‘Black Mirror’: The Postmodern Prometheus

❉  We look at ‘Black Mirror’ and its antecedents in speculative fiction, from Frankenstein to Doomwatch…

It’s the old adage, isn’t it? That ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’ And a Google search from the black mirror of my smartphone identifies its originator as no less than Lord Byron. The saying comes from his satirical poem of ‘Don Juan’. It has since been overused, earning it the label of cliché. Yet now, surely, Byron’s observation is being resuscitated, enjoying a huge resurgence in relevance, jolted back to life by the high voltages of scientific advance and world events.

Indeed, if you’ve stared down at your own black mirror in recent months, you might have read real stories of human organs grown for harvest or the intention to transplant heads. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the beheadings and atrocities, perpetrated by modern-medieval bogie men in the name of their beliefs. And, scanning that shiny black speculum of yours, you might have vicariously cruised through Middle Eastern cities and ancient heritage sites: the ones turned into 4K moonscapes by all that pseudo-religion and the political opportunism it inspires, with the aftermath caught on film by unmanned drones. Perhaps you even felt the influence of the orchestrated demonization of peoples and ideas, only to later discover the new concept of ‘post-truth’. And you can hardly have failed to witness the rise of left-field democracy, demagoguery and populist politics based on media-savvy celebrity. After all, a defining image of 2016 is that of ‘the Donald’ and Farage, two contenders for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, grinning before the opulent golden doors to all that is to come.

In such a world, what sort of material is left for the doom-mongers, the satirists and speculators? Is the new realm of the incredible that of media alone?

As the boundaries between bizarre fact and paranoid fantasy now seem to be utterly blurred, the commentators of the media, the bar room, and even the suburban sitting room, once more find themselves unconsciously quoting a Romantic poet. ‘The truth is stranger than fiction’. Byron’s axiom stirs again, like a reanimated cadaver beneath its filthy sheet; just like, in fact, the celebrated monster first conceived within his company.

That creature, of course, came from the story of ‘Frankenstein’, and the event of its first telling was the widely acknowledged birth of speculative fiction, as Mary Shelley sought to chill the blood of friends during a stay at Lake Geneva in 1816, the ‘year without a summer’. She unwittingly created a conduit from which all forms of an important new genre would later flow, eventually to bring us alien invasions and apocalypses, time travel, utopias, dystopias and space operas. But Shelley’s original speculative tale was no ‘hard’ science fiction. Hers was simply an immediate extrapolation of what she saw around her, as ethics clashed with new technologies, and bizarre experiments with electricity were conducted on the dead.

Shelley was a pioneer. She held up a mirror to what seemed possible within the science of her time and imagined its darkest reflection. Her premise would prove impossible outside of fiction, but so potent was the generic recipe, combining the blind advance into devolved states with cutting-edge technology, that this pure form of the genre would endure.

Arguably the most undiluted and unashamed incarnations of Shelley’s original approach would eventually be found on television. An early, notable example is the BBC television drama series ‘Doomwatch’. This appeared during the rise of the green movement of the 1970s: a time which would see even perennial favourites like ‘Doctor Who’ dip a toe into the Zeitgeist of unchecked scientific advance, with The Green Death. Meanwhile, coming from the pens of the Doctor’s own Cybermen creators, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, ‘Doomwatch’ can seem like a cynically contrived vehicle for investigating the scientific monster of the week, as inspired by the pages of ‘New Scientist’. Nevertheless, many of the more potent, doom-laden predictions posited by ‘Doomwatch’ enthralled within the context of their time. Where the predictions of the series remain beyond the realm of current science, the power of its storytelling is undiminished to this day. Indeed, production values aside, episodes such as The Plastic Eaters, with a polymer dissolving virus able to bring down a passenger plane, and even Tomorrow the Rat, which imagines intellectually-augmented rodents that can plan and target attacks, still retain resonance. We not only go back to the power of Shelley’s original template, but the concepts remain contemporary-relevant even now.

Ultimately, however, as with Shelley’s story, the predictions of ‘Doomwatch’ hold little water overall, and the series achieves cult status rather than any reputation for prescience. A review of lesser-known episodes reveals a tendency for extending commonplace notions that, with the benefit of hindsight, can seem frankly alarmist or completely absurd. In Flight into Yesterday, for example, the team investigates the new concept of long haul business travel, and how this might cause jet lag… And… Well, that’s it, really. A caution for us all! Then, from the sublime to the ridiculous, there is The Battery People, where the hormonal contamination of burly male factory workers is identified as they all start drinking gin instead of beer!  Presumably they extend pinkie fingers as they do so, although we never see.

