Como en un espejo
1. Cautionary Tales
Black Mirror uses a storytelling format that is not unprecedented in television’s history, but still manages to be surprising – even in this present moment when relatively freeform TV production is being touted as the New Big Thing. Like a literary anthology of short stories – or like the 1950s series The Twilight Zone – the episodes of each Black Mirror season tell entirely unconnected tales, usually in very different genres. And as each season begins its roll-out, we can only guess at, or vaguely imagine, what these genres might be: fantasy, action, horror, comedy … But there is absolutely no uniformity of style or tone from episode to episode, or season to season.
The label that most readily attaches itself to Black Mirror is science fiction. Yet SF (as aficionados prefer to call it) is itself a contested, and highly elastic, catch-all genre. Against the old-fashioned, conventional idea that science fiction is predominantly “space opera” (outer space voyages to on other planets, encounters with aliens), the widespread rebranding of SF as speculative fiction since the late 1960s has opened many other doors of possibility.
The one aspect that unites all types and shades of SF, old and new, is futurity: an imaginative projection of what our future, as a society or culture, could or might be like. Charlie Brooker, the central showrunner/creator of Black Mirror since its inception in 2011, has always held to a properly speculative formula: his stories address “the way we might be living in ten minutes time”. So the central premise of a Black Mirror episode often provides a small – but telling – exaggeration of a trend or phenomenon in contemporary life, usually connected to technological innovation, and usually set not terribly far into the future.
Yet is SF – since its historic breakaway from the pulpier realms of science fiction – really so interested in future-oriented speculation, finally? It has long been a widely accepted principle, among creators and fans alike, that fantastic narratives of all stripes (whether concerned with technology, magic, or alternative worlds) are essentially allegorical: they provide a potent way to reflect upon the present state of society, by showing it in a strange or defamiliarising light. It is precisely this approach to the SF genre that is encapsulated in the very title: Black Mirror.
In this light, the series presents itself as a series of cautionary tales, not only warning us of where we might be heading, but also alerting us to where we already are, and to what is already brewing inside our heads, our hearts, and our computers. And to what is already coming apart.
Although I do not pretend to offer a behind-the-scenes or historical account of Black Mirror’s production, any discussion of its fourth season (released in the dying days of 2017) needs to be aware of its growing status as an internationalist phenomenon. Its first two seasons in 2011 and 2013, made possible by Channel 4 in the UK, are self-consciously British on numerous levels, from the specifics of setting and language to their overall sensibility. In 2016 and 2017 – with a global, cult following well established – the show relaunched itself on a larger scale (in terms of production budget and resources), and is now pitched to a wider and more diverse audience, courtesy of the omnivorous media-streaming company, Netflix.
Yet, despite this alteration in its pitch, the underlying, deep-dish Britishness of Black Mirror did not altogether disappear – as anxious fans once feared it might. In its fourth season, there is an intriguing back-and-forth between the realms of the local (i.e., British) cultural formation of its initial, key makers, and the international marketplace that has always been dominated, and defined, by the USA. No matter its changing and expanding production set-up, Brooker never forfeits his askew, often richly ironic angle on global culture and its rampant trends.
2. Isolate and Magnify
In “Crocodile”, the third episode of the fourth season, the world depicted looks and feels very like our own. Indeed, it begins as any ordinary tale of domestic life, work commitments and interpersonal relationships would. But it is typical of Black Mirror’s approach, for certain of its stories, that essentially only one thing is added to, or chosen to be magnified from, our contemporary situation – thus providing the sole futuristic or speculative element. This approach to storytelling, in fact, easily creates a kind of tension in the first-time viewer; as we watch it unfold, we can well wonder: exactly how is this going to become a Black Mirror kind of tale?
This narrative device – we could call it isolated magnification – also creates a general air of unreality, an unreality that well serves Black Mirror’s overarching, allegorical aim. If only a single aspect of the depicted, futuristic world is different to our own, then the intention of its creators is clearly not realistic in any sense – contrary to, say, the projection of the future envisaged, in all its elaborate detail, by Stanley Kubrick and SF writer Arthur C. Clarke for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Rather, the isolated magnification is what estranges (or alienates) us from the otherwise normal-seeming present – revealing it to be, finally, not at all normal or natural.
