Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Black Mirror


This is about as strange a “series” as I have ever seen. I’m tempted to compare it to The Twilight Zone, in that it is an anthology series, with no recurring cast, setting, or anything else. It claims to be satirical, and I can certainly see that in some of the episodes, but not all of them. I’ve always felt that satire needs to have some humor underlying it, and the first episode really didn’t. Most of the episodes are science fiction … but the first one, the one that sets the tone for the whole enterprise, is really not SF. It is, however, just about the weirdest and most disturbing bit of television I have ever seen …

S1, E1 The National Anthem. I guess I just have to come out and say it, a summary of the plot. And I could say “make love,” which would be totally ridiculous, or “have sex,” which isn’t much better, or even “have intercourse” … but fuck it. Here it is: A British princess very much like Diana or Catherine has been kidnapped. The abductors have only one demand: The Prime Minister must fuck a pig on live international television, or they will kill her.


He fucks the pig. After much agonizing, of course. The government is going to stand firm at first, but that doesn’t last long. They come up with a plan to morph the PM’s face onto a porn star, but that falls through, too. In fact, as punishment for trying to fool him, them, or her, the kidnappers send one of her fingers to a television station. And public opinion, which had been divided but leaning toward not giving in to the demand, suddenly shifts. The PM is reviled, 89% of the public wants him to fuck the pig. As one of his more cold-hearted advisors tells him, “The Party demands it, the public demands it, and the Palace demands it.” It is implied that Elizabeth II actually called up and told the PM to fuck it.

Okay. Satire? Yeah, I can see it, when the main consideration becomes not saving the girl’s life, but public relations. The point being that a politician will do literally anything to stay in office. Sure, I see that. But my point is that there need to be some jokes leading up to the dirty deed. Make the PM a poltroon, a lickspittle, anything but the route they took, which is to make him a sympathetic human being, and to show the sheer mental agony making such a decision would entail. It is a total horror show. It’s not funny! and I say this as a man who really appreciates satire and black humor. I could hardly watch it.

And I kept telling myself … and later, I kept wondering … would public opinion be so radically in favor of giving in? Have the British people grown so weak that they could stomach a deal like this? I don’t believe the Palace would. I just think the Queen and the Royal Family would have more balls than that, to demand a man subject himself to possibly the worst humiliation a human being has ever suffered. Lee and I were solid and unanimous: Do not give in! Obviously the writers felt differently.

The final scene concerns his wife, who could not look away (along with about 99.99% of the public), and who watched as her husband violated that porker. She is seen campaigning with him, full of smiles (he is now very popular, for having the nerve to do it), but when they get home, she rejects him. It is clear that she never wants him to touch her again.

You know what I think would have made a great ending? That is assuming they had taken my suggestion and played it for laughs all along, of course. We see the PM shrug, and go to another bedroom at 10 Downing. He has a big smile on his face as he knocks, and we hear a delighted squealing coming from the other side of the door …

S1, E2. Fifteen Million Merits. This one is solidly science fiction, clearly satirical and quite good. In a dystopian but very clean and orderly future, millions of people spend their entire day on exercise bikes, generating power. A more boring existence could hardly be imagined, so they each stare at a big TV screen and choose what programs to watch. They accumulate “merits” depending on how far they pedal each day. They each live in a private cell whose walls are hi-def screens, where more commercials and shows are offered to them. And not just offered. You have to pay for them, and often you pay not to see them in their horrible, mind-numbing tastelessness. And you can’t close your eyes, as Big Brother will see that and zap you with an unbearable sound until you open them.

They can’t even buy real things. Their world has become so VR that the only things on sale are virtual stuff, such as new clothes for your “dopple,” your avatar, a virtual person who moves through cyberspace. What would you do to escape such a life?

The answer is just about anything, and I have to agree. I would hope I would draw the line at selling my children into slavery, but I’m not sure. One possible way out is to appear on a show that is clearly Britain’s Got Talent, to the point of even having a Simon Cowell-type person on the panel. Here you can become a superstar, and live in a mansion without commercials. But it won’t be easy, or without moral cost. The script is witty and horrible (intentionally), and the production values are terrific. It’s the worst picture of a possible future I’ve seen in a long time.

S1, E3 The Entire History of You. Aha. A pattern, of sorts, begins to emerge. Aside from the first episode, they all seemed to be concerned with things that could be developed in cyberspace, and usually the things that could go wrong with that. In this one, just about everybody has a tiny chip implanted that records everything one sees and hears. How? In the cloud, I guess, not that it really matters. Think it’s far-fetched? Think again. I’m aware of at least one man who is doing that right now. I think he’s a performance artist, and doesn’t really intend to go back and look at all this stuff. And face it, that would be pretty boring. But I think of all the people you see these days who are observing their lives, or at least the highlights of them, such as concerts, through a cell phone camera held above their heads. Often that is the majority of people there. You’re right there at the live concert, and you’re observing it on a fucking five-inch screen! Idiots! You will never have time to look at even 1% of the videos you are taking!

