By Deian Timms
Charlie Brooker is one of those people that just seems to be right about everything. Being a big fan of his programmes and columns, I was naturally eager to watch Black Mirror, which from what I could gather was to be a satirical take on our relationship with technology. A dramatised Screenwipe is what I was expecting: a witty, outspoken and topical, standard-issue Brooker mick-take. This terrifying, uncomfortable and utterly engaging three-part series turned out to be something quite different.
The first episode, The National Anthem, is set within a very familiar reality of 24-hour rolling news, Twitter and technological commodity fetishism. As shown in the series opener, this culture of the instant gratification does not mix well with politics. The story begins as fictional Prime Minister Michael Callow is notified that an anonymous video has been posted to YouTube by a kidnapper who has taken the young and soon-to-be wed Princess Susannah hostage. The kidnapper demands that the Prime Minister commit bestiality with a pig live on television in order to secure her safe return. The episode follows the course of one day as public opinion about this unsettling situation twists and turns between mass hysteria and macabre schadenfreude. Both everyone and no-one is in control. The sense of dystopia created from a reality almost identical to our own is harrowing.
15 Million Merits, the second part of the series was written by Charlie Brooker and Kanak(aka Konnie) Huq. It is set in a mysterious and windowless dystopia, full of gesture-controlled screens, the pornification of daily life and exercise bikes. The citizens or, more accurately, prisoners of this pedal-powered society must earn ‘merits’ in order to buy food, customise their on-screen ‘Doppel’ avatars or in this episode’s case, enter Hot Shot, a perverted X-Factor style show. The protagonist Bing becomes disillusioned with his surroundings and having rediscovered some measure of humanity in the smallest of gestures and interactions, becomes filled with the need to escape. The climax consists of another decision and another moral dilemma. This setting of this episode is the furthest away from our reality in terms of aesthetics, but it is not an unimaginable future. It parallels 1984 throughout, especially the way in which Bing and Winston ultimately compromise, and both leave us feeling helpless.
The series concludes with The Entire History of You, which takes place in a not very distant future, in which everywhere has an electronic ‘grain’ implant, which records everything we see and do. With a ‘grain’, it is possible to rewind and replay our memories. This is perhaps a metaphor for social media today. The advent of Facebook’s ‘Timeline’ feature makes this particularly relevant. The episode was written by Jesse Armstrong of Peep Show, and even includes some references to it with the ocasional first person camera angle. However, the episode is far-removed from Peep Show’s awkward humour, and instead shows us how ever-intrusive technology impacts on a romantic relationships – how the possibility of reliving and analysing past moments in minute detail fuels jealousy and insecurities. The choice in this episode is whether we side with Liam the obsessed husband, or with Ffion the cheating wife.
It is the ever-present moral ambiguity and philosophical dilemma that made Black Mirror so engaging. Nothing is ever clear-cut in these confusing realities in which we are all complicit, where technological progression increasingly manipulates and reduces us to a base existence, separating us from our humanity.
It is a thoroughly uncomfortable watch, but perhaps a necessary one. It forces us to rethink our fascination with technology and social media in a compelling and extremely hard-hitting way, which could be exactly what we need. Black Mirror is bleak satire for bleak times.