In “Crocodile”, deftly directed by Australian-born John Hillcoat (The Proposition, 2005), the magnified detail is a device called the Recaller that, when attached to a person’s temples, scans the memory banks of their mind. The complete unreality of this idea – familiar from fanciful SF movies such as Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (1983) and John Woo’s Paycheck (2003) – is due to the naïve assumption that our conscious and unconscious perceptions together form a virtual strip of film that can simply be rewound and watched, once successfully tapped into. Fritz Lang’s Liliom was already poking fun at this “electric dream” back in 1934: there, the memory-film (as used by the High Court of the Afterlife) has an optional soundtrack that preserves the individual’s contemporaneous inner thoughts!
However, in “Crocodile”, the Recaller is a banal instrument – used by Shazia (Kiran Sonia Sawar) in the daily, investigative rounds of her work for an insurance company. Brooker’s plotting here sets up two distinct trajectories – Shazia, her professional and family life in one thread; and Mia (Andrea Riseborough), with her relentless drive to cover up the traces of her murderous crimes, in another. We quickly gather that, one fatal day, Shazia will scan Mia’s brain, unaware of what she is about to find there; what most viewers will not likely guess, however, is the ultimate use to which the Recaller will be put by police in order to resolve the case.
3. Love Will Find a Way?
Certain themes recur, almost inevitably, across the four seasons of Black Mirror. Surveillance (including all-pervasive “personal data collection”), consumerism (with its seductive, brain-numbing, drug-like comforts), virtual realities (of all shapes and sizes) … these tend to constitute the register of its futuristic-everyday subjects. At the other extreme, there are grander, more melodramatic themes: ecological disaster, complete social breakdown, apocalypse (as best elaborated in the Season 3 finale of 2016, “Hated in the Nation”). There are even, occasionally, relatively sunny, optimistic episodes.
Episode 4, “Hang the DJ” directed by Tim Van Patten, is one such example. It plays a clever narrative trick on viewers. Here, the isolated magnification at first seems bizarre and wholly unbelievable, even by Black Mirror standards. In this version of the near-future, the dating game has become completely standardised and pre-programmed, not to mention fascistically enforced. People are paired-up as in present-day computer dating via a digital application (app) named Coach, but then must live out a calculated period of time with their partner – which could be anything from a single night to many years – with no possibility of escaping the contract.
With a nod to The Prisoner (1967-1968), that cult British Kafkaesque-paranoiac TV series, any attempt at deviating from the set schedule of the relationship instantly brings forth spies, guards and goons from every corner of the public sphere – in restaurants, at cinemas, in parks. “Hang the DJ” spins, in this sense, a nightmare not only about hyper-controlled mating rituals in the modern world, but also what the urban theorist Paul Virilio called the “overexposed city” that is modelled on the architecture of a shopping mall, hideously transparent, monitored on all sides and from all angles. (1) No human experience, even the most intimate, remains private any longer.
As this tale unfolds, events that strain our credulity as spectators pile up. What has happened to the ordinary, working lives of these characters? Do they truly spend all their waking and sleeping hours going through the motions of a typically awkward and barren Perfect Match? What’s happened to people’s friends, family members, confidants? And is everybody in this future society simultaneously on the treadmill of this same pairing-off regime? How could such a society truly function? As in a remarkable British movie, Mark Peploe’s psychological horror-thriller Afraid of the Dark (1991), it is precisely these doubts arising in the viewer’s mind that will eventually turn out to be the most crucial clues as to what is really happening.
In the meantime, the plot works its way to the type of romantic revolt beloved of dystopian tales of the future such as George Lucas’ THX 1138 (1971) or Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca (1997). Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole) have been sorely disenchanted by the drab, loveless destinies chosen for them by Coach; eventually, they summon the courage to break away from the system.
However, at the very moment of their euphoric liberation, both they and their new surroundings dissolve into nothingness. It is only at this moment we realise that the entire story has been Coach’s algorithmic simulation, deliberately unreal. An epilogue shows us the flesh-and-blood Amy and Frank, in a normal looking pub situation, heeding their dating app advice and approaching each other for the first time.