It would be interesting if only you can see the playback. What begins to get sinister is that you can throw the imagery onto any convenient TV screen. And of course people would like this idea. The next time someone tells you “I never said that!” you can rewind to the moment he did say that and have the last laugh.

But this would really appeal to a certain type of jealous obsessive, and we see the story of one here. Once he has convinced himself that his wife is having an affair with an old flame by watching the same scene at a dinner party over and over and over, assigning deeper and deeper meanings to each word and gesture and look … well, you know it will end badly.

S2, E1 Be Right Back. Here’s another idea that is just so obviously awful that I’m sure a lot of people would take advantage of it. A young woman’s boyfriend is killed in an accident, and she is having trouble coping with it. Well, wouldn’t we all? But then she hears about a service that can bring him back … sort of. They can recreate a good approximation of him by analyzing his life history on the Internet. Every email he ever sent, every picture he ever posted, all his chats and social media. Naturally this works best for someone who spent a lot of time on various devices, and he was a heavy user. So at first “he” just sends text messages. But they are uncannily like the things he would have written. Soon they are able to duplicate his voice; she can talk on the phone with him. Next step, a visual recreation on the computer screen. And beyond that, they develop a kind of flesh robot that looks exactly like him, talks like him, moves like him, and is an even better lover than the boyfriend ever was. But the robot has no initiative, exists only to please her, and soon even that can wear pretty thin. They have not managed to instill any free will into this golem, so in the end he’s not really like the boyfriend was at all. You tell him to jump off a cliff, and he will do it. Is that any fun? I wouldn’t think so.

S2, E2 White Bear. There’s not really much I can say about this without issuing a SPOILER WARNING right up front here, because everything I want to say involves the surprise ending. So if you intend to watch this and want to be surprised, stop reading here. Really.

Okay. A woman wakes up in an apartment with no idea where she is or even who she is. She ventures out and soon is surrounded by zombie-like people who are not interested in eating her brains but only in taking cell phone videos of her. They follow her everywhere she goes, and then two weird people get out of a car and start shooting at her. She flees, and hooks up with the only sane-seeming woman around. The woman tells her some mysterious signal from a transmitter known as Whitebear has turned most people into these zombies, but a few were immune, and they need to get there and turn the transmitter off. After several scary adventures they make it there and are about to turn it off … when it is revealed that this has all been a super-elaborate ruse. Everyone was an actor. Why? Well, here it gets super-weird and mostly unbelievable. She is actually a despicable killer who, with her boyfriend, tortured and killed a little boy. Her punishment is to live this same scenario over and over and over, filled with the sort of utter terror the little boy must have felt. (Why this particular wacked-out scenario? Don’t ask.) She is then paraded through a mob shouting and jeering and throwing tomatoes, back to the apartment, where her memory is wiped and everything is re-set exactly as it was. Tomorrow morning she will have to go through the whole thing again.

Now why did I say mostly unbelievable up there? Bear with me.

I do not doubt that there are people who would gladly participate in something intended to cause pain to someone as horrible as that. I might even chip in myself. I do not necessarily believe that cruel and unusual punishment is always a bad thing. You have surely heard it before, the grieving relative of someone who was brutally murdered saying something like “All I want is ten minutes alone, just me, him, a pair of pliers and a red-hot screwdriver.” Show him what getting Medieval on his lousy ass is really all about. I sympathize. I might want to do the same thing in his situation.

I can also swallow that there are enough people eager to participate that there would have to be a lottery drawing for places in the cast of extras. And I can agree that there are people who would find this to be tons of fun, who would laugh and joke around between takes, as we see them doing here. My feeling … my hope … is that these would be just a few people, almost as psychopathic as the killer herself. My hope is that most of the people who would take part would do so angrily but somberly, with a sense of civic duty, possibly like the members of a military firing squad. I mean, try to imagine the depth of cruelty of this punishment. Not just once, but over and over and over …

And that’s where I would hope that most of the British people would lose their taste for insanity like this. Ad infinitum? World without end? The thing is, once you wipe her memory and put her through this … she is cured! She is as horrified to hear what she did as anyone would be. In her case, rehabilitation has really worked! So what do we do? Put what is now basically an innocent person through hell all over again?

The biggest moral objection I have to this whole idea is that punishment should be for something you remember, otherwise you are just satisfying your own sadistic impulses. This is why we don’t execute people who are totally, completely, bug-fuck insane, who have no idea what they did. (A definition that I think, in practice, is too often abused. All “temporary insanity” means is that you have a good lawyer.)

