Published on November 1st, 2016 | by Dave Scaddan0
Black Mirror’s Twilight Zone meets technology is poised to leap from followers who know of its brilliance into the mainstream with the new Netflix episodes.
It’s hard to overstate how wonderful a series Black Mirror is, how much better it is than anything else you could select in your Netflix browser tonight. As pure entertainment, it is dazzling, riveting, full of excitement, drama, beauty, and intrigue. As art, it is clever, thought-provoking, scary, and subversive. If you’ve seen Black Mirror before 2016, you know that it is a fictional series examining how current technological trends could play out for humanity in the near future; be assured: the six new episodes are of the same quality or better than the ones creator Charlie Brooker made for Britain’s Channel 4 from 2011-2014. If you haven’t seen Black Mirror before, do not be daunted by the fact that the first six episodes aren’t currently available through Netflix where the latest series can be viewed. There is no continuity between episodes other than the techy, thematic thread — they can be viewed in any order (or in isolation) without any break in narrative; this facet, actually, is the main thing, but not the only thing, that makes Black Mirror so cool.
Most producers in film or television would take the concept of any one of these thirteen single episode and turn it into an ‘epic’ franchise lasting many, many hours in order to profit as much as possible. Ideas about YouTube being used for terrorist art, or politicians being manipulated by social media, or online social rankings that function as an elitist class system are rich enough with implications to be the concepts for entire novels, film franchises, multi-season series even. Charlie Brooker has enough of these intriguing concepts that he can deliver them to us in bite-size pieces, sticking and moving with no apparent desire to milk each idea for time and content. He just delivers on one ingenious sci-fi brainchild after another, dropping them like apples from an autumn tree, seeming more interested in bearing the new crop than in processing the about-to-expire fruit into mass-consumable applesauce before it loses its market value.
But for all my Brooker-worship, I will say one potentially negative thing about Black Mirror: if you don’t like being made to think about things that are important, but ultimately quite disturbing, you should probably stay away from this series. Black Mirror will make you question yourself even as it entertains you; it will force you to choose sides regarding whether you might like to live forever though digitized consciousness, what lengths you want your military to go to in protecting you from harm, how deeply you might let an entertainment-based corporation meddle with your nervous system to enhance your leisure time. These are all cool-but-troubling conundrums, and Black Mirror‘s fiction is convincing enough that you won’t be able to avoid thinking about these issues until long after the entertainment-viewing has ended.
This is not really negative, it’s just something we’re not used to getting from television, this ‘where are we heading and what does it mean for me’ factor. Charlie Brooker has always been a critic of our species’ degeneration into a bunch of mindless rectangle-starers, and his fiction captures his knack for putting what we should already know about ourselves onto the screen in a way that’s both fun and off-putting, less like Orwell and more like Huxley, whose Brave New World seems like the most obvious predecessor to Black Mirror‘s sardonic soothsaying.
In the new season, every single installment is as refined as the best episodes from previous seasons. The one that likely represents the newest sextet best is one called Shut Up and Dance, an hour-long investigation of the dangers of living our lives through links and databases that can be easily hacked and exploited to blackmail us. In this episode, as in all of them, we are shown a group of characters enjoying an existence very much like our own, living through screens, communicating through texts, navigated through travels by GPS, and so on. Then, the comfort and convenience of that existence (which, you must be reminded, we all choose willingly) is threatened by a predatory presence that wants to exploit our reliance on this comfort in terrifying, yet totally conceivable ways. Coming face to face with the fact that we are knowingly posting and storing our personal lives in a giant cloud that cannot be guaranteed secure is jarring, even behind the veil of fiction. Whether we choose to pity these characters for how inhumanely they are being treated or chastise them for being so foolish as to incite their own vulnerability, we are drawn in, we care, we fear, and we remain affected long after the credits roll and our rectangles are directed back to the Netflix menu.
Another standout is the listed-as-final Hated in the Nation, where we are shown what endgames might result from the kinds of detached hatred-spewing that forums like Reddit and Twitter allow us to indulge in. The frightening reminder here is that we can ‘hate’ so much more freely (and conveniently) as an online avatar than we can in the physical world, and seemingly without consequence until we become the target of virtual vitriol. Using the same kind of techy terrorism that was examined in The National Anthem (Black Mirror‘s first episode in 2011) our free-hate culture is turned in on itself with a plot that Hitchcock would have to nod to.
The character played by Kelly McDonald (Trainspotting, Gosford Park, Boardwalk Empire) in this portion is something special. Her tech-cynicism, her need to roll her eyes at those who need to tie everything they experience into social media, her tired disgust at the world around her devolving into heartless data-banking and click-baiting all endear her to me in the warmest of ways. She seems like she might be the one character in Charlie Brooker’s thirteen episodes that is most like Brooker himself. Particularly in his earlier British TV series How TV Ruined Your Life, he emerges as a man who sees the great potential in all the thrilling technology we have access to, but mostly ends up focusing on how we foolishly squander that potential in favour of being placated, being led, being homogenized and put to bed with dreams we did not decide on for ourselves.
Brooker’s Sideshow Bob-like razor-stepping (“I’m aware of the irony of appearing on television in order to decry it, so don’t bother pointing that out”) would make him seem like a hypocrite if his series wasn’t the product of genius. After all, how serious can he be about the dangers of linking our collective consciousness into a homogenous grid of entertainment options when he’s bankrolled by Netflix to produce these new episodes?
But because his work hits so hard and rings so true, watching it on Netflix seems less hypocritical and more like the ideal evolution of the medium. If you’re going to use Facebook, Twitter, online gaming, Snapchat, or Instagram ever again, the responsible thing to do would be to take the time to watch this program from start to finish. You will emerge less optimistic, but also less stupid. It will be like learning things you already knew, but with a clarity that keeps you from deepening your own stupidity with impunity.