4. Human Desire and Technological Catastrophe
For “Arkangel”, Brooker and his associates invited Jodie Foster to be the celebrity director of the episode. The choice was canny, for Foster, in her directorial work such as Little Man Tate (1991) and Home for the Holidays (1995), has frequently focused on the themes of intimate life and fraught family ties. “Arkangel” begins, as is often the case with Black Mirror episodes, in a perfectly everyday, non-futuristic fashion. At the hospital birth of Sara, we quickly figure out that Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a single parent. Even just seconds after giving birth, Marie experiences a very common form of parental anxiety: is her daughter really OK?
The story then jumps forward several years to a typical day in the park for mother and daughter (played at this young age by Aniya Hodge): when Marie is not looking, Sara goes wandering off in pursuit of a stray cat. Marie panics as she rallies an impromptu search party. All turns out well, but the motor of the tale has been planted: Marie’s perfectly understandable but slightly excessive need to monitor Sara in future will collide with a new technological development: a personal surveillance gadget named Arkangel, which is implanted painlessly in the child’s head. Not only can the child’s location be tracked; as well, all her bodily “vitals” can be gathered by the apparatus.
Arkangel offers possibilities beyond mere monitoring. It can also alter the sense perceptions of the person in whom it is implanted. Here, Foster and Brooker tie their central idea to the widespread use of “parental controls” over media consumption in our present society. In particular, the Arkangel technology allows the automatic blurring or “painting out”, both in image and sound, of any sensory inputs (such as barking dogs) that overstimulate the cortisol levels and produce stress. Marie quickly adapts even her daily handling of Sara’s pram to accommodate pride of place for her Arkangel monitor laptop screen.
As is frequently the case on Black Mirror, the central premise of “Arkangel” is explored through the rapid dramatisation of a range of situations and moods. One can sense, in the brainstorming that undoubtedly went into writing the episode, the working-out of this variations-on-a-theme structure. This mosaic construction allows a range of comparisons, thus urging us to formulate our own attitude as viewers. All the while, the figure of Sara’s grandfather, Russ (Nicholas Campbell), embodies a crusty, old-fashioned, pre-technological, laissez-faire mode of parenting – with both its advantages and disadvantages evident in Marie’s own life.
At first, the gadget adds a new dimension of fun to hide-and-seek games; but when Russ keels over from a heart attack, and Sara can neither properly see nor hear his pained cries for help, we begin to see the darker side of this equation. We observe how Sara at age 9 (played by Sarah Abbott) is being effectively “screened” from experiencing intense emotions, whether of pleasure or pain – parental control has set a firm limit on her sensations, and it is blunting her development. Arkangel, it becomes clear, works best when it is a matter of the clean separation of an individual from the world – not their direct, lived involvement in it.
In particular, over the course of years, we observe how Marie’s motherly love, channelled through Arkangel, steadily becomes intrusive, overbearing, and finally unbearable for the teenage Sara (now played by Brenna Harding); the latter’s natural, adolescent desire to test the limits and flirt with extreme sensations leads her, for a time, into disturbed behaviours such as self-mutilation.
Eventually, another complicating factor from the sphere of industry intervenes – and it is that all too real, common phenomenon of technological obsolescence. Arkangel, it transpires, never won a legal licence in many parts of the world, and is now on the verge of being phased out altogether as a business – none of which helps any poor kid stuck with an implant. The only solution is to turn off and throw away the surveillance/control monitor. But can Marie stand relinquishing her anxious control over Sara?
In “Arkangel”, Black Mirror finds a way to explore one of its favourite, recurring concerns: what happens when some of the most basic human emotions and desires – such as maternal care or adolescent curiosity – intersect with, and get twisted by, a technological system that, invariably, spins out of control and into catastrophe.
“Black Museum”, the fourth season finale, takes a darker view of basic human emotions than “Arkangel”. Here, the museum in question is a technologically updated version of the carnival sideshow, exploiting people’s prurient interest in all things horrific and freakish. The tradition of Grand Guignol theatre meets Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (2) in the media age: an unscrupulous ex-scientist, Rolo (Douglas Hodge), has used his “emotion recording” inventions to trap the “post-death consciousness” of an executed criminal, Clayton (Babs Olusanmokun). In his now ghostly, hologram state, Clayton can be tortured again and again by museum customers eager for sadistic thrills. Ultimately, Rolo’s opportunism will meet its match in the righteous revenge mission planned by Nish (Letitia Wright), who is revealed to be Clayton’s daughter.
