This column focuses primarily, perhaps exclusively, on science fiction cinema, and as such seldom bothers with the visual medium’s more pervasive little brother. Chalk this up to simple snobbery. Though I am of a generation that does not know the world before television, for whom the very technology is as much a fact of life as oxygen (and practically as invisible), I seldom watch it beyond the confines of my DVD player or, more commonly, the streaming entertainment from my Roku device. If I consider episodic drama at all, our genre almost never receives attention unless it’s an episode of Star Trek (the original series) or The Twilight Zone or Farscape. The fan base for shows like Supernatural, Arrow, Person of Interest, The Big Bang Theory, and Gotham grows with each season, the writing often varies so widely in quality that I seldom make it through more than a couple of episodes. I run into a different problem when the writing is consistently good: time. No matter how I approach the best television, a season often requires an investment of time I simply lack. I like Doctor Who, A Game of Thrones, and True Detective, but generally I do not have the 50 to 60 minutes to spend with them.
Current events and social media changed that somewhat. Though I was dubious of whether or not I could classify it as science fiction, I had planned on submitting a review of the Evan Goldberg-Seth Rogen comedy The Interview to SF Signal so that the esteemed publication could run my thoughts on opening day. Actually, I was somewhat ambivalent about it; Rogen’s work could be amusing, even (barely) fun, but it never graduated to levels much higher than Cheech and Chong’s Nice Dreams. Then word got out that theater chains declined to run it, and Sony decided to pull it, thus putting me in the position of almost having to see it.
You know the world has teetered into the most surreal dimensions of the space-time continuum when you have to hold up Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen as paragons of First Amendment values. But, like a worldbuilding footnote in the works of either Neal Stephenson or William Gibson (or perhaps the primary action in a story by Chris N. Brown), current events tilt the planet on an absurdist axis, thus transforming filmmakers whose only innate talent appears to be the ability to inhale more dank in a single bong hit than the DEA confiscated during the entire eight years of the George W. Bush presidency into creative artists of the caliber of Pier Paolo Pasolini. In fact, surreal imperfectly describes how this third-rate stoner comedy (which features James Franco as a reporter so shallow that he might drown in the puddle of spilled milk, and Rogen as his manager, both of whom secure an interview with North Korean leader Kim-Jong Un and then are approached by the CIA to initiate an assassination plot) became focal point for artistic expression, corporate cowardice, and, in the background, America (“F*ck yeah!”) at its ugliest. As I left the theater that ran late Christmas night, I felt like the future had arrived with such force that my head hurt from whiplash.
And yet, I cannot feign surprise, because the week before I had finally given in to a kind of social media peer pressure and inhaled the smoke of Black Mirror, the British television show that, in the tradition of the best science fiction, holds a mirror up to our present to show us where we might be headed. It resulted in a headspace that felt as if either creator Charlie Brooker had hacked into my RSS feed, or that episodes of Brooker’s perverse, deranged imagination had slipped loose from flat-screened televisions to run amok through our contemporary world…and made the whole Sony hack, as well as American and North Korean cyber-rattling over The Interview’s release, seem not just plausible but inevitable. Art didn’t just imitate life; they both somehow bled into each other.
Brooker’s Black Mirror models itself on such classic shows as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits in offering new stories with each episode, all focusing on some aspect of technology. Sometimes the technological change is fairly overt; in “The Entire History of You,” people wear sub dermal devices that record their memories, which can be replayed at will, while in “Be Right Back” a woman, despondent over the loss of her partner, brings him back to life by uploading his entire social media history into a programming construct. Other episodes focus on societal changes brought on by media communications; “The National Anthem” examines the role television, YouTube, and Twitter play in covering and ultimately resolving a political crisis, while “The Waldo Moment” suggests what might happen when a modern media construct runs for public office and “Fifteen Million Merits” envisions a media-saturated future where people ride exercise bikes to power a city and intrusive advertisements are a way of life, a perpetual YouTube ad that does not allow one the opportunity to skip. “White Bear,” by contrast, addresses a world that combines law and order and Disney-like entertainment. (Note: as yet, I have not seen the “White Christmas” episode, so I cannot comment on it.) The worlds created may border on the incredible—at one point in “Be Right Back,” Martha (Hayley Atwell) allows the digitally reconstructed Ash (Domnhall Gleeson) to incorporate in a physical body identical to his original, thus seeming to strain the limits of what is possible in this reality—but all provide the viewer with a tinge of discomfort. This is our world, Brooker tells us, with only a few minor details changed.
