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…