5. Genre and Resistance
“Metalhead” is, in its basic narrative premise, the least elaborate episode of the fourth Black Mirror season. Apart from the poignant jolt of its final revelation, it hardly even partakes of the usual Black Mirror themes. Instead, it is an exercise in genre – something with which the series often plays.
“Metalhead” joins a contemporary wave of apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic films, such as Trey Edward Shults’ intriguing It Comes at Night (2017) and Brian Taylor’s black comedy Mom and Dad (2017), which eschew virtually all backstory, i.e., an explanation of how we have come to arrive at the futuristic world projected by the narrative. Likewise, in “Metalhead”, there are outlawed individuals on the run, fighting to survive, and there are malign forces of state police control (in this case, robotic): this is as much as we need to know, or can decipher.
Our memories of contemporary classic movies and their typical generic elements are depended upon here by Brooker and his collaborators: it’s a Mad Max world, basically, set in a blasted, arid landscape. We are plunged straight into the frenetic action – a single “chase sequence” extended, virtuosically, to 41 minutes – in which our heroes improvise with whatever is at hand in order to fight murderous technological apparatuses. The director to helm this episode is well-picked: David Slade (Hard Candy, 2005) is British-born, but has worked a great deal in America (including the vampire film 30 Days of Night, 2007).
I have saved the first episode of the season, “USS Callister”, as the last in my discussion of Black Mirror. It offers a story that begins in the everyday world, then launches into life-and-death seriousness in other, “alternate” realms, and ends, surprisingly, in a triumphant tone of whimsy. Like “Metalhead”, it is also an exercise in genre – this time in parodic mode.
It is yet another Black Mirror episode (like “Hang the DJ” in this season) delving into virtual realities. Brooker’s preferred virtual realities tend to have a Second Life nature – that is, they generate themselves independently, autonomously, in their own sphere, adjacent to the real world, whether or not anybody happens to be looking at them as a spectator-consumer. At the same time, the VR sphere is very definitely the creation of a particular human mind – usually, a technocratic inventor who figures as an obsessive, perhaps disturbed Dr Frankenstein type (Rolo in “Black Museum” is another example of this type).
This is precisely the paradox – and the tension – upon which the script of “USS Callister” (by Brooker and William Bridges) is built. Robert (Jesse Plemons) is a games programmer with few social skills, and no personal life. His fantasies concerning colleagues in his workplace, however, have a secret outlet that is nothing short of extravagant: he steals a scrap of their DNA and places them within his own digital world of the USS Callister – which is, very evidently to us, Black Mirror’s parody of the Star Trek universe. Trekkie fandom, and all it represents, in fact turns out to be one of the key underlying themes of the episode. For Robert’s fantasy is, basically, a nerd’s paradise – with himself cast as the charismatic, handsome, adventurous and resourceful leader of the crew.
Once the real people in Robert’s world find themselves doubled in this virtual space – equipped with their own minds and personalities, but lacking genitals – they are able to think, interact and plan independently. But when the latest arrival, Nanette (Cristin Milioti), joins the crew, she is puzzled as to why nobody takes any autonomous action. Why don’t they revolt? Simply because Robert’s dominion over his world is total and cruel: he thinks nothing of turning anyone who defies his command into a disgusting monster (shades of John Hughes’ Weird Science !).
Ultimately, Nanette leads a revolt of these cyberspace slaves – liberating them from the private hard drive of Robert, and landing them in the wide-open “democratic vista” of the Internet. (3) There, as they quickly realise, they will have to deal with every male nerd with a territorial complex …
Black Mirror is sometimes criticised as offering preachy, heavy-handed drama – obvious in its points, and moralistic in its finger-wagging lessons. Certainly, Brooker has geared the series as a trigger to topical discussions. What I have also suggested is that, across any one season as well as across its entire canon to date, can be just as deeply explored for the wide range of themes, tones, styles and genres that it investigates and playfully reshapes.
