Published on December 16th, 2014 | by Michael0
Crosstalk – Black Mirror
Hello and welcome to the latest edition of Crosstalk. This time out I’m joined by my erstwhile Fargo partner, Chris Chapman, as we discuss Charlie Brooker’s dark anthology series Black Mirror. We’ll be looking back at the six episodes so far (shown across two series) in preparation for the upcoming Christmas special.
Brooker was previously well known for his Guardian article, his various ‘Wipe’ programmes (Screen, Game, News and Weekly) as well as his zombie series Dead Set and satire Nathan Barley which he co-wrote with Chris Morris. What Nathan Barley lacked in viewing figures in more than made up for in prophesy – the worst excesses of its witless cast of characters are now the commonplace affectations of a new generation of hipsters.
It is this gift for prediction that Brooker draws on for Black Mirror. Standalone stories, the episodes are linked by a sense of paranoia regarding technology and the media and are generally set ’10 minutes into the future’, reflecting not quite where society is now but where it could very well end up sooner than we think. Laced with dark humour, the episodes are all unremittingly grim but for my money still manage to feel fresh and different from each other. The anthology set-up, dark twists and usually bleak nature of the stories put me strongly in mind of that classic of Science Fiction television, The Twilight Zone, which was generally more downbeat than you probably remember.
The first episode was The National Anthem, in which the Prime Minister (played by Rory Kinnear) is faced with the ultimate Hobson’s choice – either he has sex with a pig on live TV or a beloved Royal Princess is murdered. Two things drive this episode- how the Prime Minister copes with the horrible choice presented to him and, setting up the theme of the series as a whole, how the reaction to the story on social media changes throughout the day and the bearing this has on the actions of the characters.
As opening gambits go it is very strong – when your first episode has a man being forced to have sex with livestock to save lives you’re not likely to shy away from much. Brooker has, to borrow a cliché from football commentators, set his stall out early. The performances from Kinnear, Lindsay Duncan as his chief aide and Anna Wilson-Jones as his wife are all very strong, subtly reflecting the changes in circumstance throughout the day. However I think this is perhaps the weakest episode to date (admittedly in a very strong field). Brooker it seems has lifted an idea straight from one his columns and played it out to its logical conclusion. It’s very good, make no mistake, but not as groundbreaking or as innovative as episodes to come It is perhaps worth noting too that is the only episode in the first series that he wrote solo. Of all the Black Mirror episodes this is the one most rooted in today’s world – there are no technological advances to speak of, only the identities of the PM and the Princess indicate that it is not now, so to speak.
That’s my take on The National Anthem, at any rate. Chris?
Being a big fan of Brooker I knew what I was expecting to watch, and also what I wanted it to be; a brutal and satirical outlook on life with no punches pulled, and this is what we were given. I would have to agree with you by saying it definitely is a strong opening but not one of the stronger episodes overall. My assumption is that ‘The National Anthem’ was there to give a glimpse of what the series was going to be about, but not so much that it scared off too many sceptics in the audience – however if you can withstand the pig sex I’m sure you’ll be able to stomach nearly anything coming your way in the other five episodes.
I too feel the episode is one of the weaker ones and is potentially a perverted idea Brooker had and wanted to run with, I also feel it is one of the least believable scenarios of the six episodes to date. I just can’t see a Prime Minister lowering himself to that, or it being taken seriously; but perhaps with social media going the way it is, maybe we’d all be Tweeting about how it could swing our votes, with the will of the Nation forcing the Prime Minister’s hand. I do think the episode’s plot is very clever, once you find out the Princess was never harmed and the Prime Minister’s ’30 seconds of fame’ was just a ploy to show the public how we are transfixed by the screens in our pockets and in our homes, instead of paying attention to what is going on around us; it’s definitely a strong message.
