Black Mirror – Series 2

WARNING – INCLUDES SPOILERS!

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While I was away, there was a welcome return for misanthropic satirist Charlie Brooker’s twisted anthology show of future shock, Black Mirror. Like the first series, this was a trio of darkly comic tales extrapolating what society’s relationship with rapidly developing technology might turn into if things went badly; Brooker being such a pessimist, they were hardly Utopian Star Trek-style futures he envisioned.

Unlike the first series, this time all three tales were penned by Brooker himself, with perhaps a greater consistency of tone as a result. I gather I’m in a minority, but I thought the least successful of the first series’ stories was the only one in which he had no writing involvement, Jesse Armstrong’s The Entire History of You; by no means bad or uninteresting, it still seemed to lack the scalpel-like precision of Brooker’s satirical ideas.

It would be hard to top the jaw-dropping audacity of last year’s series opener, with its jet-black humorous scenario of Prime Minister Rory Kinnear forced by social media to have sex with a pig on live TV. Sensibly, Brooker didn’t even try, instead presenting us with a low-key, sad and actually rather tender story of love, loss, and how technology can warp grief even while purporting to help.

Be Right Back

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It’s worth noting that Brooker’s writing is not all about clever or vitriolic ideas and concepts; he can actually write good, believable characters and dialogue. Be Right Back was a case in point. Within the first couple of minutes, the story gave us a likeable, convincing pair of young lovers – Hayley Atwell as Martha and the swoonsome Domhnall Gleeson (you may remember him as Bill Weasley out of Harry Potter) as Ash.

Clever direction established early that they lived in a fairly near future with, nonetheless, some significant advances in technology. Iphones are now roughly the thickness of a credit card, satnavs can actually drive your car, and there was mention of newly developed “synthetic flesh”.

Having taken time to make us like our young couple against this backdrop, and to establish that Ash was a compulsive social media user rarely off his smartphone, the story then gave us the wrench that he was killed in a car crash, leaving his young wife bereft. Twisted with grief, she was shocked to be approached by a friend at Ash’s wake who offered “something that could help”.

That something, it transpired, was a web-based AI system which could simulate communication from her dead husband, by means of trawling through his social media interactions, analysing them, and reproducing a convincing simulacrum. Martha’s initial repulsion at the very idea changed to curiosity when she discovered that she was now pregnant with Ash’s child, and before long, she was IMing the faux-Ash, then able to even talk to him on the phone.

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So far, so morbid; plainly this is not the best way to deal with grief, and would obviously pervert the very concept of moving on from loss. Think it seems implausible? Think again, as Brooker wryly noted in a recent Guardian column: “No sooner had the credits rolled than people were pointing me in the direction of a company claiming to offer that very service. Turns out I needn’t have bothered writing a script. I could’ve just typed out the URL and asked them to televise that instead.”

But in the oh-so-convenient near-future, recreating your loved ones can go further than just a few webchats and phone calls. Using that synthetic flesh mentioned earlier, Martha was able to obtain a “blank” synthetic person on which to imprint Ash’s recreated personality.

Trouble is, the version of us we present on the net is usually a whitewashed, idealised aspect of the real thing – another interesting idea lurking at the back of this story. So the recreated Ash was disconcertingly slightly better-looking than the real thing, as he’d always uploaded photos where he thought he looked good. I don’t know whether this was a bit of clever CG or simple makeup and hair, but I actually thought it might be Domhnall Gleeson’s brother – but no, it was your man himself, looking subtly but noticeably different. Tidier hair, smoother skin, no stubble – and he was lacking the mole on his chest that Martha remembered, because it wasn’t in his online photos.

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That wasn’t the only aspect of him he left off the net either, as Martha discovered; his sexual performance was better, but not like she remembered. Clone-Ash earnestly informed her that his predecessor had never discussed that online, and he was actually programmed to simulate various porn films.

Love’s undead dream continued to deteriorate, as Martha gradually realised that she was dealing with, basically, a compliant robot implanted with the merest shade of her real husband. “You’re just a ripple!” she sobbed. “You’re not enough of him!”

Eventually, having failed to persuade Clone-Ash to jump off a cliff due to his Ash-accurate reluctance to do so, Martha was shown a few years later with her daughter, who loved nothing more than to visit her ‘father’ where he waited patiently, stored in the attic. Martha, sobbing at the bottom of the stairs, was plainly never going to move on with her life.

