The City and the City

When an Ul Qoman resident is found dead in the neighbouring city of Beszel, Inspector Tyador Borlú is granted rare permission to enter the sister location. Sounds like a routine murder investigation, right? But Beszel and Ul Qoma aren’t ‘neighbours’, per se: they exist in the same space. Residents must ‘unsee’ streets from the wrong city, ignore events that happen in the other place.

This deeply ingrained habit of deliberate ignorance is one thing to put on to paper – the book is suitably mind-bending – but how on earth can you put in on screen? The thing that impressed me most about this adaptation was just that: the two cities look like they exist in different decades as well as different colour-palettes.

In fact, while I enjoyed but didn’t love the book (for whatever reason), the cool ideas stayed with me in a rather ambiguous way. Are the cities genuinely ‘in the same space’ (phased, perhaps?) or are they physically in the same space, so literally sharing streets – making the mental gymnastics all the more impressive? Watching the show made that a little clearer.

However, the parts that made this more interesting as a bit of fiction were not suited to the screen, I think. Unlike the fantasy genre’s vague hand waving of ‘magic’, author China Mieville presents us with a very rationally thought-out world. His fiction is rife with border control issues, and bureaucracy – not the most thrilling thing for the screen. The story itself is perhaps a little bit convoluted, as ‘unionists’ terrorists are brought into the mix, and Borlu faces more hindrance from political corners desperate to keep the status quo.

All in all it makes for a very well-considered and well-made show, but one that I think works far better for fans of the book who already ‘get’ the concepts. It looks impressive, but the story takes a lot of attention for perhaps not quite enough ‘pow’ in the final denouement.

First broadcast: April 2018
Series: 1
Episodes: 4 @ ~55 mins each

My rating: 7/10

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