Every wave has its counterwave, especially in the internet age of hot takes and artificial outrage. The latest cultural backlash is against Black Mirror, the third season of which recently migrated from the UK’s Channel 4 to Netflix, where it debuted last week. Upon its release in 2013, reviews of the dystopian sci-fi drama raged with adoring adjectives: ‘prescient and wise, wicked and funny. But also touching, human,’ said Sam Wollaston of the Guardian UK. Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker zeroed in on its reproaching conscience and tone: ‘For all the show’s inventive storytelling, its true provocation is its righteous outrage, which shares something with Mike White’s whistle-blower series Enlightened, although it’s overlaid with a dark filter.’ The Rotten Tomatoes rating towered at 100%.
Today, the naysayers have issued a stream of declarative put-downs: ‘stupid’, ‘amazingly dumb’, exaggerated, obvious, ‘tending to lean on literalizations of some strange minor quirk of a science-fiction premise’ one writer for Vulture put it. Nobody’s obliged to love Black Mirror, but these disparagements don’t just misunderstand the mandate of the series; they miss a whole range of established devices that cut to the essence of the science-fiction genre and how that genre works.
The process of exaggerating minor quirks is the mainstay of science fiction. This is a genre that extrapolates one small facet of the world of today, and builds a vision of future society around that. It may be robotics, stretched out into a vision where robots are indistinguishable from humans, as in Blade Runner, or race-based colonialism, exaggerated in Philip K Dick’s Martian Time Slip in which a colony of white humans on Mars turfs out that planet’s indigenous Bleekmen. Brave New World takes ideas of burgeoning reproductive technology and social inequality and expands them into a world where natural human reproduction is defunct and society is strictly delineated into chasms of classes based on biological differences.
All these visions are exaggerated visions: they amplify something recognisable from the world of now and build a whole new future world around it in order to critique an aspect of contemporary society. This extrapolation and exaggeration is what gives science fiction its imaginative and critical power. Extrapolation is also the foundation of Black Mirror. As Brooker says, it is ‘about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy’. He’s not being lazy so much as progressing a great storytelling tradition within the science-fiction genre.
Black Mirror was innovative upon its first release, and a lot of that innovation came from the fact that although it is part of the current wave of really amazing television storytelling, Black Mirror bucked the trend of long-arching narratives. Charlie Brooker invented his own slender subgenre of sci-fi, and the blueprint was repeatable: rather than a plotline sustained over multiple seasons, each episode is self-contained. The world of the episode is established within minutes, as is the hook of extrapolation: reality television programs now provide the structure and currency of society and are based on something akin to slave labour (Season 1, Episode 2, ‘Fifteen Million Merits’), a grain behind your ear will record every moment as a memory for playback before your eyes, and people will never again live in the present (Season 1, Episode 3, ‘The Entire History of You’), the scariest manifestation of which, to my mind, was a couple having lazy sex while the guy plays a vision of crazily energetic sex. Together, Black Mirror stands as an anthology of these mini, hour-long worlds. Although every hour brings its own reality and its own cast, the hours are united by the same anti-utopian storytelling traditions, the same satirical sensibility of dread, and the same pessimistic view on the thoughtless embrace of technology.
I think part of the current backlash to Black Mirror is due to the fact that this structure of different storyworlds in each episode isn’t new anymore – no longer the shiny new kid on the block, Black Mirror is its own status quo. People feel that the blueprint has become predictable rather than fresh. But that notion of a blueprint is ok: it’s a sign of lucidity in conceptualisation. The Black Mirror model isn’t new anymore but it’s working. As art critic Jerry Saltz has pointed out, ‘every artist makes rules’ for themselves, and this rule-making is the basis of almost every single creative discipline. An obvious example from the film world is Lar von Trier’s documentary The Five Obstructions, a game of experimental filmmaking in which his friend Jørgen Leth must remake a film called The Perfect Human five times with different obstacles every time – the film must be made in Cuba with no sets, the film must be a cartoon, and so on.