It was tenderly and subtly played, with heartwrenching performances from Atwell and Gleeson. Gleeson, in particular, supplied two subtly distinctive performances as the charming Ash and his disturbingly obedient clone. So convincingly charming was he in delivering Brooker’s dialogue that I think I may be a little in love with him now.

This was a clever, high-concept tale that worked well because it focused so closely on one concept, rather than the last series’ frequent attempts to bundle myriad ideas into one story. As it’s Black Mirror’s basic remit, technology was shown as something to worry about rather than to embrace. I did find myself reminded at times of the film of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, a similarly low key tale of the human consequences of technology (and which also featured Domhnall Gleeson). But how much more interesting (albeit a different story) might it have been if Martha had been able to obtain an indistinguishable copy of her dead husband?

White Bear

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The second of Charlie Brooker’s darkly satirical Black Mirror stories for this year, White Bear lacked the tender intimacy of Be Right Back, but was probably more of a crowd-pleaser. A deceptively simple tale of an apparent post-apocalypse, it had action aplenty, some clever musings on our culture of voyeuristic exploitation, and one hell of a twist (even though I did pretty much see it coming).

It opened in time-honoured post-apocalypse fashion (see also Day of the Triffids, 28 Days Later) with someone waking up to find the world irrevocably changed overnight, and wondering what the heck had happened.

Victoria (Lenora Critchlow, reminding us that she’s got more strings to her bow than Being Human’s Annie) wakes, amnesiac, in a chair in an unfamiliar house. Wandering outside, she’s mystified to find her pleas for help ignored by silent onlookers, all filming her with their smartphones. Even throwing sticks at them can’t elicit a response. But Victoria (we don’t find out her name until much later) has more to worry about when a masked figure with a shotgun does pay attention to her, blasting away with both barrels.

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Falling in with a pair of young people similarly unaffected by what’s going on, Victoria is informed of the situation; a mysterious signal broadcast to every TV, computer and smartphone has turned almost the entire populace into perma-filming voyeurs, pointing cameras at everything but unwilling/unable to get involved in anything.

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It felt like a pointed comment on what I suppose you could call the ‘YouTube Generation’, where people would rather film an event than become involved in it. Rather like those apocryphal stereotypes of Americans who, confronted with a man having a heart attack, reach for their phone not to call an ambulance but to film it happening.

Victoria, troubled by occasional visions of a girl she thinks might her daughter, teams up with hardbitten survivor Jem (her companion having been killed by the man with the gun), and together they set off to destroy the nearby White Bear transmitter from which the signal seems to be emanating. Along the way, they are pursued by the brutal Hunters, sinister figures in animal masks wielding bizarre weapons such as electric carving knives.

It was well-enough done as a post apocalyptic thriller to be enjoyable, but at this point I was thinking I’d been here before. Even the unusual premise of the ‘apocalypse’ seemed familiar; not least from Stephen King’s excellent (but itself derivative) Cell. But then Brooker cleverly pulled the rug out from under it by revealing that the whole thing was a sham.

I must admit, I was half expecting something like that to happen. As with Number Six in The Prisoner, it was becoming increasingly clear that the whole situation had been organised for the benefit of just one person. But the twist, predictable though it might have been, set a whole new bunch of troubling questions, this time relating to justice and how technology has and will influence society’s view of it.

As the wall of the White Bear control room opened up to reveal that Victoria was centre stage in front of a jeering, heckling audience, one of the ‘Hunters’ revealed the truth about her. She was the accessory in a notorious, brutal child murder, having used a cellphone to film the death of the little girl she’d been having visions of. Her partner in crime having taken the suicidey way out, she was the only one left to face society’s justice. Or vengeance.

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For every night, she had her memory wiped with massive ECT treatment, to wake every day facing the same nightmare she’d just lived through. And the silent, filming onlookers weren’t brainwiped zombies after all – they were spectators, paying for the spectacle of watching/recording Victoria’s ordeal at the ‘White Bear Justice Park’, so named after the dead girl’s teddy bear.

As a closing credit montage revealed the mechanisms behind all this, the viewer was left with some very troubling questions. Victoria’s complicity in the girl’s death was having filmed her suffering; her punishment was that, every day for an unknown period of time, ghoulish onlookers should film hers. Apart from the ethical question that sets up about whether her (presumably state-sponsored) persecutors had any kind of moral high ground, there were other issues to think about. Should ‘the punishment fit the crime’ by being ‘an eye for an eye’?

