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Pop CultureSeptember 22, 2015

Television: What Black Mirror Tells Us About the Modern World – and Why We Shouldn’t Despair



I was happy before Black Mirror. I was even deliriously happy in the way dogs are when their owners wave food in front of them. They’re so glad they’re getting fed. What they don’t know is they’re getting served sick old nags ground up into paste.

It was nearly four years ago Charlie Brooker’s dank speculative fiction anthology went to air.

Since then it’s been increasingly difficult to avoid the notion that we’re trapped inside the Black Mirror, like flies in manure. A few examples, not that they’re needed: a Christian short film dedicated to bringing a African warlord to justice gets over 100 million views. A week later the campaign is in tatters after a huge backlash and the director is filmed shouting at traffic, naked. A woman boards a plane after tweeting an ill-advised and off-colour joke about AIDS, when she arrives at her destination she’s shocked to find she’s the most hated person on earth. A website dedicated to facilitating affairs is hacked. The hackers demand the service be closed. The released data, including home addresses and sexual fantasies. leads to mass-panic and alleged suicides. Eventually the site is exposed as a space where mainly men talk to bots pretending to be women. Any of these could be Black Mirror plots.

Then, of course, there’s the one about the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom putting his penis inside a pig. That’s both the plot of Black Mirror’s first episode and the essence of allegations around how David Cameron spent his days at Oxford University. To be honest it makes me somewhat glad the worst shenanigan I got up to at uni was throwing up in a McDonald’s toilet. If the claim in Lord Ashcroft’s book has unsettled those of us who’ve seen Black Mirror, then the author of the series is downright bricking it.

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Revisiting that episode, “The National Anthem”, now it’s striking just what a great manifesto it is for the series. A royal is kidnapped and the ransom for her release is for the PM to do the unthinkable to a pig live on TV. Although the premise is a bit like a dirty joke, the show doesn’t play it for laughs. Events cascade and everyone fails to control the situation: the video of the kidnapper’s demands is leaked, an attempt at subterfuge is exposed. The government is always chasing the tail of the internet.

It’s also chasing the tail of public sentiment, which is one of the things often missed about “The National Anthem”. Prime Minister Callow (played with a sort of distraught everyman quality by Rory Kinnear) is informed that polling shows the public is sympathetic to him. “If he kills her,” says the PM’s comms man, “there’s no blood on your hands. Bottom line.” Later, after an attempt to trick the kidnapper using computer imagery is exposed and a finger is mailed to a TV station, the public mood shifts. Callow isn’t trapped by the gross kidnapping demands, but by public opinion and the desire to remain in power. In transactional politics you often have to swallow a few rats to stay on the side of public opinion, instead here Callow has to … well, you know.

 Of course, as depicted in the episode’s one clunky scene, Callow and his family life is pretty much destroyed by the experience. Most tellingly the damage seems to be done through people being horrible on social media, much like how everyone’s having a go at Cameron about the pig malarkey on Twitter. But Callow gets to stay in office. In fact we’re told that a year later he’s gone up a whopping three percent in the polls. In other words pretty much nothing has changed and nothing will change, at least in the public’s eye, if you court and form public opinion well enough. Remember how people used to joke that John Key, a noted master at staying popular, would have to cook and eat a kitten on live TV to lose an election? Well, says Black Mirror, to be honest he’d probably get offered a cookbook deal.

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With Cameron’s alleged porcine escapades in the light, we might finally be at peak Black Mirror Syndrome. It’s been a hard four years of reading dystopian news stories one after the other, thinking we must be in the worst timeline because everything resembles a depressing Black Mirror plot. Then you get even more despondent at the realisation that this is not a TV show – you’re just as dislocated from reality as everyone else.

At least, that’s the fear. But I don’t think it’s completely justified. Sure, as the world shifts more and more in sync with Black Mirror it’s tempting to despair and shake our fist at the cloud like old men cursing the sky. The worst parts of Black Mirror feel like it’s doing that and it can get boring. When has the world ever not been slipping into inanities? What’s different about this eminently weird time we live in is that those power structures and the elite that live in the rafters have no where left to hide. Those secret societies enjoyed by the young David Cameron aren’t so secret anymore. Bloggers paid to write attack posts about political enemies? That’s out in the open too.

All good fiction – science, speculative or otherwise – is a bas-relief of the inner machinery of its time. The Black Mirror mission is, as Brooker describes, to describe the side effects of this drug called The Internet. But it’s also pointing out how we’ve been served a cold, wet, dog roll by our masters. We can like or dislike what’s in the bowl – but is it the most productive response to sigh and retreat to a corner to lick our groins?

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