Friday, 12 July 2013

Review: Black Mirror, Series One

Black Mirror Series One (2011, very cool trailer) is a black comedy science-fiction (or speculative fiction) British TV series. Like the old Twilight Zone, it is a collection of stories that are completely independent from each other, save for a shared concept.

Whereas Twilight Zone's was just a vague theme of strangeness and otherworldliness, - 'the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition...between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge', in the words of theatrical narrator Rod Serling - Black Mirror focuses on modern technology and its role in how we communicate.

More specifically, Black Mirror centers on the sinister. The episodes are essentially cautionary tales that theorize on what could happen in the future. 'If technology is a drug,' series creator Charlie Brooker wrote in The Guardian on its release, 'then what, precisely, are the side-effects?' (Citation below.)

‘The ‘black mirror’ of the title’, he continues, ‘is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.’ (You're looking at one right now!)

Brooker is a TV veteran best known for his TV shows Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe and Newswipe with Charlie Brooker, in which he satirizes television shows and the news, respectively. I have never sat down and watched either of Brooker's programs, but I was aware of him due to a hilarious and popular segment from Newswipe that makes fun of the dreary presentation of BBC news broadcasts.

Like many UK TV shows, Black Mirror had a very brief run (typically a series of a UK sitcom lasts for only six or seven episodes; a mere fraction of the American standard 23 to 24.) Black Mirror falls into the Sherlock mold of only having three episodes, but each are around an hour long, and are structured in a filmic style with very slick production values.

The Prime Minister (Rory Kinnear, M's right-hand man Tanner in Skyfall) is woken by a call from his cabinet, who show him a video of a kidnapped Princess Susannah (Lydia Wilson), an 'eco-conscious national sweetheart' who I assume is implicitly based on Kate Middleton.

'Read the statement', says a voice off-camera. Susannah dictates, tearful and terrified:

'I am in a place you cannot find, held by one you will not trace. Prime Minister Michael Callow, my life depends on you. If you do not do precisely as instructed by 4PM this afternoon I will be executed. There is only one demand, and it is a simple one. At 4PM this afternoon, Prime Minister Michael Callow must appear on live British television, on all networks, terrestrial and satellite, and have full, unsimulated sexual intercourse with a pig.'

This is his face, immediately after hearing that last line.

Callow's austere staff feed him worse and worse information: the kidnapper has left no way to be contacted or negotiated with. The video exists on YouTube. The newsrooms have it. It's trending on Twitter.

'Fucking Internet', Callow spits. 'So what now, what's the playbook?'

'This is virgin territory, Prime Minister. There is no playbook.'

The rest of the episode follows the PM's investigation and the media's extensive probing.

My Take

Wow, I thought. What a premise. Can it possibly measure up to this premise? How in the hell is it going to end?

Thankfully, I was very impressed with the outcome, as well as with the entire episode through and through.

My last post was about Contagion, a film that, like The National Anthem, is about a crisis that threatens innocent lives. In my post, I complained that Contagion failed to convey the public's reaction to the crisis. Where Contagion failed in this respect, The National Anthem excelled. In fact, I think that the whole genius of the episode lies in its sheer sense of population, all scrambling about for information and answers.

A woman working at Downing Street describes some of the media coverage: 'The Guardian are running a live blog, and a short think-piece on the historical symbolism of the pig.'

We also see snippets of the TV news, including a former head of MI5 debating with a 'Middle East expert' about whether or not the kidnapping could be the work of Islamist terrorists; and a news team on the street recording the opinion of an everyday idiot:

'Nothing too abnormal for Prime Ministers and MPs. They're all deviants, sexual deviants, all MPs and Prime Ministers.'

Malaika, (Chetna Pandya) a classic shameless-journalist type at fictitious news station 'UKN', sends pictures of herself in various states of undress to a guy working inside Number 10 in exchange for information.

Charlie Brooker himself wrote this episode, and it is packed with so much rich detail that I'm sure he put a lot of time, thought, effort and research into it. His script is as sharp as Sorkin.

We as see both the reporting/government side, and that of normal people. Our view fluidly navigates through and around them as if it's a bona fide political-thriller movie.

Orderlies watch new developments on overhead screens at a hospital, a guy watches from bed on his day off, pub workers and patrons watch in the pub.