With crimes involving children being so emotive, it seemed plausible that there would be a ready made audience eager to pay for complicity in the torture of a child killer. But does that make them any better, morally, than she is? And with her memory wiped anyway, was Victoria even the person who deserved punishment any more, or just a tabula rasa with her guilt erased along with her identity?

These searching questions made White Bear possibly the meatiest of this trio of stories, with an excellent performance from Lenora Critchlow and some gripping direction by Carl Tibbetts. Even so, I still found the quiet, painful intimacy of Be Right Back somehow more satisfying than the slam bang action and Big Issues on display here. Just a personal feeling, I guess.

The Waldo Moment

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Like last year, I found the final of this year’s trio of Black Mirror stories to be the least satisfying. Also like last year, this is not, in itself, a damning criticism. The Waldo Moment was intriguing, blackly funny and very watchable. But Charlie Brooker sets himself a very high standard, and I wasn’t sure it quite had the depth of either of the previous two.

For me, two things counted against it. First, it tried to take aim at perhaps too many targets in its satire, not really hitting any of them squarely enough; and secondly, in its essentials, I’d seen it before. The story of an unlikely candidate righteously upsetting the political applecart before having his own integrity corrupted and realising You Can’t Beat the System is as old as the hills – go back and look at 1939’s classic Mr Smith Goes to Washington for one decades-old example.

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So the story of a cartoon bear (not entirely dissimilar to the one out of Bo Selecta) from a late night satire show (not entirely dissimilar to Brooker’s own Ten O’Clock Show) who ‘interviews’ unsuspecting celebrities (not entirely dissimilar to Ali G) and becomes an unlikely candidate in a by-election caused by the disgrace of the local MP didn’t feel that fresh.

It did gain from serendipitous timeliness, being broadcast in the same week as the Eastleigh by-election following the disgrace of MP Chris Huhne and the paralysis of Italy’s political system after comedian and protest candidate Beppe Grillo left no party with an overall majority. In light of all that, it would be nice to credit Charlie Brooker with some form of clairvoyance; but given his well-documented hatred of ‘psychics’, I doubt he’d thank me.

Again, though, he wrote some likeable (and some not so likeable) convincing characters. Central to the story was shy, introverted comedian Jamie (Daniel Rigby, who you may remember winning a BAFTA for playing Eric Morecambe), who can only shed his inhibitions when voicing and operating the computer generated Waldo. As the breakout character from the show, Waldo is given his own series, but faces the same problem Ali G did – by now, everyone’s wise to the gag and unlikely to get fooled. After a throwaway remark though, the perfect scenario is conceived; get Waldo to run interference in the by election for ‘Stentonford and Hersham East’ (actually High Wycombe, but they weren’t going to call it that).

From then on, it was a fairly familiar tale of political campaigning, which was fun but has been done more uproariously on shows like The Thick of It. Waldo, of course, found himself at the centre of a spiral of popularity, dragging his unwilling creator (who wanted nothing to do with politics) with him. From then on, as is customary in such stories, it was just a matter of time until he found himself sucked into the system he despised.

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Along the way, Jamie had a fling with the Labour candidate, who confessed she was only standing as a ‘training’ sort of thing; rejecting him at the urging of her worried election agent, she found herself on the sharp end of Waldo’s tongue as he revealed this on a panel show. The script took it for granted (a little lazy, Charlie) that the Tory candidate would be contemptible, instead saving most of its venom for the kind of pointless exercise Labour were engaged in here. It did, amusingly, treat the Lib Dems as purposeless crutches for their Tory allies; Jamie referred to the Lib Dem candidate as “just a glass of water”.

There is a general disillusionment with the state of British politics at the moment (which I share), based on the perception that no party properly represents the mass of Britons any more. Charlie Brooker, I’m sure, feels the same way, but the jibes here, fun though they were, seemed a little too easy. His ideas are usually more complex and nuanced than this.

The dark edge came with the appearance of a shadowy American in a suit from “the Agency” (I’m sure you can guess which one), who realised the potential of an image-friendly, all-purpose artificial politician, one who could carry whatever message was considered expedient. Fairly chilling, but again, we’ve been here before. The 1985 Max Headroom pilot film has a villain realising the same thing – “Imagine that. All your politicians in little boxes.”

