Recently a brilliant science fiction series has found its way to Netflix in North America. Black Mirror originally aired in the UK in 2011, and quickly became a critical darling across the pond. It remained absent to most of those (with the exception of DirecTV subscribers) in North America for years, until now. Black Mirror feels like a modern version of The Twilight Zone, which explores the societal impacts of the side effects of technology. “If technology is a drug,” said series creator Charlie Brooker in an Op-ed for the Guardian, “and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side-effects?”
The National Anthem
It is somewhat odd, that of the 3 episodes of Black Mirror’s first season, its first is the one that most loosely fits the goals of the series as a whole. The National Anthem isn’t near future, it is now. Everything that happens within it is possible today. The only commentary on technology itself at play in The National Anthem is the spread in which information spreads, and how little control governments have over it.
The National Anthem begins with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom waking up to the news that a beloved member of the royal family had been kidnapped. The Kidnappers demand was for the Prime Minister to have sex, to completion, with a pig… in a live broadcast. As the story unfolds, the Prime Minister, and the government of the United Kingdom, try desperately, and unsuccessfully, to rescue the missing royal without having to demand. In the end however, and to the delight of British people watching everywhere, the deed must be done, and it is. The gleeful faces of those watching largely change to shame and disgust. The episode ends by showing that life has moved on, and the Prime Minister still has a career, and a good reputation, though his personal life is in shambles, and his own wife is disgusted with him. A news report reveals that the Kidnapper wasn’t a terrorist, or even a disgruntled government employee, but rather a performance artist. We also learn that the Princess had been released prior to the broadcast, which gives the extra kick to the gut of the audience.
Black Mirror’s The National Anthem is a disturbing and emotional gut punch. It explores the idea of shame, in a world without privacy, by meticulously pushing things to the absolute extreme. For me personally, the surprise was ruined long before I saw the episode, which made the results less shocking. That being said, the way that hope is systematically and logically crushed step by step is masterful, and the extra 2 kicks in the end are like salt in the deeply gouged wound of our souls.
15 Million Merits
My personal favorite episode of Black Mirror, as a whole, has, and continues to be the second episode, 15 million merits. Unlike the first episode, 15 Million Merits has deep social commentary about the use of technology in society. The episode shows the dark side of digital entertainment and microtransactions, while also exploring the evils of reality TV, vapid consumerism, and mob mentality.
15 Million Merits is at its core, a love story, though that core is viciously plucked away to reveal something more sinister a story about conformity and hopelessness. The protagonist of the story is a young man named Bing. Everyday Bing wakes up in a tiny closet of a room that is covered in video screens, he brushes his teeth, paying for every ounce of toothpaste. Everything he does has a cost, ads follow him everywhere and can only be dismissed with penalty payments. Bing has an account of merits, a rather large amount, due to an amount left behind for him by his recently deceased brother. Bing leaves his room and travels to a room filled with exercise bikes which are used to power the facility in which he lives, every rotation of the pedals earns Bing merits. He has a display in front of him which offers a variety of entertainment options while he cycles, all of which require a microtransaction. Bing chooses a simple rolling hill game to accompany his pedaling, his neighbor watches a reality show based on fat shaming cruelty, another pedaler obsesses over outfits and hairstyles for his digital avatar, yet another is often seen playing a virtual violin, while many of the pedalers watch Hot Shot, a Britain’s Got Talent-esque reality show in which sleazy judges watch various performances and offer some of them a certain level of fame that gets them away from the bikes, and offers more luxurious housing.
Hot Shot acts as the turning point of the show. Bing notices an attractive new pedaler, and once, in the bathroom, he overhears her singing. The typically indifferent Bing has found something that excites him, a shining star in his monotonous life. Bing gifts the girl a ticket to participate on Hot Shot. a ticket that costs him 15 million merits, nearly everything he has. Abi, the object of his affections, reluctantly accepts the ticket and goes, together with Bing, to audition as a singer. Backstage, Abi is required to drink a drug called “compliance” before taking the stage. On stage, Abi, is notably anxious and a little disoriented when she performs a hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)” by Irma Thomas. The Judges are crass, but positive, until they begin insisting that they don’t want a singer, and that instead Abi should pursue a career in pornography. The Judges are quite insistent, and under the influence of “compliance” and the exorbitant pressure of the judges and the audience, which is comprised of virtual representations of the pedalers, Abi agrees, and Bing is dragged away and locked out.
