Charlie Brooker of TV Wipe, the 10 O’Clock Show, and the excellent zombie-Big Brother mini series Dead Set, has turned his hand to a three episode series on Channel 4 (UK) which feature would could best be described as ‘cautionary tales’ about the world’s current obsession with electronic media. Much like this blog, except with more viewers. Black Mirror’s last episode finished last week, but I just wanted to add a few words of praise for something a bit different and satirical.
You can argue that these stories have been covered before by other writers and films – Brooker himself admits that he was inspired by the Twilight Zone when creating this. I still believe it’s valuable to have a show like this. Given how much uncritical dross actually is out on the TV and constantly mutating on the internet, I feel that something like Black Mirror which at least tries to remind us what we’re doing with technology and instant communication can’t be a bad thing. Of course there are shades of Orwell here, a shard of Bradbury’s Faranheit 451, the always echoed themes of Network. Frankly, this doesn’t matter. Black Mirror explores the current obssesions with Twitter and mass culture, the dangers of being enslaved to public opinion and fast moving technology. Frankly, anything which suggests that instant communication, all the time, might be making us cruelly mindless, is a valuable entity on the TV.
Episode 1 – National Anthem
The first of Charlie Brooker’s disturbing tales has a memorable quandry for the British Prime Minister. It seems that the people’s beloved Princess Susannah has been kidnapped, and to free her the Prime Minister must perform a highly indecent act with a pig on national television. There’s a short deadline and increasing pressure from the public for the Prime Minister to accede to the kidnapper’s demands. But is the public about to get more than it can handle?
This story wasn’t so much ‘this could happen’ as ‘why hasn’t this happened yet?’ and it’s almost – almost – believable enough to be very effective. It ask several questions about the power of the media, highlighting the way that fast moving news delivery can skew and distort facts enough to destroy a person caught in its path. It also lobs a satirical missile at the quality of the Turner Prize winners.
While this is an extreme version of the effects of social media, it also seriously warns about how it outrage can whip up public hysteria to levels which panic governments into stupid and, it turns out, rather unnecessary decisions.
I mainly appreciated the point where the previously mocking TV audience understood the full horror of what they’d demanded to happen, although nobody seems to stop watching it. The Prime Minister was also surprisingly sympathetic. Humiliation makes great telly, or that’s how it seems, but what would we actually want to watch given the chance? I think we’re lucky that the worst of things must still be sought out on the internet, although perhaps we’re getting a little closer to true horror like this every day.
Episode 2 – 15 Million Merits
This episode bears the most powerful resemblance to the three best known dystopian touchstones, mostly Orwell’s 1984, Farenheit 451 and a very big nod to Network. The protagonist, standing in for 1984’s Winston Smith, is a tiny cog in a terrifyingly bland but cruel vision of the future where humans are the wheels. People must pedal on stationary exercise bikes – its seems that they’re generating electricity. At night they live in individual cells where every wall is a huge video screen, which plays adverts you must pay to avoid. That does seem familiar. The only way to escape the daily grind is by appearing a hugely popular X-Factor style TV gameshow, but when our hero tries to help the girl he loves by lending her the entry credits, his mere existence turns into a complete nightmare. The big question it asks is, how can you fight against anything when your words are repackaged to be consumed?
This is the worry that preoccupied Bill Hicks (his oft-quoted ‘kill yourselves’ call to advertising people feels perfect for this situation) and the conclusion is very much an admission by Charlie Brooker himself that once you are part of the system, you must try to livewith yourself and make the best of it, whilst losing a little of what made you mad as hell along the way. Apology and warning, and worth a watch.
Episode 3 – The Entire History of You
What would happen if we could record everything we ever saw, every minute? Are we that far from it now? In the third and last Back Mirror, Jesse Armstong (of Peepshow) has written a troubling tale of obsession and jealousy. While not quite as satirical as the previous two, it deals with the worst case scenario when a young lawyer believes his wife has had an affair with a smarmy friend. How much is worth remembering and does perfect recall simply make it harder to forgive and forget?
While the characters themselves were fairly smug and pretty unlikeable, it did feel like it was just a few seconds into the future and the dangers of going over and over something is much harder when a possible betrayal is all filmed in hi-def to pick over. In fact, my favourite example of this is foreshadowed at a party scene near the start, where one of the couple’s friends has arrived back from holiday and can’t stop obsessing over a tiny piece of frayed carpet glimpsed in the corner of the hotel room. A minor factor in the great scheme of things, but enough to ruin the entire memory of the trip when revisited again and again. The relationship between the lawyer and his wife soon undergoes a similar unravelling.
It wasn’t quite extreme enough, in the end, but once it got going the story was troubling, in a good way, and perhaps also a reminder not to obsess too much over all those Facebook photos from mad nights out?
I am very pleased that Charlie Brooker got a chance to create these stories and I only wish there were a few more of them. The world moves fast, technology is a callous master, and the news and TV in general needs to prod people now and then to point out it isn’t always a good thing. That’s what the best science fiction has always done. Real life is all in the interpretation. Although the show mocked the Turner Prize, perhaps true art, and our humanity, can be best revealed in the reflections we see in the Black Mirror.
After that gesture towards self-awareness, I guess we can all get back to watching X-Factor. Or not.