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Ultimately, in time-honoured fashion, Jamie rebelled against the monster he’d created, only to find it couldn’t be stopped. With Waldo’s operation taken over by loathsome producer and rights owner Jack Napier (a slimy Jason Flemyng, in a role curiously named after the Joker from the 1989 Batman), Jamie found himself cast out. Waldo didn’t win the by-election, but a closing credit montage revealed him to have made it to global domination, while stormtrooper like police thugs beat the now-homeless Jamie for his defiance of the cute blue bear.

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Yes, it was fun, and Daniel Rigby was excellent as the shy, disillusioned Jamie. But compared to the questions raised by the previous two tales, this felt like it picked easier targets; politics, the popularity hungry media, shadowy intelligence agencies. After the moral issues raised in the previous instalments, this almost felt light and fluffy.

It’s been another good run for Black Mirror, and I rather hope Brooker has enough ideas for more. Those who don’t like it – and I can accept the criticism that its vogueishness is liable to quickly date it – have compared it unfavourably to The Twilight Zone. But that’s missing the point a bit. Any concept-based anthology show can be compared to The Twilight Zone, it set the benchmark for this kind of thing. In my view at least, Black Mirror reaches that benchmark perfectly comfortably.

Black Mirror: The Entire History of You

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Another timely slot for the final episode of Black Mirror. The Entire History of You, which posits the idea of an electronic implant to record and play back your every memory, is shown in a week when Facebook users are getting increasingly jittery about the social network’s new ‘Timeline’ layout – by which every piece of information you’ve ever handed to Mr Zuckerberg will be mercilessly laid out for all to see, unless you can figure out the labyrinthine privacy settings.

This is the first Black Mirror not to have been written by Charlie Brooker, with Peep Show’s cowriter Jesse Armstrong on scripting duties. I generally like Jesse Armstrong, and particularly enjoyed his recent new show Fresh Meat, about university fresher experiences, but I have to say that I found this episode of Black Mirror considerably less interesting than the previous two.

There are all sorts of reasons for this. Unlike the previous instalments, which aimed satire at multiple targets (social media, information control, online lynch mobs, reality talent shows), this was based around a single conceit – the ‘grain’, a memory recording implant which can record and play back your memories with perfect clarity – even if you’re astonishingly drunk. It’s actually an interesting idea in an age where your versions of your memories are increasingly digitised and stored online by the likes of Facebook. The trouble with this episode, though, was that having had the idea it didn’t seem to exploit it as well as it might.

The drama focussed primarily on one middle class married couple, Liam (Toby Kebbell) and Ffion (Jodie Whittaker), and how the device amplified their marital strife. Opening at a job appraisal for Liam in his law firm, there was a nice dig at the litigation culture by suggesting that children in this near future could sue their parents for damage caused by a perceived bad upbringing. Liam clearly had reservations about this, giving him a de facto hero status. But as the story progressed, it became clear that no-one in this was going to come out well.

The story focussed on Liam’s discovery, at a fairly cringeworthy middle class dinner party, that his wife had previously had a relationship with the oily, unlikeable Jonas, who professed to using memory playbacks as masturbation fodder. Plagued by sexual jealousy, Liam proceeded to re-examine his recorded memories like picking at a scab, searching for evidence of infidelity. Eventually, inevitably, he found some – and descended into a spiral of drunken, jealous violence that ended his marriage.

There were some interesting angles in all of this. It’s inevitable that recorded memory, like every other medium, would end up being used for sexual gratification; there was a telling scene of Liam and Ffion having sex, their silvered eyes evidence that they were actually reliving past glories rather than living the act itself. Not to mention the potential for strife in being able to replay every conversation you’ve ever had with your partner while arguing over what was said. Yes, in that situation you can sometimes wish you had such a recording, but let’s face it, it’s only going to make the argument worse – as it did here. One point worth taking from the story is that sometimes, in a relationship, white lies might be essential.

But the trouble is that the concept of recorded memory is a genuinely disturbing one, and the implications for society as a whole aren’t really represented by showing its role in the disintegration of a clearly failing marriage. There were some tantalising hints along those lines – for example, the depiction of preflight security requiring you to display the last week of your memories before boarding a plane, or the concept of ‘gouging’, stealing someone’s implant to sell their memories on a black market.

Unfortunately, that last example was also a demonstration of how badly thought through the concept seemed. Apparently, a gouging victim then loses all their memory recordings. Yet in this world of iTunes backups and Cloud document storage, it seemed really implausible that there wouldn’t have been a remote backup copy to restore in this eventuality – which undermined the climax of the story, as a drunken Liam forced Jonas to erase every memory of sexual congress with his wife.