Episode two ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ is built around a surrealist sci-fi world in where lower class humans are treat like battery hens, forced to create energy for the masses by pedalling on exercise bikes. They are gifted ‘Merits’ for the miles they rack up, which can be spent on food, or clothes and items for their real world ‘Avatars’ and even pay to skip the advertisements played on the screens that constructs the cell they reside in. One big reason to save up Merits is to pay 15 Million of them to get a chance at proving your worth on an X Factor style show called ‘Hot Shot’. The main driving point of this episode is love. Our two main characters ‘Bing’ and ‘Abi’ form a friendship after Bing hears Abi singing and offers her the Merits to audition for Hot Shots to escape the prison they live in; upon entering she is offered a chance to leave, but instead of singing she will be part of the pornographic TV Show ‘Wraith Babes’. Bing is pained by her choice to leave and so builds his Merits back up to get his own chance, when he gets the limelight he threatens to commit suicide on the stage to get a chance to shout at the Judges for taking away the only thing that felt real to him. The Judges don’t take him seriously but instead are impressed by his enthusiasm and offer him his own show to rant about the system he lives in; he also accepts and is coldly shown at the end in his own larger cell (a Penthouse Suite) onlooking the metropolis he fought to be in.
I find this episode hauntingly close, in some respects, to what already goes on today, where ‘nobodies’ are given a chance at fame and fortune if they give up enough of their privacy and self worth. I do hope this is a non-existant future for the human race; even if we do come into an energy crisis in the future. I did enjoy this episode, especially the opening where we are slowly shown what fresh hell Bing is in, initially just a shot of a man in bed, then surrounding screens reveal the small room he is fenced in by and how all we see is ‘black mirrors’ and nothing real. I thought the episode was a great telling of how consumerism and digital culture can go too far, as some of the people in the show do spent their Merits on ‘stuff’ such as the avatar items, or a ‘mirror app’ that shows you as a werewolf, which is essentially just meaningless stuff, but Bing isn’t interested in any of that. He does however spend his Merits on avoiding the constant advertising that is thrown into his face to buy videos from Wraith Babes, and to watch Hot Shot which later proves a curse when he can’t afford to avoid Abi’s Wraith Babes video, but is forced to watch against his will; as closing your eyes in here only pauses the video instead of hiding what you don’t want to watch. I do specifically love the speech Bing gives to the Hot Shot judges about how all we do is essentially meaningless, where all we want is a bigger screen and a bigger cell.
I thought ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ was a fantastic episode. Again it had its genesis in Brooker’s columns (think of his seminal ‘wanking for coins’ rant) but more than anything I think it was a love letter to Network, Sidney Lumet’s seminal 1976 satire, in which a news anchor announces live on air that he will kill himself on screen- and promptly sees his ratings spike. Like Peter Finch in Network, Daniel Kaluuya is ‘mad as hell and he isn’t going to take it any more’. Also like Finch, Kaluuya’s character sees his genuine rage harnessed for profit by the very people his is railing against. Charlie Brooker had previously expressed his admiration for the film so it was no surprise to see him combine it with a X Factor style dystopia, especially as he co-wrote this with his wife, Kanak ‘Konnie’ Huq, a host on Xtra Factor. The episode did a great job of introducing us to this nightmare world while still making us care about the characters and deliver a strong story, quite a feat for 44 minutes. It’s also the episode most removed from our own world – yes the society clearly has its roots in today’s Talent Show TV plague but it is, hopefully, a long way off, whereas other episodes differ from our time in just one respect. It is visually very striking, something used to great effect at the episode’s conclusion. Bing, in his new penthouse has a beautiful vista out of his window. I was convinced we’d see the image flicker to show us it was only computer generated but ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ is subtler than that: it is left to us to decide how free Bing really is.
One example a world only one innovation removed from ours is the episode that concluded the first run on Black Mirror, ‘The Entire History of You’, written by Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, The Thick of It). In the world constructed here, most people have a ‘grain’ installed behind their ear which records everything they see and hear, which can be played back or even shown to others. The tale woven here is very personal, as Liam (Toby Kebbell) attends a Dinner Party populated entirely by bellends and begins to suspect that his wife is having an affair. This episode is unremittingly bleak, as we follow Liam on his downward spiral. As with all the Black Mirror episodes the focus is tightly on a single character and Liam is one of the best. Despite its low-key feel and lack of twists, ‘The Entire History of You’ is my favourite Black Mirror to date, a stunning piece of television. I noted with interest that Robert Downey Jnr has bought the film rights to it, so we may see it return in a new form somewhere down the line. Did you rate it as highly, Chris?
