One of the things I look forward to most about the post Christmas, pre New Year period is the return of Charlie Brooker’s award winning Black Mirror series. Ever since being recommended to watch it by a friend, I have been hooked on Brooker’s fascinating view into a future world governed by technology. From blackmail at the highest level, to social media overload, digital implants and a big brother society, the outcome is usually bleak. His locations feel both familiar and alien. An abandoned warehouse, a house in the country, an office in the city. All contained in a future which is already in our reach: driver-less cars, robots, digital implants, popularity judged by social media scores.
Brooker got his idea for Black Mirror from watching Anthology TV shows such as The Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected which explored the macabre and contemporary issues within a fictional setting, often avoiding censorship rules. As a Dahl fan myself, only discovering his earlier work when I became an adult, I see the connection. I recognise the fascination with the dark and disturbing, the delight at the slow unravelling of each story, the lasting effects of the message over days and weeks.
Brooker employs much of the same strategy in his Black Mirror series, although it’s looking at a very different premise. A future world governed by a dependence on technology, and the issues surrounding that when things go wrong. Brooker says that Technology often feels like a drug and that his series is set somewhere between this ‘delight and discomfort.’ The Black Mirror of the title is something you’ll find ‘on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold shiny screen of a TV, monitor or smartphone.’
Episodes are often stylised with an overload of colour and sound, making them appear as synthetic as their devices. Other times the view is bleak, washed of colour, amidst a vast empty landscape. Brooker has the ability to create atmosphere and effect like no other writer and producer, through a clever use of original story, relatively unknown actors and film style. We are always led straight into the action, even if it tension must build with our understanding of events.
Commenting on his work, Brooker has described Black Mirror as commenting on ‘the way we live now and the way we might live in ten minutes time if we’re clumsy.’
This season takes virtual reality to a whole new level. By midway, the series is actually quite shocking. Violence, sex, drugs, blackmail, forced control…it’s all there at a hard hitting level. Episode 1 explores the idea of virtual reality gaming at an extreme level. When placed in the wrong hands, new technology allows a computer gaming programmer, typecast as a lonely nerd, to take his co workers DNA and create copies of them in his computer game. His experiment turns deadly when a new co worker fights against his system, refusing to allow him to control her. This reminds me of a previous episode where Brooker explored the idea of a character entering a video game via a chip placed in their head. This did not end well either. A comment on the growing world of virtual gaming? A warning that there has to be a limit? The episode doesn’t end well for the programmer, as his own invention is turned against him. The ending caused much debate among fans and viewers. Does one bad deed deserve another?
Episode 2, takes the idea of child safety and protection to a whole new level. A very current issue in modern society, where it’s deemed no longer safe to let your child play outside alone or allow them unlimited internet access, for fear of what they might discover. After losing her child in a local park, a Mother decides to participate in a trial of a new programme to monitor children via a chip implanted in their head. After the chip is inserted she can view and control everything her daughter sees via a tablet. Whilst it serves to keep her daughter safe for the first few years of her life and to shelter her from unnecessary distress, as the child grows into an adult the effects begin to become evident. For a Mother who can’t face not knowing, and a child who is curious about the world. The final scenes of this episode are shocking in their violent content, and perhaps serve as a warning about the dangers of living a sheltered life. How can you then be expected to know the difference between good and bad? How can you know to avoid certain things, to make informed decisions? How can a Mother ever just let go if there’s the option to hold on to every moment in your child’s life, even the most personal ones.
Episode 3 is the most shocking of the series. After they are involved in a terrible accident, a woman must keep secret everything she had witnessed, for fear of losing everything. But when things become threatened by the appearance of her ex boyfriend, full of remorse, things begin to spiral out of control. Meanwhile, A young woman (Kiran Sonia Sawar collects evidence for an insurance claim, using a new system which records peoples memories of events. It’s not long before the guilty woman is forced to reveal what she knows, leading to horrific consequences for those involved.
Andrea Riseborough is outstanding in her role, going from a young and innocent woman wanting to do the right thing, to a mother desperate to protect her family, spiralling into a ruthless killer, determined to retain her freedom, at whatever cost.
