrocity had become an even closer match for the extreme ends of Trumpism. 

SS-GB (2017)

Director: Philipp Kadelbach

SS-GB (2017)

Dystopian fiction sometimes deals in parallel universes and alternative histories. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four may have been set in a then distant future, but it also asked what if Nazism and Stalinism became the prevailing ideologies. 

In the mid 2010s, two different teleseries imagined a world in which Hitler was triumphant. Where Frank Spotnitz’s The Man in the High Castle (2015 to 2019), adapted from Philip K. Dick, was set in a 1962 America co-ruled by the Imperial Japanese and the Nazis, Philipp Kadelbach’s Len Deighton adaptation, SS-GB, depicted an apolitical Scotland Yard detective (Sam Riley) reluctantly drawn into the British resistance in a 1941 Britain under Nazi occupation. It is hardly a coincidence that both these series emerged in a decade when neo-Nazism was once again raising its ugly head in both the US and the UK. 

Watchmen (2019)

Creator: Damon Lindelof

Watchmen (2019)

Similarly offering alternative realities and anxieties about oppression, Damien Lindelof respun elements from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1980s comic book series Watchmen (adapted as a feature film by Zack Snyder in 2009) into an inventive nine-episode sequel. This ‘remix’ introduces into its pre-existing story world a new focus on the ongoing fragility of America’s race relations. It is set mostly 34 years after the original’s events, but opens with the (real-life) Black Wall Street massacre of 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It then traces that calamity’s continuing repercussions in a present-day conflict between the Tulsa Police Department’s masked officers, a local white supremacist militia, and a family dynasty plotting to change the world forever.

Two established characters from the comic books’ first and second wave of vigilantes are here plausibly recast as African Americans, and the constant racial threat from various Ku Klux Klan-like armies meets transgenerational resistance from a fearless woman of colour (Regina King) and several other embodiments of Black power. 

Squid Game (2021–)

Creator: Hwang Dong-hyuk

Squid Game (2021–)

Spreading its bets over nine episodes, Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Battle Royale-like K-drama pits 456 insolvent abductees against one another in deadly variants on schoolyard contests, with a massive piggybank of cash the enticing stake. As players are rapidly eliminated, this might seem more survival thriller than dystopia, but one of the principal antagonists (Heo Sung-tae) is assigned the decidedly Orwellian number 101, while the covert offshore arena where the games take place also represents a distorted mirror of the dog-eat-dog world beyond. One contestant, when voting whether to stop or continue, asks: “Is it different out there? It’s hell out there anyway.” 

Staged as vicious gladiatorial spectacle for a super-rich elite (and for the Netflix viewer), this microcosm of a class-divided, cutthroat society is presented, in all its cruel selfishness and venal desperation, as a Darwinian system both closed and gamed.

Anton Bitel

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    Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) is released by the BFI on Blu-ray/DVD, iTunes and Amazon Prime release from 11 April 2022.