‘The Entire History Of You’ is also my favourite episode of the six, I also felt it had the most ‘real world’ situation at hand, as with as many cameras and microphones around us on a daily basis as there are, it surely couldn’t be that hard to actually create the programme they have to some extent, and in all honesty the idea of it terrifies me. The episode shows the worst of what this memory chip could do to a person, which is to play upon peoples fears about the smallest of details and drive them deep into a self destructive circle of obsessive paranoia. Details such as at the beginning of the program when Liam notices he is told ‘We really hope to look forward to seeing you again’ making him believe he hasn’t got the job he was being interviewed for, before he has even left the driveway. Yes it would be nice sometimes to relive moments in our life we haven’t caught on our smartphone cameras, such as your children laughing, a perfect comedy moment or a first kiss with a loved one, but I’m sure we’ve also all read and re-read an email or text message hoping for more meaning to it than what we first saw. The concept of this episode is truly amazing and is, as you said Michael, a stunning piece of television. I had however not heard about the film rights being bought by Robert Downey Jnr, and I would look forward to seeing another version of it, although I’m unsure how much I want Mr Downey to be at the head of it.
It’ll be interesting to see what he does with it, I don’t know if he’s planning to star in it himself or not!
The second series started with ‘Be Right Back’ which had the feel of a Monkey’s Paw/Pet Sematary type horror story. Hayley Atwell plays Martha whose husband Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) is killed in a traffic accident. At his funeral. a friend of Martha’s explains how she can get him back – a virtual Ash can be created from all his online activity (an idea thought of and squandered in the disappointing Caprica). Martha is initially against the idea but is signed up against her will. Overwhelmed with grief, she starts to communicate with virtual Ash and soon she upgrades to the next stage, a synthetic body with Ash’s likeness and appearance downloaded. What started off using well worn horror tropes becomes a satire on the way people portray themselves on line – not by outright lying about themselves but by being very selective. The Ash synthetic looks like Ash on his ‘best day’ according the Martha. After all, we only keep the best photos. The synthetic also lacks some of Ash’s more negative traits and it is this that eventually drives Martha to despair. Again, this episode is built around a single technological development and again it delivers. Like ‘The Entire History of You’ it details the dark places people can take themselves with the advent of a little futuristic technology.
I really enjoyed ‘Be Right Back’ and is an episode I found very interesting, as again I feel it’s a concept we can’t be too far off of, and I love the way it pokes fun at how much we put online. I thought Hayley Atwell did a fantastic job in the role,, also Domhnall Gleeson plays a robot incredibly, also I think the scripting was also excellent in how she was initially not interested in the idea but slowly becomes more curious when she finds herself pregnant with Ash’s baby. Once she has had a taste of it, she becomes hooked, talks to him on the phone and finally buys herself an artificial embodiment of him. I think this episode especially is one people could connect with the most, as we all lose and miss people, the idea of being able to have them back again (although it’s not actually them) would be something many people would want, whether it’s a good idea or not is for a different time. I’m also jealous of the technology scattered in this episode, the phone’s look awesome and the graphic tablet/iMac she uses for graphic design is super cool.
Now ‘White Bear’ which plays out the cruel mental torture of prisoners who have committed horrendous acts is an episode I enjoyed but didn’t enjoy as much as the previous four. ‘White Bear’ depicts the story of Victoria Skillane (Lenora Crichlow) who is in a real life nightmare due to her previous convictions, she is essentially used as a prop where the general public get to watch her being put into a situation close to what she inflicted upon a little girl; abduction and burnt in a sleeping bag which they filmed on a phone. Victoria’s punishment is to be placed into a Big Brother style show where she is ridiculed and mentally scarred by Michael Smiley who plays, Baxter, a sort of sick and twisted Davina McCall. Victoria gets to fear for her life while the public are allowed to watch and record it on their own phone, but never allowed to help her. The episode ends with Victoria’s memory being wiped while the TV shows crew rebuild the set she will wake up in, and finally Baxter crosses off the 18th day off of a month, presumably because this is repeated for a whole month as punishment. The episode is confusing up until the point where the curtain is lifted and you then realise how cruel the episode really is, even if this would be some people’s idea of justice for criminals of this nature; we are also shown during the credits how the public are prepped for the day’s ‘event’ and how this is treated as if it were a trip to a Zoo or a National Park to observe and film the Lions.