Much darkly hilarious dialogue ensues: one of the orderlies (Sophie Kennedy Clark) asks her co-workers 'Would they use a female pig?'

Brooker clearly has a cutting-edge awareness of social media - including horrible, caps-lock ridden YouTube comments: Prime Minister Callow's aghast wife Jane (Alex Cairns) views an online upload of the kidnapper's video and reads the following below it:

PM gonna fuck a pig LOL


This is her face, immediately after reading that last line.

The most meaningful scene of Anthem for me came immediately after the opening scene, at a meeting at UKN. The government is utterly helpless to censor the kidnap video, but they do issue a D-notice about mentioning the video on air.

'We're honoring the D-notice', the UKN director tells the room.

'The voluntary D-notice', Malaika rebuts.

'It may be a sportsmanlike gesture, but we are making it. A woman's life is at stake here. We follow procedure...We're not a chatroom...No-one has broken rank. Not the Beeb, not Sky.'

A man then enters the room and informs the director that CNN, Fox and MSNBC are already reporting it in America.

'Oh God, this planet!' the director exclaims, then immediately disregards his righteous tirade and readies up his own coverage:

'Set the tone with standards and practices. We need to explain this without viewers sicking up their Weetabix...All graphics run past me. Keep it functional, no Peppa Pigs.'

To sum up: We won't talk about it as long as nobody 'breaks rank', but as soon as they say it, we have to, too. Suddenly it's not sacrosanct anymore. 'They broke rank' is justification enough to begin thourir reporting onslaught. 'My timeline consists 100% of viewers asking why we're not covering it', Malaika initially argued against the director. Everyone wants to know everything about it, and it's our job to tell them. It's a race.

I can relate personally to this eerie theme of technology allowing people to feel entitled to know everything about everyone: Back when I was in high school, a teacher once reprimanded me for reading her e-mail without responding. I found out that my school's e-mail service could inform senders about whether or not their recipients have opened their messages.

This probably sounds like a minor occurrence, but it mildly disturbed me. I was okay with the arrangement of someone sending me a message and my receiving it, but I considered this weird 'check-up' feature of the e-mail program to be a violation of my privacy.

I wondered: what would the low-tech equivalent of this feature be? Looking over the shoulder of someone holding an envelope you sent them, watching them open it and read the letter, and demanding 'Send me one back. Hurry up!' when they finish? This kind of thing is only possible with modern technology.

Okay, back to The National Anthem.

All I've shared about the story only happens within the first half. I'm not even going to provide a hint as to how any of the episodes end, but suffice to say that, like any worthwhile satire, this one is crazy enough to be both possible, (given the premise), and wickedly funny.

Fifteen Million Merits takes place in a dystopian world where, for unknown reasons, millions - and perhaps all - young people are kept in a shiny black facility that looks like the inside of the new Mac Pro.

Welcome to the iFuture.

They all pedal stationary bikes all day, and for this they earn 'merits', a currency which they need to purchase necessities like food and toothpaste. Those too unfit to maintain their cycling are demoted to picking up the cyclists' garbage. The demotion is called 'going lemon', after the yellow scrubs-like outfits these people must wear.

The pedaling cyclically powers screens they stare at from their bikes. they can play motion-activated video games (reminiscent of Xbox Kinect), customise their 'doppels' (digital avatars reminiscent of Miis on the Nintendo Wii) or watch programs (through an interface reminiscent of iTunes).

The programs are all awful: Botherguts consists entirely of fat people having food crammed into their faces and being otherwise humiliated. Wraith Babes is hardcore porn - 'The hottest girls in the nastiest situations.'

Finally, and perhaps worst of all, is Hot Shots, an X-Factor clone that costs a massive 15 million merits to audition for. Hostile judges rank Hot Shots contestants in a manner identical to its inspiration: 'I'm so sorry, love. You came across as fundamentally unlikable and really quite worthless.'

The Hot Shots on Hot Shots are exalted, and a spot on the show is implied to be the idyllic culmination of the life of toil: 'putting their back into giving back for a brighter now. Each pain they'd use, like you, hoping to become a Hot Shot.'

Our protagonist is Bing Madsen (Daniel Kaluuya). Bing has inherited over 15 million merits from his recently deceased brother, and is going through something of an existential depression (as I'm sure I would if I were in his situation, dead brother or no).

