And so another season of Charlie Brooker’s sometimes disturbing, social commentary-heavy series comes to an end. It is now at the end of it’s fourth and in this age of books on the screen, and the world seemingly exhausted of one episode, one story style of television, Black Mirror remains the flag bearer once held by The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone.
What a run it has been. After beginning life as small-time indy television by cult writer Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror is now a global sensation. I never imagined it could reach quite the level of global cult status that it now has. I expected, as many no doubt did, assumed it would remain in its Channel 4 niche and broadcast on small channels in the US where the big networks would not want to take on such a big risk of something dark, brooding, rarely happy and distinctly British in its approach to science fiction.
Technology is a Plot Device
Science fiction, especially that based in the here and now, dates and quite horribly. Yet the eternal appeal of Black Mirror is not in the technology but in how it uses technology as plot devices to tell very human stories. That became clear from the first episode The National Anthem but became more apparent in the second (15 Million Merits). The basic story of The National Anthem is that a minor royal has been abducted and will be killed if the Prime Minister does not voluntary have sex with a pig live on national television. The shock factor of such an act turned people off and for many, this episode remains the weakest. Yet the social commentary becomes clear in the final scene. Technology features strongly in Black Mirror and sometimes the concepts are recycled and reflected back at us with a different premise.
When we break these stories down, each episode in turn is about (SPOILERS!)
- The National Anthem: Human distraction for sensationalism ignoring what is really going on
- Fifteen Million Merits: Being broken by the system and selling out
- The Entire History of You: Faulty memories, lying and how technology wrecks relationships
- Be Right Back: The gap between social media personality and reality
- White Bear: Crime and punishment
- The Waldo Moment: Political disenfranchisement and cardboard cut-out politicians
- White Christmas: All of the above (so far)
- Nosedive: How we present ourselves and the obsession with wanting to be liked on social media
- Playtest: Blurring the lines between fantasy and reality – the inability to distinguish either from the other
- Shut Up and Dance: Internet trolling and online visibility
- San Junipero: The craving to be loved
- Men Against Fire: Perception of those different from us
- Hated in the Nation: Trial by Media and a lack of empathy for those they witch hunt
- USS Callister: Artificial Intelligence and potential toxicity of gaming culture
- Arkangel: The boundary between allowing a child freedom and overprotecting them
- Crocodile: How far people will go to protect themselves
- Hang the DJ: Internet dating and the gap between the type of person we think we want for a partner and who is actually good for us
- Metalhead: Taking stupid risks for potentially little gain
- Black Museum: A lack of consideration of the consequences of abusing technology
Look in my Black Mirror. Do You Like What You See?
Few television shows ask us to examine ourselves but Black Mirror does so by dragging us kicking and screaming to the television, grabbing our heads and pushing us square up against the television. It’s appealing because of this self-reference. The stories are timeless, focusing on the human condition and how technology can bring out the very best and worst in us. It’s intelligent storytelling and it’s uncomfortable because we are forced to look at our own world. In a world of meaningless fluff, talent shows and the need for instant gratification, Black Mirror appeals to a far deeper part of our psyche – the need for self-examination. This, I believe, is the reason the series is called Black Mirror at all.
Fun in Self-Referencing
In the middle of all this darkness, social commentary and warnings, there is also some fun. One area of debate doesn’t concern the stories so much as what is contained within them. Most episodes reference each other although most people may not have got an inkling of this until White Christmas. Yet fans experience great fun spotting references in episodes, no matter how fleeting, to other episodes. The culmination of season 4m the episode known as Black Museum takes that to extreme lengths with direct and blatant references to several other episodes, most notably season 2’s White Bear.