The central conceit of the series, in a way, is about unfamiliarity. The City and the City presents us with two overlapping city-states, Besźel and Ul Qoma; they inhabit the same physical space, but are perceived as two distinct places, separated by a skin stretched across the world. There’s something impressive about how effortlessly The City and the City presents this mythology, a mythology with its own idiosyncratic language and vocabulary – immediately, and without reservation, giving the sense of a world that’s lived in and already intuitively understood by the characters we see.
Similarly impressive, then, is the way the series realises this concept. Crossing over the border is an act that renders the familiar unfamiliar, and it’s an effect achieved through no small part because of Tom Shankland’s evocative direction. Where Besźel is rendered in soft beige tones and yellow light, Ul Qoma is cast in vivid scarlet and cyan; even as the two cities share their geography, they each feel distinct, with their own sharply defined identities. Peering across the breach, a transgressive act, is to confront the unfamiliar – something you know rendered differently, just out of reach.
I’ve not read the book, which I suspect puts me at a little bit of a disadvantage with this piece; certainly, while I was writing it, I began to get the sense that there was a certain degree more depth to the story that I wasn’t quite touching on, and that the article probably would’ve benefitted a little from, at the very least, having been informed by a slightly deeper knowledge of the source material.
Still! That said, I really enjoyed this show, and it very much made me want to read the book – I’ve been meaning to get into China Miéville books for a while, largely at Robbie’s recommendation, so the show was an extra little bit of impetus. Or it will be anyway, I’m still yet to make a start with it.