Through the dark glass
Luke Davies on Black Mirror
In the opening moments of the first episode of the first season of Black Mirror, the British prime minister, Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear), is woken in the early hours, and the news is bad. Princess Susannah, a muchloved member of the royal family, has been kidnapped, and she will be executed unless one very specific event occurs: the prime minister must fuck a pig, live on television. Black Mirror is a series that announced itself.
Created by Charlie Brooker (Dead Set, Screenwipe) and first broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2011, the show was in a sense a modernisation of – or at the very least a hat-tip to – the original Twilight Zone (1959–64). That series broke free from the theatrical stiffness of much of 1950s television drama fare, offering a new flexibility and a willingness to let its writers go to audacious places. Some of those episodes are considered iconic: in ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’, air traveller Bob Wilson (William Shatner) thinks he sees a gremlin interfering with the wiring out on the wing of the plane – everyone else thinks Wilson is insane. In ‘Time Enough at Last’, timid, put-upon bank teller and bookworm Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) emerges from the bank vault, where he spends his lunch hours reading, into a city suddenly razed by nuclear war. His only solace is the endless reading time that now stretches before him – until he breaks his glasses.
Black Mirror inhabits a similar temporal realm to The Twilight Zone – it’s the present with a twist, or the very near future. Where The Twilight Zone (like its descendant, The X-Files) leaned regularly into the supernatural, Black Mirror’s purview is to stick very close to matters technological. Its episodes exhibit a wide diversity of storylines, yet the show is quite specifically, and consistently, about a revolution: the one we’ve been engulfed in since 20-somethings Bill Gates and Steve Jobs started tinkering in garages and giving birth to the motherboards that would change the earth, and us on it. We’ve been hurtling towards the Singularity ever since.
In its three seasons thus far, Black Mirror takes the form of an archipelago of tonally similar standalone dramas. Each is distinct, with its own rules and features. Yet each episode, each island, sits in the same waters: technology and the ubiquity of social media – all pushed forward, often by just a fraction. It’s good television, in the sense that it’s coherent, rounded, well written. Some episodes really sparkle and surprise, and even the ones that linger less in memory are in no way failures. ‘White Bear’ (season two), in which a woman who wakes with neither memory nor context has to piece together her bewildering circumstances, is a nicely calibrated exercise in paranoia-ratcheting. ‘White Christmas’, the 2014 standalone episode that ran after an 18-month hiatus and is perhaps the most fully realised episode so