REVIEW: China Miéville’s The City and the City

The City and the City

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the first season of BBC’s The City and the City.

“Nowhere else works like the cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma…I knew there was another city I dare not see, just on the other side of where I was permitted to look.”

Thus begins The City and the City, a unique new series that blends both the sci-fi and detective genres.

The City and the CityThe four-episode miniseries is an adaptation of China Miéville’s novel of the same name which is set in the Cities, where two very different cities seem to occupy the same geographical location. Inhabitants of one are forbidden for “seeing” or acknowledging the existence of the other even as they go about their lives only inches away. Those who break this rule will be found in breach and will suffer grave consequences.

The story centers on Inspector Tyador Borlú, played by David Morrissey, who also recently appeared in Sky Atlantic’s Britannia. The show begins with the usual elements: grizzled, tortured detective who suffered a loss of a (female) loved one; detective getting obsessed with this one “big” case (often involving a female victim, which is the case here yet again); and going on a journey where the dark depths of systemic corruption are revealed. All familiar beats for fans of the crime genre, but luckily, the cast’s strong performances and the uniqueness of the show’s premise does much to set it apart.

Compelling Performances

We see everything through the eyes of Borlú (literally and figuratively). Morrissey brings a real gravitas and tragedy to his character, with just enough humor and sensitivity so that he isn’t too depressing. We are invested in his journey to find out the truth, not just about the murdered girl or about his wife’s mysterious disappearance, but also about the nature of the two cities. He was born and raised in Besźel but his investigation leads him to Ul Qoma, as well as the controversial and mythical “city between the cities” called Orcinny.

The BBC conducted interviews with the cast where they discussed their characters in more detail.

The City and the City“So it is a fish out of water tale, it is a man who has to go into another city and abide by their rules even though he is not used to that,” Morrissey said of his role. He also said that filming the series was particularly significant to him because it was done in his hometown of Liverpool.

He also added that the series, though sci-fi in genre, has some themes and ideas that resonated with today’s world:

“There is a massive relevance… here is a story about one group of people living in a city who are denying the existence of another group of people living in the same city. The conceit is that what China has done is say that it is a different city completely but I think we don’t have to look too far in our major cities to see how people have ghettoised themselves or are living in gated communities and we walk passed people begging and sleeping on the streets and we have become blind to that. We see people in our very own streets living in terrible conditions and we have decided to ignore it and our eyes are turned down.

We are more and more on our screens and in denial about the world around us and I think The City and The City is taking that type of modern notion and accentuating it to a heightened level but I don’t think it is too far a stretch of the imagination from how we live in our cities today.”

The City and the CityBorlú is surrounded by interesting and well-rounded female characters, all portrayed by very talented actresses.

Lara Pulver (Sherlock) plays Borlú’s wife Katrynia, an academic who believes in Orcinny and who questions the system of the two cities. Pulver said this about her role:

“When I first read the scripts I was fascinated by how multi-layered Katrynia is as a character, she doesn’t feel like the same person in any scene and that is a gift but also a real challenge too.”

The City and the CityMandeep Dhillon (Doctor Who) plays Borlú’s partner, the lively, foul-mouthed Constable Lizbyet Corwi, who is not all that she seems. Dhillon has described this as her “dream role,” saying:

“She is pretty extraordinary as a person, she has a very bad potty mouth and so she swears like no one’s business and she is very ballsy which I love about her.”

She was also very enthusiastic about the series, saying:

“It is a mind-bending crime drama which makes you question how you see the world and what you choose to unsee. It is a real page turner, you are desperate to know what happens next and to find out the truth. On top of that it is set in this amazing world with these interesting rules and regulations and something just doesn’t add up throughout the whole series and people will be itching to find out the end result.”

The City and the CityLastly, Maria Schrader plays Senior Detective Dhatt, Borlú’s counterpart in Ul Qoma. Schrader describes the role thus:

“Dhatt is a high-ranking officer within the omnipresent and highly feared Ul Qoma Police and it would seem from the outset that she shares their beliefs as she executes commands without hesitation. However, it is her curiosity and her sense of justice that leads her to develop doubts.”

 She also compared the setting to that of Berlin before the fall of the Wall:

“When I started reading the script I instantly thought of my hometown of Berlin which itself was a divided city while the wall was still up. The difficulty and anxiety in crossing the border, the armed surveillance everywhere, the Unknown on the other side, only a block away, intimidating and almost scary with its different atmosphere and politics. It all felt exactly like Berlin back in the 80s.”

Besźel and Ul Qoma

“Although Ul Qoma and Beszel occupy the same geographical space, the cities have a dangerous and volatile relationship with each other, and citizens are trained from childhood to unsee everything in the other city.”

The Cities operate in a very confusing way, and it isn’t always made clear in the four episodes of The City and the City how everything really works. But you are sure of the distinction between Besźel and Ul Qoma because of the starkly different color schemes and architecture of each city. Besźel is always in warm, sepia tones and looks like a remnant of a 1970s Eastern bloc country. Ul Qoma, on the other hand, is always tinged in blue and cool colors, illuminated by more lights and seemingly more modern and technologically advanced.

The City and the CityBorlú is shown walking down one street that seems to be split into two different worlds. Somehow, both exist at the same time and space but the people walking on the other side are careful enough not to acknowledge the existence of the other place, intentionally avoiding even the slightest contact with the other city. The lines are drawn very distinctively and so far, the citizens have managed to conform to this unusual arrangement.

The history behind the cities was never really explored but it seems that the arrangement is necessary to maintain the peace. Anyone who refuses to follow the system, including the murder victim Mahalia Geary, is mysteriously put down. There is an activist function who desire the unification of the two cities but they are never successful in their efforts.

The City and the City must be kept separate, for all inhabitants to continue living in safety and security. Later in the series, Borlú confronts a subversive writer who both Mahalia and Katrynia idolized, and he learns the tragic truth about his wife. He begins to question why the cities exist as they do and what Breach, the authority that forbids citizens from “seeing” the other city, really does to protect them.

Status quo is maintained at the end of the four episodes of The City and the City, though Borlú now occupies a new position and has gained a broader view of his already confounding world. He’s solved the big case but the price he paid was to start a new life.

There’s no news on whether there will be a second season but if this is all we get, I’m satisfied. The unique setting, combination of the sci-fi and detective genres, and talented performances have truly made this series a memorable one.