Although the series features only six episodes, Brooker and his crew maintain a high level of quality, even in the least successful episodes. In “Fifteen Million Merits,” Bingham “Bing” Madsen (Daniel Kaluuya) gives his friend Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) 12 million merits to front her entry on the American Idol–style show Hot Shots because of her voice. When the judges suggest her talents might be better served on a pornographic television program (which she agrees to do after cajoling from the television audience as well as the drug Cuppliance), Madsen rebuilds his merit cache to return to the show, where he protests the vampiric nature of Hot Shots and its audience by threatening to kill himself with a shard of glass during his performance. Although an effective piece of social commentary, it lacks subtlety not only in the show’s primary plot but also its details (for example, those too obese to power this society of the Spectacle either take janitorial professions or wind up on game shows meant to degrade). The nightmare that opens “White Bear” is primal; Victoria Skillane (Lenora Crichlow) awakens in a strange home and surrounded by images of a young girl, without any memory her life. When she walks outside, she finds herself the object of a manhunt; individuals in masks shoot at her and chase her, while onlookers take pictures and video with their phones. Terrifying though the initial situation is (and director Carl Tibbetts never relents on its pace or miasma of paranoia), the episode ultimately disappoints because its revelations never quite convince. Brooker’s teleplay ratchets up the nightmare, but revelation, which implicates media and law enforcement, a kind of marriage between George Zimmerman and Marshall McLuhan, simply doesn’t work as it should.
More genuinely science fictional, the Jesse Armstrong–scripted “The Entire History of You” follows lawyer Liam Foxwell (Toby Kebbell) as he begins to suspect that his wife Ffion (Jodie Whittaker) might have had an affair with her old friend Jonas (Tom Cullen), whom Liam has never met but who speaks openly and frankly about “redoing” old romantic trysts through the grain implanted in a good number of people that records everything they see, do, and hear. The resulting jealousies and disillusionment that occur from Liam’s questions and Ffion’s evasions lack the horror of “White Bear” but feel very real, allowing director Brian Wilson to tell a drama that by turns evokes Tennessee Williams and Charles Stross. Unfortunately, the ending feels tacked on and clichéd. Also genuinely science fictional is “Be Right Back,” which evokes memories of Spike Jonze’s outstanding Her in its portrayal of artificial intelligence designed with specific personalities. Although both deal with how their protagonists develop relationships with constructs, they diverge in that Jonze only touched on bringing the dead back to digital life (the artificial intelligences in Her reconstruct philosopher Alan Watts) while “Be Right Back” highlights the challenges of grieving for loved ones who have passed on but can be returned to a simulated existence and how it might hinder our ability to move on. If the ending lacks some of the poignancy of Jonze’s movie, it proffers something bittersweet and, in a way, hopeful. Though one hesitates to use the word “optimistic” in describing Black Mirror, “Be Right Back” nonetheless suggests that balance and humanity can be attained through new technology.
At its best, however, Black Mirror delivers scathing political satire. “The Waldo Moment” tells the story of failed comedian Jamie Salter (Daniel Rigby) as the voice of the cartoon bear Waldo (perhaps a rather subtle nod to Robert A. Heinlein, in that Waldo is in fact a “waldo” for Salter’s personality), who interviews politicians and provides topical comedy for a late-night comedy show. When Waldo becomes popular enough to star in his own show, the producer (Jason Flemyng) jokingly suggests that Waldo could run for political office, Satler reluctantly agrees, and winds up appearing on a televised debate where he argues that, because he has no real hope of winning, he may say what he like, and thus is more real than any of the candidates. If “The Waldo Moment” occasionally looks obvious, it also provides a more cutting commentary on how campaigns are waged, and the price of failing to take political responsibility seriously, a point driven home by the episode’s ending.
The real standout, however, is “The National Anthem,” which I almost didn’t watch because its premise sounded like something rejected by Trey Parker and Matt Stone for an episode of South Park: Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) learns that a member of the royal family (Lydia Wilson) has been kidnapped, and only will be returned safely if Callow has sex with a pig on national television, with technical specifications that would make the incident nearly impossible to fake. The story unfolds amid a background of media-saturated culture, in which politicians make decisions based on poll results, where those who attempt to suppress a story find it suddenly available on YouTube, and people make decisions based on the often-poor wisdom of crowds. Though it lacks any of the high-technology props of any of Black Mirror’s other episodes, “The National Anthem” feels like a science fiction story pulled from the notebook of J. G. Ballard, an atrocity exhibition of which Neil Postman would approve.
Given these glimpses into our near future, the histrionic voices that surrounded The Interview’s and the subsequent bonfire of petty vanities allowed me some context that I otherwise might have found perplexing. Brooker’s vision of the world was simply a mirror image of our own; that I sometimes find myself on the other side of his looking glass feels terrifying.