Future Imperfect: Reflections on ‘Black Mirror’

By: Jordan Ferguson

This article goes to great lengths to avoid spoilers on the incredible BBC show Black Mirror, but some may slip through the cracks despite our best efforts.

Back during the summer of Breaking Bad 2013, many of my friends and acquaintances were horrified to learn that as an online-only media consumer, I would deliberately read spoilers and recaps of the show on Sunday nights, before watching the episodes the following Monday. It just didn’t make any sense to them. It’s the best show on television, how can you ruin it for yourself like that?! The simple answer was that I never felt I had. By that point in the show’s lifespan, its ultimate outcome was pretty much telegraphed, the only mysteries were in the details. And it didn’t matter to me that I knew all the main story beats before I sat to watch an episode like “Ozymandias,” the thrill for me was in the performances. I never considered spoilers to be much of a detriment, since I cared less about what happened and more about how they got there.

My position may have changed.

Surrounded by screens.

Surrounded by screens.

Rumblings about the BBC show Black Mirror started tricking into my podcasts and newsfeeds late last year. While the endorsements were adamant (“The Twilight Zone for the Information Age!”) they were staunchly reticent, going out of their way to celebrate the show’s anthology format and ideas over plot development. And they are right to do so. Having blown through all six of the episodes currently available, I can’t imagine going into any of them with preexisting knowledge. Premiere episode “The National Anthem,” a modern-day story about a royal kidnapping, an abhorrent act, and the inability to control a narrative when everyone walks around with a camera/printing press/broadcast centre in their pockets had me literally on the edge of my seat. This is not grammatically questionable hyperbole; my ass made minimal contact with the chair cushion as I leaned into the television yelling at the screen in disbelief.

Black Mirror isn’t science fiction as much as it’s futurist fiction. Each individual episode of the show is standalone, a story unto itself with no connective tissue between them aside from taking an idea that’s already present in our everyday lives (social media oversharing, troll culture, political disillusionment) and wondering, “If this trend continues, where does it ultimately lead us?”

In the best episodes of the show, like “Be Right Back” or “The National Anthem,” the technology explored is secondary to the motivations of the characters. Because the characters are humans, they by and large remain petty, jealous, and mean, conditions aided and exacerbated by the technology around them.

In the series high point, ‘The Entire History of You,’ most everyone has been outfitted with a ‘Grain,’ a device implanted behind their ears that constantly creates a recording of everything they see, everything they experience (not unlike a recent reality augmenter). From the best kiss of my last epic love affair to the comparatively mundane act of writing this piece, everything is collected and can be summoned and replayed at will for review. But none of the characters in “Entire History,” are flying gliders or sculpting tiger heads out of ice. They’re obsessing over how the one hiring manager in the job interview smiled as he thanked them. They’re complaining about the carpeting work done in their apartments. Or they’re unraveling the broken promises and white lies of their spouses and partners.

Which is what made the episode (no discussion of it can pass without mentioning Robert Downey Jr optioned it for film development) so uncomfortably compelling. Because as an only child, as a writer, as someone who spends entirely too much time in his own head, I knew exactly what I would do with that sort of tech, and it would not have been healthy. Why face the world ahead when one can constantly replay the most happy moments, growing ever tinier in the rearview, in sparkling and pristine HD? The primary use of the technology of the present is archiving the events of the past, which makes the idea of the ‘Grain,’ and all the ways the characters use them, so tragically plausible. It’s been two weeks since I watched the episode, and it stays with me still.

Absorbed by the 'Grain'.

Absorbed by the ‘Grain’.

I’m not the first to point out that a show like Black Mirror joins other programs like Sherlock and Luther as strong arguments for the adoption of the British television model: shorter seasons, longer episodes, no scheduled returns, unlike the American model which typically demands actors sign up for seven years in the hopes of guaranteeing a shot at producing enough episodes to hit syndication (which is where the real money is). It’s a giant commitment for anyone to make, and there’s no chance actors the caliber of  Idris Elba, Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch would ever stay on television if they were subjected to such punishing contracts. The recent premiere of HBO’s True Detective, with its promise of a rotating cast and premise every season, will likely be the closest we can get Stateside.

Consider: I am from one of the last remaining generations who grew up without the Internet, one of the last cohorts to come of age where the muscle memory of clicking the lock screen button on a smartphone is not our default gesture. As series creator and lead writer Charlie Brooker explained it to The Guardian, the black mirror of the show’s title are all those dead screens that surround us at any given time (four in my house alone as of this writing). We’ve all read enough hand-wringing think pieces on the troubling legacies of our ever-growing dependence on technology. What Black Mirror does so well is take those anxieties, drag them on stage and force them to play out in their twisted stomach churning ways.

Black Mirror is not currently available on traditional television, but the industrious among you should have no issues tracking down all six episodes. I highly recommend that you do. I can’t say I ever had fun watching any of the episodes. Most coated me in a film of dread, some with my hand gripping my gaping mouth. But they have haunted me in a way that few television shows have, and worse than that, they made me think.

—————

Jordan Ferguson knows he would spend all his merits on Wraith Babes. He pedals the bike at poetryforgravediggers.wordpress.com.

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