Did you watch Black Mirror?

Charlie Brooker obscuring the sign in protest ...
Charlie Brooker: Image via Wikipedia

I recommended Black Mirror to my students, as I thought it might raise some interesting discussion points. The first episode, written by Charlie Brooker, The National Anthem, was about the ways in which social media make traditional news management impossible. It turns out that the high watermark for the professional management of news was very brief in relative terms. The Kennedy/Nixon TV debates in 1960 might be seen of the beginning of this, with its peak in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, it’s impossible to be in control of a story in the same way that PR and spin doctors were in the 1990s.

On the other hand, that interesting aspect of The National Anthem was a bit buried beneath the sheer crudity of the ransom demand featured in the story: for the Prime Minister to have sex with a pig on live television. As with all Charlie Brooker material, I can read this stuff (I used to read his TV Go Home web site when I was a bored office worker – I wouldn’t bother with it in my own time), but don’t like watching it.

Anyway, the point about Twitter and the uncontrollable spread of rumour was made, though it could have been better made. I would have liked to see more of this and less of the will-he-won’t-he debate.

So to the next episode, written by Brooker and Connie Huq. 15 Million Merits was about a dystopian future in which power is generated by people pedalling and the only escape seems to be via a hideous talent show. People waste money/credits/merits on virtual goods, and it actually costs you merits to skip advertising.

Again, this episode made some interesting points but dwelled on less interesting aspects of the story. It also took a really long time to get going. I noticed on the Twitter that a lot of people were complaining about boredom in the first 20 minutes. To be fair to the show, this was probably deliberate: they were clearly setting out to underscore the boredom and futility of existence, the sheer drudgery of living in a world dominated by screens. But by the time the main character made his passionate speech about all this with a shard of glass held to his neck, I think a lot of people would have lost interest.

Powerful points were made about the relentless trivialisation of culture, but once more I think this point was undermined by the way in which the show focused too much on the romantic sub-plot.

The final episode, written by Jesse Armstrong, was the best of the three, but was also flawed by its focus on relationships. The Entire History of You had a proper science fiction premise: the idea that everything we see can be recorded on a memory chip and replayed at will is one that has been explored by other SF writers to good effect. As with all the Black Mirror episodes, it took something that many people do now, and took it to its inevitable conclusion. The programme asked the question, what are the consequences of recording everything you do on a timeline, or on various social networking sites? If you use Facebook, Path, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, these are questions you should be asking yourself.

There were several interesting ideas thrown up by The Entire History of You. One was the obsessive-compulsive replaying of events, like the job appraisal at the beginning. We’ve all probably had an experience like this, where we kept going over something that had happened (a job interview, for example) in our minds, but what if you could really do this – in high definition, zooming in on details, so that you could truly torture yourself? Another great idea was the short scene showing the mute acceptance of the horrible violation of privacy, when people are obliged by security to replay their last seven days. In a year in which people who posted stuff on Facebook about the summer riots ended up in jail, this was a major theme that deserved more time.

Unfortunately, and I’m afraid in typical TV fashion, most of the time was spent dealing with the relationship aspects. It’s not unimportant that our relationships might be affected by what we record about ourselves on social networks, and god knows there have been enough “Facebook Divorce” stories for this point to be a valid one, but I do think it was a tragic wasted opportunity to spend so much time on the excruciating deterioration of a marriage, aided by action replays and things-they-shouldn’t-have-recorded.

To me, the privacy bomb was the most relevant detail, but perhaps the most interesting story theme might rest with another throwaway moment in the show. Once of the guests at dinner revealed that she didn’t have a chip anymore because one she’d had before was gouged out of her neck, unencrypted. The story that could be told about the consequences of such theft is one I’d like to see. What would be the after-market in stolen memories? Would they be copied and sold wholesale, or used for identity theft, or edited? Would people edit themselves a false past, or would they use the memories of sex for titillation? Probably all of the above. I’d happily watch a 2-hour drama based on the idea of having your memories stolen and repackaged for entertainment.

One response to “Did you watch Black Mirror?”

  1. I watched all three and thought they had some good ideas but were a trifle slow. I think you are being kind about the monotony effect (e.g. in the ep. 2 cycling scenes). There were other points where I was thinking ‘yeah, yeah, I get it’ when the same point was repeated a few times (60 mins->45 mins maybe).

    I also liked some of the throwaway shots like ‘3 years memory archival’ during the taxi advert sequence.

    The third episode and your story line suggestions remind me of when Henry Case was in Chiba City on the trail of the Dixie Flatline ROM to steal the backed-up memories. Thanks for reminding me it’s time to re-read William Gibson’s Sprawl based Neuromancer trilogy.


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