This turning point crushes Bing, who finally snaps after he doesn’t have enough merits to disregard an ad for a porn film featuring Abi. Not only can he not turn the video off, but cannot leave his room, he cannot avert or cover his eyes, he is literally forced to watch the violation of his shining star, who is clearly “medicated” against shame and inhibition. Bing begins training in a dance, while saving as many merits as possible as he earns his way back to 15 million merits and purchases another ticket to Hot Shot. Bringing a shard of glass from when he snapped and broke a monitor in his room, and Abi’s discarded juice box of “compliance”, Bing takes the stage. Halfway through his performance, and unaffected by “compliance” having brought a dummy box, Bing puts the glass to his throat and forces the judges to let him speak. Bing gives a passionate speech about his artificial society, and how it robbed him of the only real thing he had. “ All we know is fake fodder and buying shit. That’s how we speak to each other,” he says, “how we express ourselves is buying shit. I have a dream? The peak of our dreams is a new hat for our doppel, a hat that doesn’t exist. It’s not even there, we buy shit that’s not even there. Show us something real and free and beautiful, you couldn’t. It’d break us, we’re too numb for it, our minds would choke.” But even in the afterglow of his moment, his victory, he is crushed by the machine. The Judges offer him a chance, a weekly show to rant, and wax poetic. And so we return to the bike room, where pedalers are doing the same thing they always did, only the porn features a drugged out Abi, and the guying buying items for his avatar is considering a shard of glass it can hold to his neck. Bing had been commercialized.
15 Million Merits was a beautiful and emotional story of futility, a Quixoteian tilt into a windmill that completely consumes our protagonist, body, and soul. The storytelling is more heightened and melodramatic than that found in The National Anthem, and the setting is the most far-future of the 3. To me, it is one of the best pieces of dystopian science fiction I have ever consumed.
The Entire History of You
The final episode of Black Mirror’s first season, explores the arrogance of social networking. In The Entire History of You, a technology exists that allows you to review, playback, and even
share every event in your life from the time you are implanted, a few generations beyond Google Glass, Facebook, and Twitter.
The story of The Entire History of You is a classic tale of jealousy that is exasperated by the presence of such technology. The protagonist is seen obsessing over his recent job interview, obsessing over every detail time and time again as he departs for home. Security checks require you to let guards quickly scan through your recent activities, as we see what it is like to commute home in such a world. When Liam, our protagonist, arrives home, he must contend with his wife’s party guests, who ask if they can see his interview. 1 of the guests is a woman who had her “grain”, the device that allows this ability which is called “re-do” stolen from her, and who decided to live without it. She professes that she is happier without it, though the guests question it. Liam also becomes suspicious of one of the guests who seems rather flirtatious with his wife. As his suspicion grows, he eventually, through use of force, and “re-do” technology uncovers the truth, that his wife and the man had an affair. More disturbing, is that the affair occurred during the time his wife became pregnant. Though his wife argues that she prove it with a “re-do”, she refuses and tries to erase the memory. Liam eventually gets his way and discovers that it seems she was unprotected at the time of the affair. The episode ends with Liam by himself, walking through his house experiencing “re-do”s of the happy times with his wife and child. All alone, Liam messily removes his own “grain”.
In our current era of technology, nearly any answer is accessible, and nearly any debate can be settled with a trip to Google or Wikipedia. People document their lives through status updates, photos, and video, and then spend hours every day obsessing over them. The Entire History of You explores where that mentality could take us with a few more technological breakthroughs, and the thought is terrifying.
Black Mirror is a brilliant episodic anthology series in the vein of The Twilight Zone, that analyzes many of our current societal woes through the lens of a logical next step. Have you watched Black Mirror? What did you think? Tell us in our comments, and stay tuned to TVEnthusiast for more coverage of Black Mirror, and all of your favorite shows.