Through the dark glass

Luke Davies on Black Mir­ror

The Monthly (Australia) - - ARTS & LETTER -

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

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