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.