Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cult-TV Review: Black Mirror (2011 - )

I’ve received quite a few e-mails lately suggesting that I screen the British genre anthology series, Black Mirror (2011 - ), which concerns the dangerous nexus of mankind and his developing technology.

Well, I’ve taken up those reader suggestions and I’m glad I did, because this series is sharply-written, imaginative, and at times downright terrifying. Every segment -- and I’ve now seen all but the Christmas special -- is remarkably thoughtful and intelligent. Frankly, we haven’t had an anthology this good in a while.

Already, comparisons have been made to The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) and I understand why that is the case. Rod Serling gazed long and hard at the human condition during the sixties and focused, often, on issues of Civil Rights, conformity, class, and race. 

Black Mirror chooses instead another topic upon which to obsess: the “black screen” of technology, an iPhone or laptop computer for instance. The screen or monitor itself is the crack’d mirror through which we view ourselves and our 21st century times. It’s an appropriate selection from creator Charlie Brooker, because I believe that every individual of my age group, at the very least has experienced some second thoughts about the infiltration of such devices (and social media platforms) into the home, school, and work place. 

Sometimes, you can’t help but to take a look around you and see that everyone is paying attention to their separate screens or monitors, even on family holidays. My generation is the one that bridges the technological divide; having lived probably twenty or so years pre-internet, and twenty-five years post-Internet.

This is not to suggest that such technology is intrinsically bad, or a negative a force in society. In purely selfish terms, my writing career would not exist at all without the Internet. My first few books about classic sci-fi TV (Space: 1999, Battlestar Galactica, One Step Beyond) took off at precisely the same time that the Internet ascended. The reach of those books went far beyond any I could have imagined when I wrote them in the mid-1990s. If you had told me back then that those books (some in dire need of updates…) would still be in print and still selling copies -- in electronic format, no less -- in twenty years, I would have said you were crazy.  But clearly, my audience is on the Net and a lot of my work -- here, at Flashbak, and elsewhere -- is on the Net too. The Net has connected me to a community of like-minded fans and scholars in a remarkable and historically unprecedented way.

But still, I sometimes get that nagging feeling that the ever-present nature of technology is fraying the social contract and somehow separating people from their immediate communities and neighbors.  Also, it is much harder to erase a mistake in this day and age because of technology, than it was when I was young, and that makes me worry for up-and-coming generations, including my son’s.  The world doesn’t need access to every youthful indiscretion ever committed.

Although Black Mirror has only produced a half-dozen or so episodes at this juncture (over a three season span), it has craftily studied the way technology impacts all aspects of public and private life.  It has examined technology in regards to the government and the press (“The National Anthem,” “The Waldo Moment,”) and in light of personal relationships (“The Entire History of Me,” “Be Right Back.”)

The series has also demonstrated how reality TV turns everybody into commodities (“Fifteen Million Merits”) and even how the justice system could change because of bystanders filming crimes rather than intervening to stop them (“White Bear.”)  

I’ll make no bones about it, either, Black Mirror starts out with its best episode.  The inaugural segment, “The National Anthem,” concerns a terrorist threat to a princess in England’s Royal Family, and a demand of the Prime Minister that at first seems absurd, then disgusting, and finally inevitable. In particular, the hostage-taker demands the P.M. engage in….sexual congress with a pig on live TV, or the princess will die. The P.M (Rory Kinnear) thinks the demand is a joke, and his advisors prepare a CGI fake, but the arrival of the hostage’s severed finger changes everything. 

“The National Anthem” contends with issues like the irresponsibility of the modern mainstream press, the fickle nature of the public (and public polling), and more. In the story, technology -- in the hands of the press -- makes it virtually impossible for the P.M. to avoid his date with destiny, and with the pig. The story sounds strange and in bad taste, but the opposite is true.  The episode raises profound questions about the way we live now.  I’m thinking about asking my mass media class to watch it because I have never seen a better exploration of the pitfalls of the modern media.