His slow, listless pedaling doesn't earn him many merits, and, judging by the way he cavalierly throws them away to skip screen advertisements, he doesn't see much value in them. While pedaling, he opts out of watching TV shows in favor of looking at a plain graphic of rolling hills.

The screens keep his fellow pedalers docile: one guy is enraptured with the singers on Hot Shots and occupies himself with buying endless accountrements for his doppel. Another pedal-mate, Dustin (Paul Popplewell), is a mean, chortling dumbass who drinks up all the horrible programming and berates the 'lemons', like in one scene where he sees the reflection of one in his Wraith Babes video screen:

'For Christ's sake! Way to mood-kill, blubbernaut! Cheers for the reflection! One minute I'm in Slitsville, the next there's a haunted pig gawping at me! They may as well have cut to a war crime!'

Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay), an attractive new girl, arrives. Bing hears her sing an old love song, and is transfixed by her soulfulness.

'You thought of trying out for Hot Shot?'

He doesn't care about glamorizing her or putting her on a pedestal above everyone else; he just wants her to have something better than this life, and believes she might make it with her talent. He offers to gift her the fifteen million merits she'll need to enter the competition.

'Why don't you spend it on you?' she asks him.

'And buy what? New shoes for my doppel? What's the point? It's all just stuff. It's confetti, it's...You've got something real. What better to spend it on?'

My Take

Fifteen Million Merits is my least favorite episode of the three, but I still think it's a very good one. Charlie Brooker returns to write this one (with his wife Kanak Huq), but it is diametrically dissimilar to The National Anthem.

Where that one was fast-paced and fluid, Merits has a much more languid pace, to emphasize Bing's dull and claustrophobia-inducing routine. Bing barely even speaks for most of it, and we don't even find out his name until seventeen minutes in.

Merits is the most science fiction-y of the series. Its glossy sets, computer generated screen-activity and evocative score underline how technologically brilliant - yet soulless - this world is. Props to Caroline Barclay, art director; Daniel May, production designer; Bernard Newton and Scott Peters, special-effects technicians; and Clint Mansell, whose score for Moon is featured. All of their collective craftsmanship effectively transports the viewer into this episode's bleak world.

There is one moment when Bing, in a moment of despair, has insufficient funds to skip one of the porn ads, and when he tries to close his eyes, the screens around him go red, and an automated voice repeats: 'Resume viewing'. The video won't finish until the scanners around him confirm that his attention is held on it. It's enough to make you shudder.

Welcome to iHell.

Many simple, clever moments play on the theme of quashed individuality: Abi makes an origami penguin out of an apple wrapper, and one of the lemons tips it into his garbage bag. 'Detritus. Sorry.' he says with palpable malaise.

On the other end of the spectrum is Dustin, who enjoys taking what he wants and pushing down others: While on the bicycle, Bing sneaks a sweet gaze at Abi. Enter Dustin, who also looks over at her. 'I'd love to fucking ruin that.'

The ending sold this episode for me; at first I thought the story was a bit too sentimental, but then there is an organically-developed change that takes it into a whole new direction. All I'll say is that Daniel Kaluuya's acting prowess goes a long way towards making it work.

Like The National Anthem, The Entire History of You takes place in the regular world, save for a unexpected detail. In this one the detail comes in the form of the 'grain', a Strange Days-like device that people implant into their own heads to allow them to record all that they see and hear:

'Live. Breathe. Smell. Full spectrum memory. You can get a Willow Grain upgrade for less than the price of a daily cup of coffee. And three decades of backup for free. Install in-grain procedure with local anaesthetic, and you're good to go. Because memory is for living.'

Memories can be browsed using a little key-fob that looks and works similarly to an Apple Remote. Playbacks of memories, or 're-do's, can be viewed both through TV screens and inside your own eyes. Cataract-like apparitions appear on their irises whenever they watch these in-brain re-dos.


As you might imagine, the grain technology allows people to obsess over imperfections in their lives, like when a guy shows a re-do of his hotel room:

'Look at that frayed carpet! This is a five-star suite! I paid good money to have perfect details. Now I've got that shitty carpet for the rest of my life.'

The grain has caused changes to the legal system. 'Retrospective parenting' litigation now exists: 'Bobby sues Mum and Dad for insufficient attention, leading to lack of confidence, leading to damages against earnings.' I can't imagine what state the psychotherapy profession is in the wake of the grain.