In art, filmmaking, literature and music, every artist sets up the logic and the generic conventions, and follows through that logic to its endpoint. Marcel Duchamp’s rule came to be that he would use ready-made objects and transform them into sculptures by putting them into an art context – a gallery. Kara Walker’s rules are to only use silhouetted, cut-paper tableaux in tones of black and white, and that visual axiom enables her to make a critique about the nature of racism. In music, the rules of a concerto is that the composition comprises three movements, which form a kind of conversation between a soloist and a group of players. These are the mandatory forms that are followed. Brooker’s great contribution to the science-fiction genre is that he created his own sets of rules that took established formal models of extrapolation and extended them. His rules are that he makes a society based on one small part of today’s world, has a protagonist navigate an uncertain path through the world, until a few twists in the show’s final minutes brings our anti-hero to their downfall, be it madness, social death or actual death.
So Black Mirror’s rules – its generic conventions – are obvious enough after watching more than one episode, and after several years with the series we are deeply familiar with them, but its logic is what really merits underlining: the idiots always win. The worst possible outcome will eventuate. This has been Charlie Brooker’s mandate since his first television series Nathan Barley, a dark comedy that predicted a popular culture predicated on nostalgia and irony, or what we now understand to be hipster. The other major artist who follows this logic – that the forces of fear prevail – is, again, Lars von Trier. Melancholia, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville are just three of the films that play out this rule. What is interesting about this logic is the way in which it plays out can be both surprising and inevitable. Both Brooker and von Trier have a way of making you think that some kind of deus ex machina will step in to save the day. Until the very moment of Selma’s hanging in Dancer in the Dark, I thought justice and sanity would triumph, that somebody would do the right thing and save an innocent woman! Likewise with the first ever episode of Black Mirror – the outcome of the British Prime Minister fucking a pig on live television was both shocking and totally predictable. It was the endpoint of the dark logic that Brooker established. I think all endings to good stories are like this; they make you think, yes, it couldn’t have been any other way.
Brooker’s detractors have also called Black Mirror cynical. But I think the more accurate word is sceptical. Brooker is highly sceptical of what he calls our gadget addiction. Likewise, is Black Mirror moralistic? I would say, yes, necessarily so. Brooker’s directive is to take technological development out of the techno-boosted utopian jargon of Silicon Valley and examine its human and social effects. That is an inherently moral project, it is the tone of outrage that Nussbaum picked up on. To say it is ‘moralising’ is a lazy critique – it aims to put down the whole series, when, really, its detractors disagree with its moral arguments. But that disagreement is what makes Black Mirror so necessary and so potent: Brooker’s very point is that we are not considering what technology is doing to us, and he is issuing a warning from the future to today.
Almost all forms of critique are forms of moralisation: what is the current wave of feminist thought but a moral critique of the ways in which women have been put down and sold out over time? What are the criticisms of Australia’s denigration of those asserting their right to seek asylum but appeals to a more morally defensible and humane way of dealing with refugees? What matters with processes of moralisation is their tone, who is being spoken to and how they are being spoken to. Whether the transhuman leader who wants to beat death and be President or virtual reality’s usage as sex therapy, matters of technology are crying out for moral treatment because they are being carried out by super-rich entrepreneurs who have power, because they have consequences and are playing out in unpredictable ways. That is the project and the power of Black Mirror.
The show’s critique is not of humanity (‘humans are so dumb!’ is how many interpret it) but of the unexamined side-effects of that ‘clumsy’ rush toward corporate gadgets, who that gives power to, the way that it replaces real-world interactions with synthesised ones made of ‘content’ and the corporate drive for profit behind the provision of technological products. It’s a critique of the way this incessant barrage of information stresses our little brains, and of how it enables new manifestations of our need to be loved and liked, as in the third season’s first episode, where Bryce Dallas-Howard’s character caves to social anxiety in the context of a society that ranks its users along the lines of social-media ratings.
Black Mirror seems to get that the what we are really addicted to is each other – to constant conversation, to how apps like Snapchat enable funny stupid insignificant-but-significant daily chats between friends and lovers and family members and the intimacy of that, to how handheld devices can reduce the boredom and aloneness of being a person in a stressful society by providing distraction. That distraction is needed, but if it restructures and remoulds us further along, say, economic lines, class lines, gender lines, it’s going to present us with bigger problems than even Brooker can imagine.
Image: still from the third season of Black Mirror.