Review: Black Mirror Seasons 1-2
Ever wonder what it would be like to have all of your memories easily accessible via an intracranial recording device? Or if it were possible to use phone and computer data to recreate dead loved ones in the form of convincing robots? What about if the entire world was an endless fortress of electronic screens incessantly advertising and marketing to your specific interests?
As implied by the title, Black Mirror’s unifying theme is ubiquitous modern technology and their associated dark screens of different shapes, sizes, and types. Darkness is manifest as well in the show’s tone. Some episodes mirror our world pretty closely, while others craft very new worlds starkly more technologically advanced than our own. But, true to the science fiction genre, the fashioned universe never feels fantastical or impossible. The brilliant editing and storytelling make these depictions of the near-future seem convincing. Whether society will actually look like a particular episode in a few decades, years, months, or even never at all, the portrayal is always believable.
Black Mirror, with three seasons released (available on Netflix) and a fourth on the way, is similar to The Twilight Zone in conception and theme. It creates fictional worlds with suspenseful and psychologically thrilling stories. Each episode, averaging between 40 minutes and an hour, features a new cast of characters. And it is unlike any other show out there today.
Almost every episode is horrifying to watch, but, paradoxically, leaves the viewer hungry for more. In one episode the people and technology resemble our own society, with one crucial addition: Implanted chips that track people’s every memory. The episode follows a few characters and how their lives are impacted by these small devices in their heads that allow them to reproduce on a screen any past experience. Suffice to say that this technology creates quite a bit of an emotional mess for the characters.
Another episode, with hardly any elements of science fiction, is based entirely on a bizarre scenario. When a member of the British royalty is kidnapped, the abductors demand that the Prime Minister perform an obscene act on public television; else, they will murder the captive. This episode, which tracks the development of the news via Twitter and other social media, as well as how England and the world at large respond, is disturbing. It is disturbing not only because of the content, but because the plot is so relatable.
Much of Black Mirror’s genius lies in how it uses science fiction to show rather than to tell. In the case of the episode described above, the viewer is forced to think about complicated moral dilemmas where it is unclear which terrible course of action is worse. Likewise, it is one thing to write an essay about philosophical mysteries like human consciousness, but actually depicting a world with convincing robots that are mainstream in society is something else. It is one thing to theorize about complicated human relationships, but actually showing a world where people can use augmented reality to literally block others from their lives with the click of a button is in another league. And the episodes are rarely predictable, often ending with a big twist. Viewers are left unsettled during the credits which, fittingly, usually have a black background and eerily feature no soundtrack. It takes a few moments to process what you just watched before being able to move (one episode, titled “White Bear,” is particularly horrifying and takes much time, emotion, and thought to fully digest and keep down).
Perhaps the most intriguing impression from Black Mirror is its implied criticism of our society today. The modern world with its technology is itself, in a way, an episode of Black Mirror. Consider phenomena such as constant contact via WhatsApp, hordes of people walking down streets with their heads tilted down at their mobile devices, or the popularity of instantaneous and solitary pleasure in the form of online television. Only a generation or two ago, such and other similar images would seem dystopian and disconcerting.
Are the realities depicted in Black Mirror hyperbolic, or are they imminent and forthcoming? Do we live today in a dystopian world of dark screens, or is the current state of humanity not so fundamentally different from eras past? The answers to both, as the show suggests, are probably somewhere in between.