It’s a thoroughly distasteful episode. Not to say it is a bad example of a Twilight Zone sort of story, but in that it asks me to consider if it could be possible that this many people would be in favor of this horror to make it happen. Like I said, I know there are people who would be okay with all of it, laughing and mocking and thoroughly enjoying themselves. I hope they are in the minority. But all I have to do is look at a rally for Donald Trump, see the potential lynch mob that they are, and have an uneasy feeling I might be wrong …

S2, E3 The Waldo Moment. What a relief. A funny story from this series, for a change. Jamie is a failed comedian who has a job as the voice of a blue cartoon bear named Waldo. Waldo moves and speaks with motion capture technology. (This is already here. We saw an attraction called Turtle Talk With Crush at California Adventure, where an animated turtle swam around and answered questions from children. Looked very real!) Waldo is a wise-ass, specializing in insults. Through a bizarre but not totally unbelievable set of circumstances, Waldo runs as a third party candidate in a by-election for a safe Tory seat. He eventually comes in second, ahead of the Labour candidate! There’s much more to the story, of course, but it is all played for satire. If there is a point, it is that as a culture we are as apt to believe virtual bullshit as real bullshit. Or maybe that there is actually no difference.

S3 White Christmas. Continuing the Black Mirror tradition of exploring the limits of human cruelty, and bringing up scenarios that actually make you think about things, this three-parter is really one long but episodic story.

Matt (Jon Hamm) and another man are confined in a small hut somewhere where it’s very cold. They have been there for five years. It looks as if it might be some sort of scientific or meteorological station, but we learn very little about it, and there turns out to be a reason for that. The other man has apparently said almost nothing in all that time. Matt wants him to talk, and offers to tell his own story of why he is in this isolated place, to get them started.

Part One. Matt is running some sort of cyber dating service. He sees and hears everything this nerdy guy experiences, and advises him on pick-up lines. As a side operation, he sells this POV stuff to other guys, who are watching it live. But something goes badly wrong, and he has to get out of town quickly. So far, so good.

Part Two. Another SPOILER WARNING. The second story Matt tells is of a job he had making recordings of human beings. It is now possible to record your personality into a chip called a cookie. It is, in fact, you, in that this recording or program or whatever the hell it is has your memories, your emotions, pretty much everything that goes into making you you. All it lacks is a body. A woman has this done, and the cookie wakes up in a featureless white void. There’s nothing in it but a table with a lot of electronic controls on it. Matt tells her she is not a real person, no matter how she may feel. He tells her he is putting her to work, and she refuses. So he uses a really, really cruel trick, accelerating her perception of time so that three weeks pass in the time it takes him to pick his nose. Oh, I forgot to mention … the cookie can’t sleep. She was awake for the whole three weeks, with absolutely nothing to do but watch her toenails not grow. She is a frazzled wreck, yet she still refuses to submit. So he dials her up for six months of the same.

Thirty seconds later she emerges almost insane, totally broken, willing to do anything he wants her to do, just to have something to do. And what is that? Why, she is to be the controlling intelligence for a “smart house,” where the real her lives. She won’t have to be told how the “real” her likes her toast toasted, or anything else; she already knows. She will be the perfect servant. So once again this series probes the depths of human cruelty. Does the woman have any idea that what has been created is a thinking, feeling being? It isn’t stated. (A story I’d like better? How this cookie somehow escapes from this limbo and can get even with the bitch who had her created!) But Matt certainly knows, and doesn’t care. I begin to hope that something really, really bad is done to him in the finale …

Part Three. Matt finally gets through to the other man, who tells his own story. One more piece of cyber wizardry is something called the Z-eye. Once again, just about everybody has one. This time I really wonder how many people would want one, though it sure as hell is a great way of telling people you’re pissed off. What it does is, you can “block” anyone you choose, and what happens is he can no longer see or hear you, so it is impossible to communicate with him. What you see is an outline of a person, filled with what looks like TV static. A couple have a fight concerning her pregnancy and her determination to have an abortion. Angry, she blocks him. And never turns it off. When his attempts to contact her get aggressive she gets a restraining order, so that not only can he not see her, he can’t see her child, either, nor any pictures of them. This situation obtains for about six years, until he hears that she is dead, and so the block has expired. He goes to see his daughter … and I won’t go any further.

There is a coda, a twist in the end when we find out why the other guy is there. Suffice it to say it is another ultra-cruel punishment. Then we find out why Matt is there, and what he was doing, and he is in fact punished, and while it is harsh, it’s nothing compared to what has happened to other people in this series. In fact, you can almost say that his punishment is close to poetic justice.

I have to say that all the episodes were fascinating and thought-provoking, well-written and acted. But what a bleak outlook the writers have. There will be another season, and I suppose I’ll watch it, as soon as I have the bitter taste of this one out of my mouth.