Then there was the lack of clarity about how private the memories were. Asked to show a ‘redo’ of his appraisal at the dinner party, Liam is clearly uncomfortable and is saved from social pressure by Jonas noticing. But it’s only social pressure – so how much legal obligation is there to share your memories, as with the flight security man? They clearly can be shared involuntarily, as Liam and Ffion tap into their toddler’s implant to ensure that she’s been well treated by the babysitter. All right, so parents can tap into their children, that sort of makes sense. But when would it stop? Most kids would be mortified by the idea of their parents being able to peek into their heads, especially when hitting puberty.

It was also mentioned, to one ‘gouging’ victim who’d decided to live without her recording implant, that organic memories were unreliable, prone to encouraged falsehood. Yet surely in a world where memories are stored electronically, the risk of false memory implantation by hacking would be even greater. And let’s face it, Total Recall and Blade Runner were dealing with these concepts decades ago; they would have been even more relevant here. Also interesting might have been to show how such fake memories could be manipulated to serve social, corporate or political ends. But there was none of that to be seen here.

It could be argued that these details are best served by hints that can be extrapolated by the intelligent viewer. But those hints seemed too thin on the ground to even start to explore these themes. Instead, we got a picture of a marriage failing amid one partner’s eventually justified suspicion of his wife’s infidelity – and even that wasn’t too convincing, as these two seemed doomed from the start, memory implants or no memory implants. By the time Liam, left alone and unsure if his daughter was really his, took the predictable step of gouging out his own implant rather than be tortured by memories of what he’d thrown away, it was actually hard to care.

Which was, for me, probably the worst flaw in this episode. Pretty much every character in it was fundamentally unlikeable, making you want the worst to happen to them from the start. Yes, everyone did end up unhappy, but having not even one character the viewer can empathise with leaves you emotionally disconnected from the story. I had the same problem with Aaron Sorkin’s (admittedly well-crafted and Oscar winning) The Social Network, in which I just wanted everyone to have a horrible time. But then maybe that’s just me.

A disappointing ending, then, to a generally interesting series of dark satire. And yet I’d have to say that the series worked overall in its intent of showing us the dark side of where our cutting edge technology might lead us. Yes, its targets were generally pretty obvious – but then I haven’t seen those targets frequently addressed elsewhere. A number of people have remarked on Russell T Davies satirising Big Brother in 2005 Doctor Who episode Bad Wolf, but that always seemed more like affectionate pastiche rather than the vitriolic condemnation of The X Factor we saw on Black Mirror last week!

I thought Black Mirror, as a whole, worked pretty well, positing thought-provoking questions to which there are no easy answers. A commenter on a previous post noted that the first story at least seemed heavily based on one of Charlie Brooker’s old articles; if so, I still thought it worked, and wouldn’t mind seeing a few more of those brought to the screen. Particularly his extended fantasy of David Cameron being a flesh eating lizard fed with terrified horses by a cowed population! If there’s another series of Black Mirror, that gets my vote as episode one…

Black Mirror: Fifteen Million Merits

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The second story in new anthology series Black Mirror, Fifteen Million Merits may not have been as viscerally awful as last week’s The National Anthem, but if anything it was even more downbeat and depressing.

The setting is a future dystopia, a familiar enough device to satirise the present. This being Charlie Brooker, his familiar pessimistic bugbears were all present and correct, but I suspect his wife Konnie Huq, on co-scripting duties, had more to do with the far more sympathetic characters than we were presented with last week.

The most prominent target of the satire was ‘reality’ talent shows, the kind of lowest common denominator, bread and circuses excuse for ‘entertainment’ that drives me up the wall, so obviously it was going to appeal to me. As if to capitalise on that, the show was cunningly scheduled to start at the moment this year’s X Factor final finished over on ITV; sadly, I doubt any X Factor viewers were likely to tune in and learn anything. Charlie’s satire is powerful, but generally preaches to the converted – which is a pity, because this might have made regular X Factor viewers think twice about their choice of ‘entertainment’.

But with the typical precision of the conceits in Brooker’s opinion column, this was an intricately constructed world in which the satire was aimed at more than just one – admittedly easy – target. The futuristic detail was fastidious in this claustrophobic world where the masses toil on fixed bikes to provide the power to run everything, earning ‘merits’ to spend as they do so. Those too overweight or out of condition to do so are reduced to even more menial labour, or being humiliated for entertainment on a TV ‘contest’ called Botherguts.

