❉ It’s time to get really depressed again. Thank God for Charlie Brooker.
“Each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in ten minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.” – Charlie Brooker
You’ve got to a love a writer who started out as a shop assistant in the Notting Hill Record and Tape Exchange, making dry, wry observations about TV to his fellow workers. Moving on to the satirical TV Go Home, Brooker’s potty mouthed column in The Guardian and BBC 2’s equally grumpy ‘Screenwipe’, his running theme has been railing against the increasing crassness of popular culture and modern life and, more darkly, the worrying implications of where it might all end.
Perhaps unexpectedly, it ended – and began – for Brooker with his critically lauded, and internationally popular, Channel 4 anthology series ‘Black Mirror’. The series is the modern equivalent of the 1970s series ‘Doomwatch’, devised by Cybermen inventors Dr. Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis where, every week, a different, worrying development in technology or science was examined and speculated about. Whereas ‘Doomwatch’ had a regular cast of intrepid scientists taking on modern horrors, the great appeal of ‘Black Mirror’ is in its constantly changing cast of (usually) ordinary figures who could be any one of us.
In 2016, ‘Black Mirror’ has moved to Netflix. This has meant American money, some US location filming and more American actors, a trend started by the appearance of ‘Mad Men’s Jon Hamm in the 2014 Christmas special. It’s a logical move: ‘Black Mirror’ is very popular in the States, so much so that actors of the calibre of the magnificent Cherry Jones, who played President Alison Taylor in ’24’, will drop by for a cameo.
Brooker’s new deal, happily for us, also means more stories than before.
The series opens with a scenario familiar in future fiction: the idyllic nightmare community. The attractive American suburb where Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard, fantastic), an aspiring social climber a little on the heavy side lives, has precedents in everything from ‘The Prisoner’ to ‘The Truman Show’. Brooker’s spin on a suburban ‘utopia’ is as relevant as those two were in their day. In Nosedive’ s reality, your social rating – ‘Likes’, in today’s terminology – dictate your financial status and, therefore, your lifestyle progression. There’s no profanity and people are superficially sincere, all in the name of chasing that consumer dream.
It’s slightly predictable when things start to go wrong for Lacie, but the real dramatic strength of Nosedive is in the fleeting glimpses of unhappy lives lived under the artificial grin of social media. Naomi (Alice Eve), Lacie’s impossibly glamorous childhood friend, asks her to be her wedding maid of honour, and in the pair’s mutual affection for their childhood doll, Mr. Rags, you briefly see these people’s desperate need for something ‘real’. On Naomi’s big day itself, there are hints that her new husband is more than best friends with his Best Man, something that, in one quick long shot, you see Naomi is painfully aware of.
There’s clearly something in the air: the BBC1 drama ‘Ordinary Lies’ explored similar territory this week.
Possibly the most straightforward story this time around. Playtest is a cautionary tale about Cooper (Wyatt Russell), an amiable American dude with family issues backpacking around the world, who becomes involved in the testing of some pioneering gaming software in England.
Russell is totally convincing, and likable, as the test subject and is the story’s biggest asset. That’s just as well, because if you’ve seen ‘Black Mirror’ before, you’ll be able to predict some of the plot twists.
The ethical issue central to Playtest – where to draw the line on what should or shouldn’t be exploited in the name of entertainment – lingers in the mind longer than memories of the episode itself.
Shut Up and Dance
A newspaper website nominated Hated in the Nation (see below) as “Brooker’s masterpiece”, but Shut Up and Dance is the story that deserves that accolade.
It’s truly terrifying. This isn’t science fiction, as all the technology in it – webcams, smart phones and camera drones – are available on the high street today. This makes the plight of Kenny (Alex Lawther) and Hector (Jerome Flynn) so compelling: they’re ordinary people caught doing something they’re not proud of via their personal tech being hacked. As a result, they’re both blackmailed into committing crimes.
If Franz Kafka was around today he’d have written Shut Up and Dance. Kenny and Hector’s tormentors exist purely as texts to a smart phone and the disturbing, grinning face of an internet troll icon, unseen forces moving the desperate pair around the chess board of everyday life. Just as Josef K was probably guilty of something in ‘The Trial’ and, the implication is, deserved everything that happened to him, at the end of Shut Up and Dance you’re forced to question your sympathies for Kenny.
Flynn and Lawther win the acting honours for this season of ‘Black Mirror’. Jerome has never been better, his almost Dickensian, disappointed everyman look perfect for a middle-aged man who gives in to sexual frustration. Alex is quite extraordinary as the teenage loner Kenny, variously panic stricken, tormented and finally destroyed by his compromised privacy. Watch this man – he’ll go far.
