For me, it was the most hotly anticipated television event of the year. And it wasn’t even going to appear on television, but web service Netflix. Charlie Brooker made a name for himself in 2011 when the first episode of season 1 of this curious series broke onto Channel 4. He has a habit of making visceral and dark satirical television. My first introduction to his work was 2008’s Dead Set about a zombie outbreak that occurs during a live eviction of reality TV show Big Brother.
Black Mirror is a satirical drama series with a large social commentary focus that has gone from strength to strength. Some concerns and complaints were expressed before and afterwards about “Americanisation” of the stories. As far as I am concerned, these concerns are unfounded. Season 3 is every much as high quality as the 7 episodes that went before it and with Brooker on board, I really could not see it going any other way.
From the amusing The National Anthem in which the British Prime Minister was forced to copulate with a pig on live national television. If he refused to do so, the minor royal abducted at the beginning of the episode would be killed.
True social commentary did not begin until the second episode, Fifteen Million Merits. Sometime in the new future, the only currency is merits – a kind of system of getting paid for going on cycling and running machines that seem to power the system. You also receive merits for watching adverts and participating in events or you can spend merits to skip adverts. Merits are traded for food and clothes etc. It’s a great social satire on celeb culture.
The Entire History of You is the coldest and most harrowing of the three in this season. We all have implants which allow us to revisit our memories, replaying them over and over again. One day, a man gets an inkling that his wife is cheating on him and starts obsessively going back through old memories. Is he paranoid because of the system or has it allowed him to discover an affair?
In Be Right Back, a new business service offers the recently bereaved the opportunity to carry on a virtual relationship with a deceased loved one. Based on his or her social media interactions, a virtual version of the deceased allows us to carry on as though they never died.
White Bear is the most shocking of all. A young woman wakes up alone in her house and no memory of who she is. Why are people following her and filming her? And why are some people trying to kill her? This has the most shocking ending of any episode.
The Waldo Moment perhaps has more relevance in 2016 than it did at the time of broadcast in 2013. It is a political satire about the danger of the protest vote and how a figure of fun can become a political icon. No matter how much he tells you not to vote for him, the more determined you are to vote for him.
I’ve discussed White Christmas before (here). It (surprisingly) brings together elements from all six episodes that preceded it but creates its own story. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but if you want to know more, then please read my previous post.
To those who might disparage it, this will be the season when it went “all American” and Charlie Brooker “sold out”. To those people I shake my head. You seriously need to give this a chance because nobody has sold out and quality was not compromised at any point.
Nosedive is easily my favourite. Featuring the always awesome Bryce Dallas Howard, it shows a chilling world where one’s social media status is social status and currency in one. There is segregation based on your social media score. If its high, you have access to First Class seats on flights and so on. What happens when a series of mishaps leads your score to drop?
Playtest is the horror story. Disturbing and unnerving, it focuses on an advanced system of Augmented Reality gaming to create a virtual horror environment. An American tourist in the UK ends up sucked into one of these games.
Shut Up and Dance is the only one in this season (much like The Waldo Moment) to feature only technology available today rather than projecting 10-15 years into the future. A boy downloads malware-killing software after his sister borrows his laptop. Instead, he gets filmed doing something that teenage boys do when alone in their rooms, and is blackmailed for it.
What can I say about San Junipero aside from that it breaks the mould from what you come to expect from Black Mirror? I don’t want to say anything else because several twists towards the end would be really spoiling the early development here. You get the sense that something isn’t right in this party town, and you’d be right.
Episode five and my second favourite from this series was Men Against Fire. A chilling look at war through the eyes of a soldier sent to some unnamed central European state. Their enemies? Roaches – a non-human zombie type creature. Following a clash with a Roach, our protagonist ‘s implants start to malfunction.
Finally, the double length episode Hated in the Nation. This is largely about internet trolling – the effects it has on it victims, mostly. A Katie Hopkins-esque newspaper columnist is killed horribly in her home. The only other person in the house is her husband and he has an unusual alibi that sounds so ridiculous it can only be true.
How Black Mirror Gets Under the Skin
Not all episodes do this, but Brooker’s incredible vision and storytelling is succinctly constructed. Where many such shows focus on the wonder of the advanced technology, Brooker often treats it with the same casual indifference that we might today treat a digital watch. We don’t marvel at how a kettle converts electricity to heat water, at least most of us don’t. The point is that the technology is rarely (with maybe one or two exceptions) the point of the story.
Some people do not like science fiction or conceptual fiction with a heavy focus on technology. I can sort of understand this, sometimes even though anti science fiction snobbery is one of my bug bears. This is more common for people who prefer to read about people, the personal stories, the every day. Brooker does is, never allowing himself or us to get distracted by the technology. He succeeds every time in creating fascinating human stories that use technology as a plot device to move the story along.
Brooker also forces us (in most cases) to look at ourselves and our own world through the lens of a potential future for us. We can see the very real social ideas today that might create the worlds we see in Fifteen Million Merits and Nosedive. Men Against Fire for its part, may even be a social commentary on how we see people of other nations and cultures. Shut Up and Dance and Hated in the Nation looks at internet trolling and its effects taken to shocking conclusions.
Season 3 is well received in terms of critical and popular acclaim. Let’s hope season 4 (due in 2017) can deliver more of the same.