So already we’ve got digs at our dwindling fuel supply, our obsession with appearance, and the increasing income inequality of a society in which the masses literally are enslaved to work to death, never seeing the outside world, for the benefit of a tiny few. But this being Charlie, his familiar paranoia about new media was also very much in evidence. In their off hours, the drudges reside in tiny cubicles lined with screens constantly bombarding them with Youtube/Porntube/Facebook style entertainment. In order to watch any of the constantly advertised shows, you have to pay with the merits you earn from constantly cycling to generate power. Not only can the screens not be turned off, but to even skip a trailer or mute the feed incurs a financial penalty as your merits are docked. And if you stop watching, the system will know and loudly pester you to “resume viewing” until you open your eyes.

Even in a world where everything is virtual, the ravenous urge to consume is fostered. You’re not even buying real commodities; everything is virtual. Even including yourself. To most of the world, you’re represented by an avatar – the dopple – and if you buy new clothes, or fashion accessories, or even change your hairstyle, it’s your dopple that gets it, while the real you stays clad in a grey, featureless tracksuit. The ultimate consumption, where money is spent without the need to even produce tangible commodities. And if you think that’s farfetched, consider how you now purchase your music, movies, and even books.

The one thing not included in this dystopian satire is politics – for a reason. We now live in a society in which more citizens are likely to vote on The X Factor than vote for those who govern them, and will even pay for the privilege of doing so. And as it becomes increasingly clear that all governments in the real world are basically subservient to the large corporations, it stands to reason that in a consumerist future, democracy will be irrelevant and politicians, no longer the source of power, will likely no longer exist.

In Brooker and Huq’s vision, the only way out of the lifetime of drudgery is one of the many ‘reality’ shows constantly streamed to the screens, the most prominent of which is a ‘talent’ show called Hot Shots. A pretty transparent clone of The X Factor, this even features a monstrous Cowell-alike judge, Judge Hope, incarnated with a New Zealand accent and a terrifying level of contempt by Rupert Everett.

The workings of this nightmarish, but logical, extrapolation of society are cleverly built up detail by detail as we follow the empty life of Bing Madsen, a young man completely caught up in it. But gradually, Bing begins to finally feel something real. He’s in love with the new girl a few cycles down. And when he hears her sing, it becomes clear to him – what better way to win her heart than by buying her a place on Hot Shots? The trouble is, that’ll cost 15 million merits, and that’s nearly all the money he has.

As Bing’s love object Abi, Jessica Brown is convincingly humiliated when, after hearing her sing, the judges decide that her best shot is actually to work on one of the endless porno shows. But semi-drugged, and tempted by even the slightest chance to get away from her life of drudgery, Abi accepts, and we see her reduced to a dead-eyed, chemically sedated sex doll while Bing, out of money to turn his screens off, can only watch in horror.

Daniel Kaluuya, as Bing, is amazing, building a powerful performance layer by layer. For the first twenty minutes or so, he barely speaks. Then, as he starts to try chatting up Abi, he displays that same disarming likeability we’re used to from The Fades and Skins. But as the horror of the situation dawns on him, he rages with impotent fury. Smashing his screens, he takes a shard of broken glass, slaves madly to save another 15 million merits, then goes on Hot Shots, ostensibly as a ‘performance artist’. Then, holding the shard of glass to his throat, he holds himself hostage as he delivers to the impassive judges a scream of rage and passion so powerful, it seems inconceivable that they – and the avatars of the watching millions – will not be moved.

It’s an incredible performance, that really seals my respect for Kaluuya as an actor, but also for Brooker as a writer. “It’s not even real!” Bing seethes, sweating with rage. “It’s all fake fodder! You sell us shit and it doesn’t even exist!” It’s a powerful moment, but also one that made me reflect on consumerism, dumbed-down culture, and the increasing definition of everybody’s value solely in terms of how much they consume.

But this is a dystopia, and as in all the classics, there’s no getting out of it for the lone hero. There’s one last twist to Brooker’s script, as the judges are moved. Moved to offer Bing a thirty minute slot, twice a week, to vent his passion for the masses. And for a moment, you think Bing might defy them and slit his own throat. But not in this dystopia. In the next scene, life goes on just as before, but with the pedalling drones now glued to Bing, still holding the shard to his throat – itself now available as a fashion accessory for your dopple. As the story closes, we see Bing, still alone but in a bigger apartment, staring out at what appears to be a beautiful, forested vista of the real world. It cuts to the credits, but I’m guessing that vista was just as artificial as the ones everywhere else in this nightmarish future.