A real departure for ‘Black Mirror’, as it’s the first story in the series to be in any way optimistic (unless you count the resolution of Be Right Back at the start of Series 2). The tone is significantly upbeat: in a story about two young lovers, the geeky Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and party girl Kelly (Gugu Mwbatha-Raw) are offered eternal life together.
This atypical story adds substance to the claim that ‘Black Mirror’ is the 21st century version of ‘The Twilight Zone’ (1959-1964), a similar, seminal “what if?” anthology series created by the visionary American writer Rod Serling. Without changing a single line of dialogue or a single scene, San Junipero could have been a story in ‘The Twilight Zone’. And there’s no higher praise that that.
Brooker knows his pop music, too. In the closing moments, Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth is the most devastatingly appropriate use of a pop song in a fantasy drama since The Beatles’ All You Need is Love in ‘The Prisoner’.
Men Against Fire
If you’re going to write an anthology series where every episode is roughly an hour long, the writer really has to be skilful at sketching in what’s going on, in a way that’s organic to the story and not a crass info dump.
Brooker is a master at it. In Men Against Fire, Stripe (Malachi Kirby) starts having glitches in his grafted-in military software and worrying dreams, so he’s sent to see the army psychiatrist Arquette (the brilliant Michael Kelly). When Stripe’s personal situation deteriorates further, Arquette visits him to explain what’s going on because Stripe’s memory’s has been deliberately wiped. In ‘Black Mirror’, there’s no clunky dialogue where characters explain to each other what’s going on when they should clearly already know.
Men Against Fire is high on the depression-o-meter because of its frightening speculation about the refinement of technically augmented military conditioning. It’s even more depressing because what Stripe is personally fighting for is shown to be a manufactured illusion.
Hated in the Nation
In the last episode of this mini season – there are another six stories due next year – a promising tale about the social media consequences of deliberately provocative gutter journalism, and a rapper’s boorish behaviour on national television, gets progressively lost in a super-villain conspiracy that would have been more at home in ‘The X-Files’ (1993- ).
The central characters are even an initially miss-matched pair of investigators, Detective Inspector Karen Parke (Kelly McDonald, doing her best seen-it-all-before cynicism) and cybercrime expert ‘Blue’ Perrine (Faye Marsay, intense and idealistic). The best things about ‘Hated in the Nation’ are the central quartet of this dynamic duo, Parke’s sergeant, Nick Shelton (the always excellent Joe Armstrong) and Li (Benedict Wong), an enjoyably amoral British intelligence officer.
With such established actors playing them, it’s easy to see ‘Hated in the Nation’ as the pilot for a spin-off series, reasoning which might also explain the extra running time and open ending.
Tonally, the stories offer wonderfully different dramatic textures. Nosedive presents a world from the fevered dreams of an insane advertising executive, where the colour scheme is all banal pastel shades and everyone looks like a model with a perfect, toothpaste advert smile. Cleverly, the more Lacie falls doing the social scale, the more the world around her resembles the messy one we actually live in.
San Junipero is the most obvious example of ‘Black Mirror’s sophisticated awareness of genres, as a love story set mainly in the 1987 stylistically resembles films like ‘The Breakfast Club’ (1985) and ‘Pretty in Pink’ (1986). The first time Yorkie sees Kelly, the latter is dressed and made up like Janet Jackson, even throwing some dance floor shapes the same way as her lookalike. The approach fits the story’s wistful optimism perfectly.
Hated in the Nation convinces as a police-procedural-with-a-sci-fi-twist (until the believability gets lost, anyway), while Playtest, Shut Up and Dance and Men Against Fire are the most unsettling episodes, as they’re cast from ‘Black Mirror’s template of an uneasily recognisable world undermined by ever more powerful and/or controlling technology.
If there’s a criticism, it’s that Brooker does like to return to the theme of what-you’re-watching-has-more-going-on-than-initially-meets-the-eye, as well as having characters trapped in illusions they believe are real. Thinking about it, it’s a caveat rather than a criticism: attempts to create artificial worlds through more and more sophisticated computer games, as well as virtual reality programs, are worrying technological obsessions.
Say it loud and say it proud: Charlie Brooker is the new Serling, Pedler and Davis.
❉ You can watch the first six episodes of ‘Black Mirror’ Season 3 on Netflix right now. The remaining six will air later at an unspecified time.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.