The second Black Mirror story, concerning contestants in a seemingly eternal, society-wide reality TV show, didn’t work quite as well for me. The tale’s message -- that everybody has a price, and is willing to sell out -- is valid, if cynical, and yet I must confess that aspects of the episode’s dystopian society were not entirely clear to me. The episode seems to take place at an industrial human farm devoted to the physical nurturing of reality TV show contestants. The episode makes some relevant points about how business intervenes in art, particularly in its idea that you have to “pay” to skip certain content that is less desirable (like commercials.)  Still, it didn’t quite come together for me at the end.  It might be that I was spoiled.  “The National Anthem” is the best thing I’ve seen on television in the last six months or so.

Another Black Mirror story, “The Entire History of You,” rivals “The National Anthem” for intelligence and imagination. The story concerns a future in which everyone is installed with a storage device that records your vision.  So you can go back in time with a remote control and rewind every argument with your wife, or every moment of a job interview, and so on. It’s like social media is now embedded in your head.  

The story centers around a husband and wife with a young baby, and the husband’s paranoid fear that his wife cheated on him with another man they happen to encounter at a dinner party.  Using the evidence of his recorded memory (and hers), the husband, Liam (Toby Kebbell) makes an airtight case for infidelity, but destroys his entire life – and family -- in the process.

If something happened once, two years ago, was a terrible mistake, and has not been repeated, is it truly worth it to sacrifice your future (and the future of a child…)? 

I know lots of folks will disagree with my assessment, but sometimes it’s better not to know such things, and not to have evidence.  Sometimes it is better to move forward and re-build, and not wallow in the details of a mistake that is closed and gone.  The episode reaches that conclusion in a gut-punch kind of way with an act of cathartic excision that makes the bloody point.

Another well-dramatized and emotionally-affecting story is “Be Right Back,” a story about a young woman, Martha (Hayley Atwell), who can’t get over the grief associated with the accidental death of her husband, Ash (Domnhall Gleson).  She is unexpectedly given the opportunity to reconnect with a facsimile of him courtesy of a computer program that can sample all his online words and activities, and approximate a virtual version of the man. 

At first, the program simply responds in written word, using Ash’s phrases and idioms. But Martha wants to talk to him, and so an imitation voice is synthesized.  And then the opportunity comes to house the program in an ambulatory robot that can be made to exactly mimic Ash’s appearance.

The point -- as you can probably guess -- is that human beings are more than the sum of their virtual activities.  Martha soon comes to realize that pieces of Ash are missing, and that the robot duplicate can never embody the absent sectors.  Refreshingly, the robot is upfront about who he is, and what he is.  He is a device to make the mourning process easier.  The episode becomes truly clever, however, because the audience is left to decide whether Martha’s interlude with the machine was helpful or not.  Did the machine aid Martha’s recovery?  Or did it delay her acceptance of reality?

“White Bear” is the mostly overt “horror” episode of the series that I’ve seen thus far, and it concerns a woman, Victoria (Lenora Crichlow) who wakes up with no memories.  When she leaves her apartment, she is hunted by violent sadistic people in masks.  Worse, people all around won’t stop filming Victoria on their iPhones.  They refuse to step in to help.  She pleads to be saved, and no one answers.

I will ruin no surprises, but this episode is structurally clever, boasts a a hell of a reveal, and once more, the viewer is asked to reckon with what our modern technology does to our traditions of society, in this case related to the justice system.  Again, there’s a two-pronged approach here.  The episode discusses how technology can change crime and punishment, but how people -- and their propensity for voyeurism – doesn’t change.

“The Waldo Moment” is another solid installment, and it handles, explicitly, the notion of a figure in entertainment becoming part of a news cycle. A foul-mouthed cartoon character, Waldo, ends up running for political office, taking a sledge-hammer to the conservative and labour candidates in the process. But unlike either of those two politicians, Waldo is only interested in taking a piss on the system, not improving it. 

Once again, there’s two ways of considering’s Waldo’s world.  Either he is destroying a system that needs to be destroyed, exposing its corruption.  Or he is wrecking the process and enhancing the people’s cynicism, and therefore doing nothing good, for anyone. When we have no one and nothing to believe in, society crumbles.  Waldo is not an adequate substitute for an advocate.

Black Mirror combines near-future speculation with riveting storytelling, and ironic, often emotionally-shattering denouements.  The six episodes I watched are better-than-feature film quality, and remind us again that we are now firmly ensconced in TV’s new golden age.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:53 PM

    This has been a topic among my friends recently. Even people who are not that genre-aware have praised this series. -T.S.