This has been a very long time coming.
Black Mirror‘s five-minutes-into-the-future style of cautionary, slightly paranoid speculative fiction is nothing new in principle, but it does make the sub-genre accessible and compelling for wide audiences.
Season 1 gives us a good introduction into the series’ anthology style. Here are three longform episodes, all with different premises, characters, and timelines, with the only common strand being that they are all slightly macabre commentaries on the social or psychological impacts of future technologies or societal arrangements.
The first episode, The National Anthem, explores the lurid potential of social media to mislead, confuse, and distract national attention away from issues of importance, and does so through a truly morbid premise – a hostage situation that forces a sitting prime minister to undertake something truly horrifying in the midst of the public eye. Gross, lurid and disturbing? Yes – but its sheer visceral impact hammers the point home, and in a Trumpian age, its message is more prophetic than ever.
The second one and my personal favorite, Fifteen Million Merits, is a surreal and hyperrealist depiction of a future society hooked on meaningless labor, their every action a commercial transaction, whose only repast is brainless entertainment of the sensory-overload variety, and their only hope of escaping this state of affairs is to audition in a American Idol-esque talent show and become a star in the process. I like this one in particular because of its cheeky subversion of boy-meets-girl tropes and the fact that it is just a satire of existing capitalist systems. It is, in fact, a distillation of the essential traits of capitalist society from a critical theory perspective – populace chained to wage-based labor, all aspects of life transactional, glued to the television screen as a distraction to their true state of affairs, with the hope of escape being to transcend into becoming yet another cog in the machine – through becoming a part of the endlessly-distracting mass-entertainment regime. In the end, even our protagonist, who has seen through this state of affairs, becomes an Alex Jones type conspiracy theorist talk-show head on television, channeling his revolutionary fervor into yet another tool for the state to distract its populace through the vicarious catharsis of mass entertainment.
The last one, The Entire History of You, is a send up of the sousveillance state, hinging on the social costs of being able to record everything you experience and the things it might do to your psyche. This is a more conventional cautionary-sf sort of story because it relies on a macguffin technology to make it work. This kind of story is a bit more iffy to me because it just assumes the ubiquity of a technological concept in their future society without questioning if people would choose to adopt that technology in that manner in the first place. Luckily, in this episode, I can kind of see where the appeal of such a technology could come from, but the episode itself is a fifty minute long account of a man slowly spiralling into self-destruction, enabled by technology, and is honestly harrowing to watch.
All told, however, Black Mirror‘s first season knows what it wants to achieve and goes about doing so in a brave and self-confident manner, without pandering too much to public stereotypes about alarmist science fiction. That, in our mass-entertainment age, is achievement enough.
I give this show: 4.5 out of 5 TV-stars