George Orwell, speaking of his defining dystopia 1984, said that it was a warning of what could happen if people weren’t vigilant. Brooker’s vision is similar, but he’s assuming people stopped being vigilant a long time ago. Orwell’s Winston Smith, in the novel’s chilling ending, has come to love Big Brother (also the title of a reality show, funnily enough), but this is after months of torture and brainwashing. Bing gives away his ideals far more cheaply, and voluntarily – if anything, it’s an even more horrifying ending. And given how much resemblance his impassioned speech bore to one of Brooker’s trademark rants, perhaps an acknowledgment that even the writer himself isn’t sure if he would do any better in the circumstances. Like last week, there was a lot of food for thought here, and like last week, no easy answers. One to think of, next time you vote for The X Factor, watch some porn, buy Farmville tokens or allow your iPhone to use your current location.

Black Mirror: The National Anthem

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Those who know me know that I’m very keen on Charlie Brooker. It was, in fact, mainly down to his TV crit column in The Guardian that I started this blog in the first place – though I’ve never been able to capture his unique blend of vitriol and surrealism, ending up with a style of my own.

Brooker long since stopped reviewing TV – as he said, it’s difficult being a TV critic when you’re appearing on it so often you might end up having to review yourself. But alongside his increasingly frequent appearances on BBC4 and his growth into a stalwart of TV satire, he’s also been having a stab at being a screenwriter. His first effort, an imaginative combination of zombie apocalypse horror with Big Brother called Dead Set, was a perfect blend of the tastes he has, which I mostly share with him – I actually loathe Big Brother, but there was a lot of fun to be had with a zombified Davina McCall tearing people’s throats out.

And now he’s back with three part anthology series Black Mirror, though apparently only the first two stories are by Charlie himself, the third being the work of Peep Show co writer Jesse Armstrong. This being Brooker, I was looking forward to his usual dark, misanthropic preoccupations. And I wasn’t to be disappointed. The basic premise of this first story, titled The National Anthem, was simple but as twisted as we could expect from Brooker – a popular Royal (the fictional ‘Princess Susannah’, basically a neo-Diana) has been kidnapped, and the hostage video uploaded to Youtube for all the world to see. The kidnapper has but one demand, which must be met to the letter of a list of specifics – the Prime Minister must have sex with a pig. At 4pm, live on every British TV channel. No fakery allowed, and the PM must take the act to “full fruition”. Only then will the Princess be released.

It’s a typically dark, blackly humourous concept for Brooker, who frequently uses his columns for long tirades against the debased nature of society in a way that mirrors the more publicity shy Chris Morris. And it was the debased nature of society that was on display here, too. With that premise, this could easily have been a black comedy romp in the style of The Comic Strip Presents. What we got was far more interesting. Directed with some panache by Faren Blackburn (recently responsible for about half the episodes of The Fades), The National Anthem was played dead straight, almost as a thriller in the vein of Spooks or House of Cards. After all, when you’re starting from an absurdist premise, the best way to exploit it is to play it naturalistically.

So the story progressed as PM Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear as a believable modern Blair clone) tried every avenue he could think of to rescue the Princess without having to resort to the humiliation of acceding to the kidnapper’s demand. The secret services are trying desperately to find the source of the uploaded video, tracking it down to a deserted college campus. This turned out to be a misdirection, but felt like perhaps a comment on the current government’s gutting of higher education. But I didn’t get the impression that Brooker was aiming his satire at any political party; Callow was noticeably not given any stated party affiliation, and his advisers referred simply to “the party”.

No, if anything the satire was aimed at society in general, and particularly the ways that modern media make us all complicit in truly horrific acts. Top of the list of course was social media, and the way it renders governments powerless to control the flow of information the way they used to. Of course, this can be a good thing, as in the Arab revolutions earlier this year. But it can also lead to some truly horrible bullying, as Brooker highlighted with the case of the Twitter abuse of (admittedly fairly awful) Youtube singer Rebecca Black.

