Every so often there appears in literature or the media a work so powerful, so audacious and original that it blows everything else out of the water. The better television series these days – Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones – seem to handle to complexities of science fiction and fantasy rather better than films. Possibly because there is room to develop characters and ideas and stories. However, there is one British series which puts paid the notion that one needs so much space. Emmy award-winner, Black Mirror, written by Charlie Brooker, conveys in each and every forty-five minute episode, not only complex ideas, but disturbingly plausible and original visions of our near future while still having at their core devastatingly powerful human emotions.
Seasons one and two are comprised of three self-contained episodes. The opening gambit is The National Anthem, starring Roy Kinnear as the Prime Minister who faces a shocking dilemma. The Duchess of Beaumont, a beloved member of the royal family has been kidnapped and she pleads on camera for her release, which is only possible of the PM meets her captors’ demands. Without giving away the plot, the head of government is asked to commit a horrific, humiliating act to be filmed and broadcast live. Our first response at the scenario may be to laugh. Certainly there is black humour to what’s being asked for. But then the true horror breaks through to us. Much as it The National Anthem critiques the machinations of government, it reflects back an entirely negative aspect of humanity – the depths we can sink to as part of the crowd.
And it is the dark side of crowd mentality that informs much of the rest of the series, too. Political structure forms the spine of the final episode of the second season, giving the six shows an elliptical shape. In The Waldo Moment, a failed comedian, played admirably by Daniel Rigby, creates and operates a blue cartoon bear that interviews and mocks politicians. Ironically, Waldo becomes so popular that he ends up standing in the elections against the other parties. As Waldo starts to become a global brand, accepted and hailed for all his obscene inanities by the majority of people, Rigby’s own character descends into a kind of hell that shockingly culminates at the end of a police baton as we see the police state now fully embedded in this near future world.
I don’t want to go into detail about each episode. But I will give brief summaries:
Fifteen Million Merits is a satire on entertainment shows and our insatiable thirst for distraction set in an ironic version of a future reality. In this world, everyone must cycle on exercise bikes (financial treadmill?), to power their surroundings and generate virtual currency to buy virtual goods.
The Entire History of You is set in an alternative reality where most people have a ‘grain’ implanted behind their ear which records everything they do, see or hear and allows memories to be played back at will.
In Be Right Back a grieving young widow is given the opportunity to communicate with her dead husband. Initially, it’s through text and internet chat, but then she’s offered an artificial version of him, which arrives as an ill-formed humanoid, but reaches full creation in a chemical nutrient bath in her home.
White Bear sees a woman, apparently a failed suicide, undergoing public humiliation and torture in the format of a reality show.
The grief of the widow in Be Right Back and the torture of the prisoner in White Bear are both heart-breaking and gut-wrenching. Indeed, I’ve rarely seen a television drama of such short duration that creates such strong emotions. Some of it was so challenging as to be almost unwatchable. That a slight sick feeling of distress can be caused by essentially fiction on television speaks volumes for this series.
Black Mirror’s thesis is exactly what its title suggests: a dark reflection of ourselves. In particular it looks at the behaviour of the masses, what we are prepared to do en-masse, even if it goes against private morality. One only has to look at Hitler’s Germany, modern day dictatorships and religious cults. And, closer to home, the public humiliation and scorn some celebrities have to face either when they seem to have grown “too big for their boots” or who have fallen out of favour for views or behaviour that the media disagrees with.
The media itself comes up for scalpel-like investigation, too. Social networking, television news, game shows…all of it is examined and found wanting. It is interesting, therefore, that Black Mirror is shown through one of the very channels it most criticises – television. Which makes the series doubly ironic since, I suspect, a lot of people simply won’t watch it because it isn’t mere “entertainment”.