In the final scenes of this episode, after killing the insurance woman’s husband, she hears their baby cry. I imagined that when she discovered the child, she would be overcome with compassion and remorse. That she would either turn herself in or go on the run, rather than kill the child. In the next scene, I was horrified to realise that she has killed the baby too. A baby who, it is revealed, was blind. In a twist of fate, the guinea pig which was placed in the child’s room as company, reveals the horrifying truth through it’s memories.
I’m not the only person to see there’s something rather disturbing about this particular story. Not just the volume of murders the protagonist commits, or the speed and assurance with which she carries out the violence, but also the gratuitous way in which the episode is filmed. Maybe if it had stopped at the death of the child, without the revelation of them being blind? If there was some show of remorse.
In the harrowing final scene, as the killer watches her son perform ‘We could have been anything that we wanted to be’ in the school musical of Bugsy Malone, we see a destroyed woman who knows too well the irony of those words.
After the heavy subject of Episode 3, we are treated to a somewhat lighter story in Episode 4. The theme is online dating and in this world, participants sign up for a programme where they are matched with potential partners and given an expiry date. After this, they must move on to the next partner, arranged by the system, which calculates date and reactions in order to find the users perfect partner.
We live in a world where online dating or dating apps is now the norm, and there is so much choice that people move on as quickly as they like. This episode is a clever exploration of the ideas behind these sites. Participants must live with their ‘partners’ until their expiry date. They live in an artificial world where every house looks the same, they return to the same restaurant to eat every night, they do nothing except keep fit and wait until their next match, they are never seen with other people except their matches.
The two protagonists of the episode are immediately drawn to each other, but discover their expiry date is only 24 hours. After this, they go their separate ways but continue to wonder about each other, particularly when they are paired up with people they don’t connect with, for long term relationships. When they are matched again they agree not to check their expiry date and begin to fall for each other. But curiosity gets the better for one of them and that changes everything. Spending time apart, they realise that they are right for each other and decide to try and beat the system, to escape the programme’s world. What happens when they do is extraordinary. On the other side of the virtual dating world, they meet in a bar.
This episode is closest to the real world. The idea that online dating or dating via apps works for some people, for others it doesn’t. If you believe in fate though, two people will meet whatever is thrown at them, because they are meant to be together. This episode is no San Junipero (2017 episode which won the series its first Prime time Emmy Awards) where two lovers are reunited after death in a virtual world. But it has a nice positive feel at the end of it. This is definitely necessary after the dark tone of the previous 3 episodes.
The Fifth episode of the new series follows three people to an abandoned warehouse, where a fierce robot awaits them. With her fellow humans dead and running across the wasteland for her life, a woman tries to communicate with the outside world. This study on the future of robotics, what they might be used for, is one of the most disturbing episodes. They are easy to adapt, are difficult to kill and fire trackers into their victims, so that other robots or ‘dogs’ can find them. We learn that the woman was trying to get something from the warehouse for her friend, who has someone at home who is very sick. We don’t discover, until the end of the episode, when the camera zooms into the warehouse across the man’s dead body and over to the box that he dropped on the floor, what they were searching for. The box is open, and lying all around it are several teddy bears. From this we can understand that the person dying is a child and that they were trying to get a soft toy to give them some comfort in their last hours. It’s a powerful statement on the idea of control and boundaries. Is this a world were technology has gone wrong? These guard ‘dogs’ have rebelled against the hands that created them? Or is it simply a world which is governed by such violent security measures, that no one can take what they want or need? We are left with these questions as the screen turns black.
The final episode of the series explores ideas of morality around public entertainment and technology mixing with medicine. Black museum follows the story of a British tourist who stops at an abandoned petrol station and discovers an unusual museum. The owner’s homage to criminal artefacts soon turns into something more than a disturbing hobby. The main attraction is a startling take on entertainment for the masses. The twist is unexpected and sees yet another invention being turned against it’s maker.
This new, darker more violent series of the award winning Black Mirror, makes us question what might be next for Brooker. How far can he push the bizarre world of social media, technology and future science? When will these theories catch up with him and what, if anything will his work do to change society? Is that even his goal? Or is he just providing entertainment, with a satirical look at modern boundaries?
These are all questions which will lead us into an inevitable fifth series. Despite it’s popularity, Black Mirror is still yet to find and retain some viewers. For others, like myself, it is the ultimate immersive drama. The talking point for many conversations and a thinking point for the future. Perhaps it is the 21st century’s version of Tales of the Unexpected, with the focus on a future very close to the reach of human experience.