6. Spin Dry
Black Mirror’s fifth season followed on from 2018’s fairly underwhelming “special interactive feature-length event”, Bandersnatch (David Slade returned as director for that). Although Brooker and his talented collaborators sometimes fall into the trap of repeating themselves, they have devised ingenious ways of keeping the overall concept surprising and fresh. This season comprises only three episodes. Brooker again uses the Netflix production connection to build an intriguing, cosmopolitan mesh of British and American elements.
All the characters in “Striking Vipers”, for instance, are black Americans: in the “ten years later” format common to many Black Mirror tales, we follow them from the boozy dance clubs of their youth into the tense disquiet of marital, middle-class respectability. “Smithereens” (no relation to Susan Seidelman’s 1982 film of that title) is the story of a cab driver (played well by Andrew Scott) in London but, by the end of his complicated journey, he is connected by phone to corporate USA guru Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), who just happens to be on a “no-tech detox retreat” atop a mountain in Utah. Lastly, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”, plunges us into a very American world of pop music showbiz – in which the young teen fans of the ever-upbeat Ashley (Miley Cyrus) have no clue how far the star’s minders will go in order to exploit and even (in a certain sense) clone her.
All Black Mirror stories depend on their often devilish revelations, twists and turns. But it is fascinating to observe how finely its creators play with the expectations and moods aroused by each genre that is, in turn, evoked.
Where “Smithereens” (directed by James Hawes) kicks off in a vein of urban realism, with an air of cryptic mystery that fleetingly evokes the films of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” (directed by Norway’s Anne Sewitsky) dives into the type of high-spirited, cartoonish fun aptly reminiscent of Cyrus’ Disney days as Hannah Montana (2006-2011). The deployment of action scenes involving cars marks a pointed comparison between these two episodes: whereas the former hinges on the gruesome details of road trauma, the car chase in the latter is the kind of scene where nobody ever gets hurt, vehicles just swerve around a lot at high speeds, and a few rubbish bins are knocked over. And while personal depression figures centrally in both stories, matters of life and death are the stuff of drama in one, and of magical, sci-fi fairy tale in the other. The “Ashley Too” alluded to in the episode’s title is a delightful invention that I leave you to discover for yourself.
“Striking Vipers” (directed by Owen Harris) shows Brooker making a cautious move toward embracing LGBTQ content. Where “Smithereens” is about all-consuming app culture and “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” imagines an extravagant extension of pop franchise marketing, this first story in the new series ruminates on the playing of video games (as did Bandersnatch, and several other Black Mirror tales of prior years – a well-worn terrain on which it is still hard to beat David Cronenberg’s splendid virtual reality phantasmagoria, eXistenZ ).
In the competitive games played between Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the gender of the avatars they select is fluid: one can be a woman, the other a man. But what happens when the content of their shared narrative – now progressed well beyond remote-control joysticks into ultra-vivid cyber-immersion – ceases being about only Kill Bill-style aggression and violence?
Although the best Black Mirror episodes (I’d include “Smithereens” in that pantheon) follow the consequences of their premises all the way through to the bright or bitter end, here Brooker pulls up short, frantically juggling the plot elements so as to somehow find a workable compromise between old and new worlds. The result is not entirely convincing.
This periodically happens in Black Mirror: sometimes it can become a bit pat and moralising, as if its storylines had been devised as a list of talking points for secondary school classroom discussion. Are we spending too much time online, and neglecting genuine, personal, intimate interaction? Have our media-fed fantasies become more real than our actual, physical existences? Are we projecting too much human personality onto technological gadgets, and too little into each other? Have we become hypnotised, robotic consumers, above all else? Are we letting the natural world slide into ecological disaster? … and so on. The dramatic-aesthetic problem being that, at times, the pedagogical conclusions to such discussions are too well-loaded in advance.
When the “correct side” of such debates (as rendered in narrative allegory) is too heavily signalled – this is my abiding problem with the much-loved TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale (2017– ) – then the “ideal viewer” is being relentlessly flattered. Black Mirror is better, on all levels, when it manages to put its issues – and its spectators – into a spin.
1. Paul Virilio, “The Overexposed City”, in Neil Leach (ed.), Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 381-390. back
2. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (London: Black and Red, 2000). back
3. The concept of the “democratic vista” comes
originally from the American writer Walt Whitman in 1871; it has been applied
to our media age by David Marc in Demographic
Vistas: Television in American Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press,
© Adrian Martin March 2018 / June 2019