For those, who like me have been living under a pop-culture rock for the past several years, Black Mirror is an anthology series centered around modern technology. Except for a few minor references, the episodes are all completely stand-alone and each one focuses on how a certain current or (supposedly) near future technology could go wrong or be misused. I work as an engineer and I think my experience has made me somewhat skeptical of new technologies so this show should be perfect for me. That’s true for a few episodes but on the whole it’s just not…
While watching Black Mirror I found that my enjoyment of it varied wildly from episode to episode. A few, as it turned out to be quite rare, episodes were just what I was looking for, a few others were incredibly bad – a form of entertainment in itself – and a lot of episodes were kind of meh.
For any other TV show I would have rated most of those “meh” episodes a lot higher. You see, for me the idea of exploring the dangers of technology is just as important, if not more so, than the plot or characters. You could say I base my judgment on two criteria. First, I judge each episode as I would any other piece of fiction. Second, I look at how each episode portrays technology; is the featured technology realistic for some undefined near future (my guess based on other aspects of Black Mirror’s world), and does it go wrong or get misused in a way that makes sense based on its internal logic. Of course, these two criteria can sometimes contradict each other. On one hand you may have an episode which works well as a piece of entertainment but the featured technology is too far fetched. On the other hand you may have an episode which portrays technology in a convincing way but fails to be interesting as a TV show. Only rarely do you get an episode that scores high in both criteria.
I could try to explain more but I think it makes more sense to show it by reviewing some episodes, and since there are only 22 in total, why not make mini reviews for all of them. Side note, I’ll try to avoid spoilers if I can but it won’t always be possible; you have been warned. I’ll do this in the order they were aired because why not.
Season 1 Episode 1, The National Anthem:
The very first episode of the series is a classic kidnapping drama which has been updated to fit into the modern world. The technology isn’t really at the forefront here, instead all those things that someone living in 2023 would expect, like smart phones, social media, streaming video and internet trolls, are woven into the story in a way the just works. The way all those things get misused is extremely realistic because there’s little need for people to speculate – we’ve seen a lot of this play out in real life. The story itself is nothing special but we, collectively, have figured out the recipe for a kidnapping thriller, and this is a well made one. All in all a strong start to the series that made me excited for more.
Season 1 Episode 2, Fifteen Million Merits:
This episode is so incredibly stupid I can’t stop thinking about it. In fact, it would have been the perfect subject for one of those over-the-top angry reviews that were popular on Youtube right around 2009. Unlike all other episodes of Black Mirror, this one takes place in a world completely different from our own and is thus very reliant on its world building. The thing is, that world building is extremely shoddy, as if it was done by an intern on their first day…while still hung over from the weekend. I really need to share just how bad it is, so be prepared for plenty of spoilers.
The makers of this episode are trying to portray some kind of dystopia but I can’t quite figure out how it’s supposed to work. Except for a select few, everyone in this world leads nearly identical, extremely mundane lives. People live in tiny apartments with giant screens on all walls, they wear nothing but gray track suits and all food comes from vending machines. They spend hours each day riding exercise bikes to earn Merits (this world’s currency) and while there they can spend a few Merits an hour to watch TV or play video games. After their shift ends they go home to their apartments to watch more of the same shows on TV and play the same video games. Despite spending hours a day exercising, some people apparently become fat anyway and they get forced to wear yellow instead of gray, and have to work as cleaners rather than riding bikes. None of this makes any sense! What’s the point of people riding exercise bikes as a job? Does it have any benefit for society? Do the bikes have any function other than as exercise equipment? Riding a bike creates no discernible value so why would they get paid for it? If everyone is riding a bike, how is anything like food or clothes produced? How is it possible for people who exercise that much to become fat? How can a society function when no one, except the cleaners, does anything of value? So many questions but not a single answer in sight. It’s like the exercise bikes are a metaphor for the endless drudgery of meaningless jobs…or something, except the metaphor is entirely too literal to work.
And then there’s the question of the constant media consumption. You could make the case that people spending all their waking hours uncritically consuming mindless entertainment media would be less likely to rebel against the system. The problem with that is that the shows and games available in this world are too few and the ones that exist are complete crap. First there’s a kind of virtual world/chat program that looks like it was stolen from the Nintendo Wii. The programmers of the future should be embarrassed. Second, there’s America’s Got Talent season 467 (or whatever it’s called) which seems like it hasn’t changed for the past decades. I presume it’s mainly there because it’s central to the plot. Then there’s Bother Guts which is basically just a show about bullying fat people, and finally some kind of softcore porn show. On the game front there are basically just two options, one where you play air violin, and the worst looking first person shooter I’ve seen since 2003. The exercise bike dystopia doesn’t seem so bad, but those poor entertainment choices would make me want to rebel.
So what about the plot and characters and so on? There is a plot, there are characters that speak to each other, stuff happens, the story has a beginning a middle and an end, some of it might even be good, but all of that is drowned out by the utterly inane world building.
Season 1, episode 3, The Entire History of You:
In this future people have a small chip in their brain that allows them to record and view their memories in exact detail like film clips on your phone. They are also able to broadcast their memories to nearby screens to share them with other people. This is of course used for security purposes where police or security guards will check a person’s recent memories to see if they did anything illegal. Instead of turning this premise into some kind of epic action thriller or something, this episode explores this technology on a much smaller scale. The plot revolves around a man reviewing memories of interactions with his girlfriend in order to find evidence of her cheating on him. I think this would be a very common form of misuse of such a technology if it existed, and the portrayal of it is very realistic. I also think it’s interesting to speculate about how technology impacts the average person and this episode does exactly that. As a piece of media, it’s a competently made drama – well written characters, dialog and all that – that happens to have this specific technology at it’s core. My main criticism of this episode is that the memory technology is too far fetched – our brains are extremely complex things and I highly doubt something like this can be created anytime soon.