Hallam (Phoebe Fox) is the only character we meet who doesn't have a grain, and when someone mentions this fact, it becomes a conversation piece. Those with grains are in such a majority that not having one is considered a sort of fad: 'It's a big thing right now, right? Going grainless?' someone asks her.

The removal of Hallam's grain has left an ugly scar, and she says that the procedure was 'agony' and risked damaging her vision.

Another woman, Colleen (Rebekah Staton), who works in 'grain development', simply can't understand Hallam's choice:

'With half the population, you can implant false memories just by asking leading questions in therapy. You can make people remember getting lost in shopping malls they never visited. Getting bothered by pedophile babysitters they never had.'

I guess her point is: we need the grains to record everything, because we can't trust what we think we know.

The Entire History of You follows Liam (Toby Kebbell) and his wife Ffion (Jodie Whittaker), and is essentially a relationship drama about them. Liam suspects that Ffion may still be attracted to her old flame Jonas (Tom Cullen), after observing their interaction at a dinner party.

Ffion tries to reassure Liam that hers and Jonas's relationship happened a long time ago on holiday in Marrakech, and only lasted a week. In 'our' world, that would have been the end of that conflict, but this is Grain World, and Liam ignores his wife's word - and assurance that she loves him - in favor of scouring his 'memory' to confirm his suspicions.

My Take

Another great one. This is the only one that Charlie Brooker didn't have a hand in writing; instead, Jesse Armstrong (one half of Peep Show's writing duo) steps up to the plate. Like Brooker on his episodes, Armstrong applies a lot of effort to fleshing out the impact of the grain technology on his alternate universe. Armstrong also writes two nuanced and emotionally volatile lead characters who ended up expertly realized by Kebbell and Whittaker.

The theme of privacy-invasion returns, with airport security requesting a scan of Liam's memory: 'Could you rewind me your last 24 hours quad-speed or me please? And back that up for me times-64 for the week?'

Distrust and paranoia also strongly permeate The Entire History of You; Liam and Ffion's baby even has a grain, which Ffion scans through to monitor on her babysitter's conduct. Neither parent bats an eyelid at this, and it seems to be a completely socially acceptable precaution.

I wonder if real parents would install what is essentially a CCTV camera into their offspring's skull. Given the opportunity, who knows?

Liam uses special grain-features to comb his re-do of the dinner party. 'Lip-read-reconstruction' helps him ascertain what Ffion and Jonas are discussing across the room, and a zoom feature allows him spy the two kissing in the background of another person's screen projection of an old re-do.

'Is that Marrakech? It doesn't look like Marrakech.'

'He's an old fling!', she pleads. 'So what, don't get all fucked up!'

'Oh, I'm fucked up, am I? That's brilliant. Because sometimes, you're a bitch.'


'I didn't mean that.'

Ffion then gives him a taste of his own medicine by playing back what he just said:

'You're a bitch.'

'You can't just edit off the word 'sometimes'! I want you to delete that!'

In a pairing of similarly hypocritical moments, Liam derides Jonas for masturbating to 'hot times in earlier relationships'. However, later both he and Ffion watch re-dos of sex - as a stimulant to having sex in the present.


Again, in 'our' world, Liam would never have been able to lip-read or zoom anything, and would have had to just trust his wife's word. Trust is what the grain eliminates.


Filmland beckons to Black Mirror: Brit crime-thriller Welcome to the Punch featured Daniel Kaluuya (Bing) as a cop; and Robert Downey Jr., with production company Team Downey, has purchased the film rights to The Entire History of You - although I assume that, based on the fact of his involvement, it will become some kind of action-thriller. I hope that at least Jesse Armstrong is brought back for the screenplay.

Black Mirror was succeeded by a second series (kick-ass trailer) in 2013, but in my opinion two out of the three episodes were just bad, and the remaining good one doesn't even approach the first series's level of quality.

For those living in the UK, Black Mirror is available to stream for free on 4OD.

Further Reading

For more about the horrors of technology, see my post about Catfish.

The Guardian citation: Brooker, Charlie. "Charlie Brooker: The Dark Side of Our Gadget Addiction." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 01 Dec. 2011. Web. 14 July 2013.
Screengrabs: Black Mirror was produced by Zeppotron. The UK DVD was distributed by Channel 4 DVD.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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