I’m not sure why I didn’t enjoy the episode as much as others, it does feel in some ways unnecessarily callous, but on the other hand she did have a hand in killing a child. What did you think of this one Michael, how did you find the violence and themes?
I thought White Bear brought up some fascinating questions about punishment, what it should be to the prisoner and the public. Victoria, as well as being tormented daily, is given no chance to rehabilitate as the memory of each day is wiped and furthermore she can’t even remember the crime she committed. As well as all that the episode gives the distinct impression that the reason she is being treated so harshly is that her boyfriend, who killed the child, was killed and so the public have to transfer their anger on to Victoria. It seems less about properly punishing a criminal and more about satisfying the bloodlust of the masses. That said, what better way to punish someone than to take away the memory of the crime? If Victoria really was as unrepentant as we’re told then she might have held on to the satisfaction of having killed a little girl and causing all that pain. With that in mind, taking away her memory of it seems the surest way to punish her.
I must confess I saw the twist coming in this one (at least to the extent that I thought Victoria was replaying an old scenario and was being punished for some reason). Even so I think the creepy atmosphere was built up very well with the zombie like observers, the masked raiders and the handful of normal folk, like the first half hour of an apocalypse film. As you say Chris, one very disturbing aspect is that it seems to be considered a ‘good day out’ to go and assist with the daily torture of Victoria. This attitude I think is worse than the whole mind-wipe repeated day scenario. There is undeniably a certain elegance to the punishment, as barbaric as it is and it did spark good conversation after we’d watched it.
The second run ended with ‘The Waldo Moment’ in which failed comic Jamie Slater (Daniel Rigby) creates a cartoon bear in the vein of Ted for Jack Napier’s late night satire show. Waldo achieved immense popularity and it appears he might even manage to be elected in a By-Election. When Slater objects to these developments, he is cut out by the brutal Napier who owns the rights. Beyond the shout out the Batman fans with the name Jack Napier, I found a lot less the recommend this episode than its predecessors. The plot apparently comes from an idea for Nathan Barley that was sensibly dropped and indeed comes across as a ten minute sketch spread across 44 minutes. The conclusions at the end of the episode are particularly grim and come across as especially misanthropic from Brooker, perhaps due to his involvement in his own late night satire show, 10 O’Clock Live. There was a neat joke about Pringles, however.
Episode six for me, was the weakest of both series, I didn’t really find it that funny when it was trying to be, but I did understand what they were trying to achieve. I did feel sorry for Jamie Slater who was clearly a depressed comic having every drop of creativity squeezed out of him for the gain of a larger corporation, who would then discard him when he ran out. The news show in the programme ‘Tonight for One Week Only’ does appear to have it’s origins in 10 O’Clock Live but is far more crass and in all honesty, silly; but perhaps this is just part of the satire itself. My favourite part of the episode is the moment Jamie steps out of the Waldo van to confront the public and his Producer ‘Jack Napier’ (Jason Flemyng) steps into the role and replaces him almost instantly, the public have no idea who Jamie really is, or even care. I do feel the end showing Jamie living on the street is a bit extreme, but I presume this is to hit home that Waldo was the real star, Jamie was just the puppet master, but ultimately also just a puppet himself.
Overall as a Series I enjoyed it all, I thought it was a very well written and well created series of stories to emulate what the future could behold for us as a race, and what negative things that progression could ultimately lead to if we aren’t careful. Personally I think the first four episodes are the strongest, with ‘Entire History of You’ being my favourite and I can’t wait for the Christmas Special; bring it on Brooker.
I think I would agree that the first four episode are the strongest, though ‘White Bear’ particularly sticks with me for being so brutal. I’m afraid we agree on a favourite episode which is quite boring of us but ‘The Entire History of You’ really is one of the great examples of British drama from a writer, Jesse Armstrong, who is responsible for a lot of the great recent TV we’ve been treated to in this country.
I’d like to thank Chris for once again joining me in this Crosstalk. If you’re a newcomer to Black Mirror I hope we’ve given you an insight into the worlds Brooker has created and if you’re a long time viewer, let us know what you think of the show in the comments. Stay tuned for a review of the upcoming Christmas special!