An avid user of Twitter himself, Brooker made the social media instrumental to this twisted tale. Downing Street were trying to hush up the kidnapper’s demand with D notices served to news organisations, but of course that’s totally ineffectual these days. Inevitably, the demand was trending on Twitter worldwide, and eventually fictional news organisation UKN became the first to break the wall of official silence already being ignored by the non-British media. All this was (presumably intentionally) reminiscent of the recent wave of ‘super injunctions’ that failed to avoid their subjects being embarrassed even more when their identities were leaked on Twitter, inadvertently making them even more notorious than if they’d just ‘fessed up.

There is an argument that that’s hardly fair, and celebrities are still entitled to privacy too – one of the many subjects currently being debated by the Leveson enquiry into press ethics. This was touched on too, as UKN reporter Malaika had a direct line to a smitten aide inside No 10, gaining access to classified information by sending iPhone pictures of her tits at him. It felt like a bit of poetic justice when she was caught up in the Special Branch raid on the abandoned college and ended up shot in the leg as a result of her prying – a moral judgement perhaps?

More ambiguous morally was the role of Britain’s populace as a whole. Brooker cleverly used different groups of people watching the story unfold as a chorus, then as representative of society as a whole. We watched as the opinions of the online mob were swayed first this way and then that way by the news media – particularly timely at the end of a week which has seen the media crucifixion of Jeremy Clarkson. After an abortive attempt to fake the bestial deed arranged by frosty aide Lindsay Duncan is exposed on Twitter, the kidnapper sends what seems to be the Princess’ severed finger to UKN. Realising the danger to the Princess, opinion polls swing radically to the view that the PM must accede to the demand, and even his own party and aides are counselling that this is the only way left.

I have to applaud Brooker’s balls in actually following through with the premise. In most black comedies of this kind, there’ll be a last minute save to prevent the insane demand of the terrorists being met; not here. Here, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom eventually had to have sex with a pig in front of the whole nation.

Obviously that was going to be difficult to actually show even on Channel 4, but it was cleverly handled. And again, it was played dead straight, as something genuinely horrific. Once again, the population/mob were seen to be in thrall to the media, as streets all over the country were shown to be deserted, everyone glued to their TV sets. Despite an attempt to put people off watching by broadcasting a tone that could cause nausea, the mob remained jauntily baying for their leader’s blood as the characters we’d seen earlier treated it as a genuinely funny spectacle.

And then it actually happened, and we saw the people’s faces turn to looks of disgust, horror, pity and finally sympathy. Confronted by the horrifying reality of what they’d asked for, they were shown shamed as the act played out – for over an hour, as the Viagra-dosed PM couldn’t easily ‘finish’. But even then, they couldn’t bring themselves to switch off. That’s horribly plausible, and puts the viewer directly in their shoes – what would you do?

The horror of the act itself was cleverly conveyed through close shots of Rory Kinnear’s sweating, crying face, then later by his lengthy vomiting into the studio toilet. Then the final indignity happened – the Princess was released, totally unharmed (even the severed finger hadn’t been hers). And she’d been released half an hour before the deadline; the kidnapper reasoning, quite correctly, that everyone would be too swept up in the hysteria to even notice. It was quietly agreed that the PM must never, ever be told. But with the unrestricted flow of information we’d already seen, you had to wonder how long it would be before it did come out.

The fickle nature of the mob was on show again as the credits rolled over a news montage from one year later – Callow was more popular than ever for his ‘sacrifice’, and had been re-elected with an increased majority. But his wife can’t even bear to look at him any more – the true human cost of all this. Meanwhile, the kidnapper – a failed Turner Prize entrant who hanged himself as he realised what he’d done – is being lauded as having created the first great work of art of the 21st century.

This was comedy of the blackest order, and massively thought provoking. There are no easy answers to the issues raised; the internet and social media can be a tool for great good or great evil, and Brooker’s cynical view seems to be that society being what it is, it will tend more to the bad than the good. But it also places the viewer in the position of being one of the onlookers – and can anyone really say that they would have acted differently in this situation? Much as I loathe David Cameron, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t demand he be so thoroughly removed of all human dignity. But would I have thought that way before watching this? And if the situation truly came to pass, would I stick to my lofty principles or get swept up with the mob?

A very good start to the series then, which as its title references, is a ‘Black Mirror’ of modern society – on this evidence, at its worst. Next week’s offering (starring the brilliant Daniel Kaluuya out of The Fades) shows a dystopian future dominated by exploitative TV talent shows. Again, this doesn’t seem so far removed from the truth. But on the basis of this first episode, I’m guessing that it will be another dark distortion of something loathsome from the present.