With the rise of Netflix, Hulu and other glorious streaming services, a veritable host of English shows have infiltrated the US consciousness, some going on to overtake American shows in stature, if not necessarily in market share. For a while, it’s seemed like everywhere you looked was chock full of Daleks and Doctors or at least crotchety old ladies stampeding their way through life.
But with all of these shows flooding television, it’s easy to lose sight of quality programs in the deluge of British accents and pithy statements. One such series that demands viewing after its recent addition to Netflix is the subtly horrifying scifi anthology [Black Mirror](movie:1427485).
Black Mirror sets each episode in a near-future world, one hauntingly close to our own. It delves into the dark underside of our addiction to technology and the insidious ways that that addiction can change us. But more than that, Black Mirror is a celebration of the best of scifi, a natural extension of great creators who came before. Here is a brief peek at the themes in the first season and the science fiction, or real life, that lay the groundwork for their creation.
Episode One - The National Anthem
The first episode of Black Mirror, The National Anthem, throws us directly into the world of today. The plot unfolds as the Prime Minister of England, played by a wonderfully subtle Rory Kinnear, learns that a beloved member of the Royal Family has been kidnapped. The only demand for her safe return? That the Prime Minister himself commit an act of public indecency in such a way that could never be faked.
Black Mirror stays away from any game changing technology, such as cloning or robotics or time travel, in this initial episode, instead commentating on the insidious nature of public spectacle and speculation. If there is any modern entity that comes to mind after watching this episode, it’s the ragtag pseudo-anarchistic hacktivist organization Anonymous.
Renowned for its raids on, well, pretty much anything that gets in its way, the loosely organized hackers have taken on everyone from the Church of Scientology to the MPAA to the government of Tunisia. Reveling in splashing personal information across the internet and dominating the news cycle, Anonymous would undoubtedly love to claim ownership of the sequence of events in The National Anthem, if only for the lulz.
In the world of science fiction, I’m most reminded of antagonist, the Laughing Man, in the Japanese anime, Ghost in the Shell. In the TV show, a mysterious hacker dubbed the Laughing Man kidnaps the head of a company and forces him to fess up to corruption live on television. The forces of public will and publicity mix together as a number of copycat criminals begin to spawn. In a fun yet terrifying twist, and proving that truth is often stranger than fiction, the group Anonymous has often gone on to co-op the Laughing Man’s logo for their own publicity.
The National Anthem revels in the uncomfortable, putting every one of us viewing the episode in the same position as the bystanders in the show. How would you react? Would you watch? Would you comment? Would you stay away from it all? Hopefully the politicians at 10 Downey Street won’t have to fear any copycat criminals inspired by this episode and, this time, none of us will have to make that choice.
Episode Two - Fifteen Million Merits
Fifteen Million Merits tosses us into a world of constant work, constant commodification and constant manufactured entertainment. The only way to gain money, or merits, is to spend time creating power on an exercise bike. The characters are constantly faced with a barrage of entertainment and advertising that can only be skipped by paying a fee. The only way to get out of the grind is to become an entertainment icon, paid through the eyes that watch you.
The idea of bread and circus appeasing the masses has been around at least since, obviously, the Roman Empire.
Unsurprisingly, the concept shows up in various forms in a whole host of different stories. The most popular in recent memory would have to be The Hunger Games, where sacrificial teenagers from every district duel it out to the death for the amusement of their society. But it’s not just a game of life and death. It’s a way to get out of the grind, a bit of hope in a hopeless society, just as entertaining can get you off the bike in Fifteen Million Merits.
But Fifteen Million Merits does more than make us pine for a JLaw clone with bow in hand. It also raises questions about what the meaning of value is in a world of scarce resources. In 2010, Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Windup Girl accomplished the rare achievement of winning both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, two of the most prestigious prizes in science fiction. In The Windup Girl, calories are currency after plagues have devastated most of the Earth’s native foods. People can earn money by spending their physical energy to power devices, much like the citizens in Fifteen Million Merits earn their spending money through cycling.
You have to wonder how the world of Fifteen Million Merits got to that point, where resources are scarce enough that the most valuable basic commodity is how much electricity you can create. Maybe oil ran out, maybe currencies collapsed, maybe the people at the top decided to keep everyone in line, one bike at a time. Though the episode does not give any answers, it provides a glimpse at a world where the money you gain is the energy you create, unless you can manage to earn your keep another way.
Episode Three - The Entire History of You
Episode three of Black Mirror, The Entire History of You, is the first one whose fears might truly be realized within the next five years. In the episode, most people have an implant, called a grain, that records everything moment of their day through their eyes. Anyone can relive that agonizing business review, romantic first date or uncomfortable dinner party over and over again. As the episode goes to show, sometimes perfect recall forces you to recall the imperfections of your life.
Implants, and ones that help you navigate the world, have shown up in scifi for decades. One of the more famous examples is Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generator, whose VISOR allows the blind man to see across all spectrums of light. In an episode of the show, the crew is even able to modify the device so they can see what Geordi’s seeing.
Another example that cannot be ignored is William Gibson’s seminal 1984 book Neuromancer. Implants are used throughout, mainly as tools for hackers. I can’t overstate how important this book is to science fiction, creating the cyberpunk genre and going on to influence all sorts of films, books and television. It popularized the term ‘cyberspace’ and, some people think, influenced the development of the internet itself. Again, just like The Entire History of You, people’s implants in Neuromancer shape the way they interact with the world. The plot of the book itself is driven by one former hacker’s desperate desire to fix his implants and reconnect to the virtual world.
In our own world, we seem just a single price point away from this becoming a reality. Smart phones are already ubiquitous, recording everything around us, and Google Glass and Microsoft’s HoloLens look like they’ll be putting a camera on every person eye if they can get prices down and production up. There are dash cams and CCTV and videos of even the most inane public event.
We already have more data than we know how to handle, with photos, videos and comments of every waking moment making their way to places like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. Already we have to think about what we’re saying in public and whether or not our recorded speech matches up to the truth. Soon enough, as we see in The Entire History of You, we may have to do the same in our private lives.
This is just a taste of the themes in Black Mirror. I haven't even touched on anything in the second season, and not for a lack of absolute adoration. I highly recommend watching all six episodes on Netflix, preferably in a binge-fest marathon over a weekend or handful of days. You won’t be disappointed. Each episode in the series focuses in on a different potential future, some heart-wrenching, some funny, all wonderfully disturbing. Each story will make you think about the ways technology may change humanity in the future, or the way its changing your life already.