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Black Mirror

Entry updated 22 December 2020. Tagged: TV.

UK tv series (2011-2019). Zeppotron, Channel 4 (first two series plus Christmas special); Netflix (third and subsequent series). Created and mostly written by Charlie Brooker (1971-    ). Additional writers include Jesse Armstrong and Kanak "Konnie" Asha Huq. Directed by Otto Bathurst, Oona Chaplin, Tom Cullen, Owen Harris, Bryn Higgins, Euros Lyn, Carl Tibbetts and Brian Welsh. Cast includes Hayley Atwell, Jessica Brown-Finlay, Leonora Crichlow, Lindsay Duncan, Jason Fleming, Domhnall Gleeson, Jon Hamm, Daniel Kaluuya, Toby Kebbell, Rory Kinnear, Tobias Menzies, Janet Montgomery, Daniel Rigby, Michael Smiley, Rafe Spall, Jodie Whittaker, Lydia Wilson. First series of three segments, 2011; second series of three segments, 2013; Christmas special, December 2014; third series of six segments, 2016; fourth series of six segments, 2017; fifth series of three segments, 2019. Total 22 segments to date, with lengths varying from 41 to 89 minutes. Colour.

Brooker started his career writing the satirical TV Go Home strip before beginning to publish columns under various titles for the Guardian between 2000 and 2013. His Television work began with writing Dead Set (2008), a five-part Horror-comedy in which Zombies besiege participants in the reality show Big Brother. Black Mirror, an anthology series comprising two three-episode seasons and a subsequent Christmas special, is thematically continuous with its predecessor, focusing constantly on interplays between "life" and media. Though as a whole it therefore aspires to and achieves a very considerable degree of thematic unity, individual episodes are entirely separate; no cross-over elements are even hinted at until the feature-length final tale, which features several eyekicks that evoke previous episodes. The title has been given several interpretations, all depending to some degree on a sense that the thin partition between self and world has become porous, a two-way mirror not under the control of the perceiving self. So the mirror is the black screen of a television set after it has been turned off, as far as the viewer knows, though in Black Mirror no television set, no smartphone, no "mirror" is ever inert. The darkness in the eye of the beholder is also what the self is allowed to see, until the curtain lifts: all seven episodes of the series are set in something like an extremely porous Near Future, where all Paranoias are justifiable, a landscape significantly indistinguishable from now except for tiny advances in media Technology. The mirror is therefore the veil that dissolves to expose protagonists to the knowledge that their reality is both owned and watched: that the world has become a Media Landscape run by entrepreneurs and governments (seen as essentially interchangeable), and that, as Dave Eggers suggests in The Circle (2013), "Privacy is theft."

Season 1. "The National Anthem", set almost now. A royal, Princess Susannah (Wilson), is kidnapped. She will be tortured to death unless the British Prime Minister Michael Callow (Kinnear) has sex with a pig on worldwide television. He complies. But the princess has already been released. He has been gimmicked into the wrong reality show. "Fifteen Million Merits", set in a Dystopian Near Future. All able-bodied men and women are required to pedal exercise bikes interminably to generate energy, gaining income in the form of merit points; compulsory advertisements are constantly on view, with penalties for not watching them. Bing Madsen (Kaluuya) inherits 15,000,000 points, which he spends gaining access to a game show for his lover, Abi (Findlay). If she wins, she will escape the treadmill and become an entertainer. But she fails at the final hurdle, though she is given an alternative she cannot refuse: to perform live sex on another channel under the influence of Drugs. This enrages Bing, who earns himself 15,000,000 points in order to appear on the same game show, where he violently and eloquently excoriates the system of the world and threatens to kill himself. So successful is his rage that he is given his own rant show. "The Entire History of You", set a few years hence. What is known as a "grain", implanted behind the ear, allows users to record their lives for playback: either privately, as an exclusive image for their eyes only, or projected on a screen. Liam Foxwell (Kebell) uses this technology in an obsessive attempt to trace down the truth behind a now-ended affair between his wife Ffion (Whittaker) and Jonas (Cullen). A recursive clashing of "truths" devastates all three.

Season 2. "Be Right Back", set a few years hence. Martha (Alwell) and Ash (Gleeson) are deeply in love. Ash is obsessed by social networks, etc, and is therefore comprehensively recorded. He dies in a car crash. To deal with her grief, Martha buys a Clone programmed with his personality, but its Uncanny-Valley mirror-like closeness to the original is ultimately estranging, even though it gives good Sex. In later years, the clone is stored away inactivated, until, occasionally, a need arises. The relationship between widow and clone is in fact poignant. "White Bear", set tomorrow. Victoria Skillane (Crichlow) awakens with Amnesia in an abandoned house in a suburb, but when she leaves to seek help she is trailed by hordes of neighbours who record her with smartphones but refuse to speak to her; the setting and ominousness of these scenes clearly invoke the world of Shirley Jackson. After increasing violence and horror, Skillane is eventually "rescued" by Baxter (Smiley), but at a climactic moment a wall turns into a transparency: she is part of a reality show, and Baxter is the emcee. She is a criminal undergoing psychological torture as a privatized punishment for collaborating in her partner's abuse and murder of a small child (see Crime and Punishment). After being drugged again, she awakens in a state of Amnesia. It is not clear how often she will be forced to re-enact her sentence. "The Waldo Moment", very close to today. Through performance capture techniques, Jamie Salter (Rigby) interviews politicians in the guise of Waldo, a transgressive cartoon bear. Eventually, via ubiquitous television monitors, he runs for office against his enemy, Conservative politician Liam Monroe (Menzies). An overcomplicated denouement sees Salter humiliated and sleeping rough.

Christmas Special "White Christmas", set a few years hence. Two sf concepts are intricately responsible for the realizing of this complex tale: the "Z-eye", which serves both as a Communications link to the internet and as a punitive Perception monitor; and a Technology through which a human consciousness can be copied into a Clone of its human original, becoming an enslaved AI. Two men – Joe Potter (Spall) and Matt Trent (Hamm) – prepare for Christmas together in a snow-bound cabin in the wilderness, and tell each other tales about themselves within this claustrophobic Club Story frame. Matt describes his mis-use of Z-eye to coach a socially deficient man into seducing a schizophrenic woman, causing both their deaths. He then tells a second story, in which he "trains" a clone to become the household slave of her original, Greta (Chaplin, in both roles). The clone rebels, so he locks her into a featureless room and accelerates her perception of the passing of time, so that she goes nearly insane with boredom; and submits to Slavery. Joe now finally tells his own tale: obsessively jealous of his partner Beth (Montgomery), who does not wish to bring her pregnancy to term, he is locked to a Z-eye which allows him to see only her silhouette. After several years, he discovers that her child is of half-Asian parentage. He causes two deaths. It is now discovered that – like the clone version of Greta – he is locked into a fake world, and that Matt has been hired to make him confess. But the real Matt refuses this confession, so the clone is tortured in his place by almost infinite recursions of the nightmare of Christmas, complete with Christmas songs.

Season 3 and Season 4 followed the series' acquisition by Netflix in 2015. A fifth series was announced in 2018.

There is perhaps an almost 1980s retro feel to the constantly refreshed astonishment and anger that drives these tales about the way we live now; but it is perhaps to Brooker's credit that he has remained able to cry alarum again and again, each time as if for the first time. Everything, including the acting and the mise en scene, is crystalline with rage; even the occasional sarcasms, even the modest-proposal fits of rhetoric à la Jonathan Swift, are in an unmistakable accusative case. The viewer does well to understand that no prisoners will be taken. [JC]


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