For me, though, such conceptual misfires merely add to the charm of ‘Doomwatch’. For today’s viewer, it’s just a whole lot of fun, with its political incorrectness, pitiful production values and orange and lime-green neckerchiefs, worn by Doctors Quist, Ridge and Toby Wren: the quintessential everymen of seventies science. The series retains its relevance more by being entertaining than anything else, and because of, rather than despite, the efforts of its actors to play things deadly straight. Yes, ‘Doomwatch’ attempted to blackly reflect contemporaneous concerns back at its seventies society, but that side of it is a very hit and miss affair. And here, perhaps, we see the inherent problem of such near-future extrapolation, in that sometimes the menace seen in the reflection just isn’t there…

Equally, of course, some dark speculations are bound to not only connect with current anxieties, but also to hit the target of reality. An early example can be found in a relative contemporary of ‘Doomwatch’. This is the 1968 BBC play ‘The Year of the Sex Olympics’ by ‘Quatermass’ supremo Nigel Kneale, which explores the unsettling idea of a population fed on a diet of reality television, then taken to a murderous extreme. So far so good. Obviously, the darker aspect of the idea remains safely within fiction. But at the time of the play’s first showing, the whole concept of reality television would itself have been seen as a controversial extremity. Kneale was genuinely predicting the future. It would take around thirty years for his vision to come to fruition, and for the fiction to become truth, but it did with the advent of such reality programming as ‘Survivor’ in the 1990s. This particular reflection is with us now, even if the blackness in the vision has not transpired.

In today’s strange world, even the most bizarre of predictions might much sooner prove correct. An obvious and commonly lauded example is a 2013 episode of Charlie Brooker’s seminal anthology series ‘Black Mirror’. In The Waldo Moment, Brooker dramatises the pull of celebrity on the protest vote, as a rebellious CGI character from children’s television comes to run for election as a local MP. But unlike Kneale, Brooker seems to edge away from exploring the ultimate outcome. His story is merely a warning, because Waldo comes second, not first. There is the hint that world power potentially awaits before the closing credits, and this is sufficient to make the viewer consider further, leaving the issues to linger in the mind. But perhaps this remains one instance where the truth really has become stranger than fiction, with the advent of Brexit and President Trump, only three and a half years later.

Brooker’s apparent reticence with the outcome for Waldo is not, however, characteristic of the series as a whole. Indeed, he sets out his agenda for exploring ultimate extremities with the first episode of the series in 2011. The National Anthem tells of a peculiarly modern ‘artwork’ created by coercion, as the British Prime Minister, portrayed by Rory Kinnear, is forced to have sex with a pig across live media.  But even here the writer has had to admit to a spooky prescience, as allegations of similar behaviour, albeit on an apparently recreational basis, were very publicly denied by the actual Prime Minister of the time in September 2015.

Overall, ‘Black Mirror’ pulls few punches in its unflinching approach to speculative storytelling, often adopting a tone that is brim-full of the writer’s trademark caustic edginess and ranting style. Charlie Brooker has taken up the torch in place of Shelley, Davis, Pedler and Kneale, and he is running with it. Like ‘Doomwatch’ before it, ‘Black Mirror’ maintains its relevance because it aims to entertain. Indeed, Brooker has acknowledged the show is a natural inheritor of audiences who might once have turned to Rod Serling’s ‘Twilight Zone’ or even ‘Tales of the Unexpected’. Those audiences would have tuned in for original, well-constructed and tricksy writing in standalone tales. ‘Black Mirror’ delivers on all of that. This is beautifully written, blistering television, which reflects the most extreme dark visions of the antagonist forces in our modern lives. What it is, in effect, is the ultimate black mirror.

Brooker makes us fully engage with relatable characters, and then explores how a given system might utterly destroy or absorb them. This can be seen with those characters consumed by talent shows in Series 1’s Fifteen Million Merits, or those made puppets by all forms of modern communication device in Series 3’s relentless tour de force Shut Up And Dance. With such episodes, we perhaps see that Brooker’s approach is shifting in order to keep the genre alive. He tries less to predict and more to reflect on what’s really going on in front of us, obscured by the subliminal media techniques I referred to in the opening. Indeed, this concern itself is directly addressed in Series 3’s Men Against Fire. Demonization and brainwashing? It’s all in there: how we might be made to see groups in certain ways; how we’re encouraged to be grateful for our lot, even if the reality is substandard. The writer has just filtered this through science fiction tropes, like the implants of cerebral manipulation given to soldiers to help them kill and make them accept. The analogy is made physically concrete, whilst the speculative fiction label is maintained.

For now, Charlie Brooker’s speculations are managing to outrun the truth, but sometimes only just. Perhaps, we can’t always see that truth anymore. So, the writer is creating analogies to pinpoint and explore it. By doing so, he is keeping the genre of speculative fiction fresh and relevant. And the third series of ‘Black Mirror’ could itself be seen to be mirroring its subject matter as an instant download on Netflix, appropriately embracing up-to-the-minute technology and social practices in the very mode of its transmission. There’s another set of episodes to come, and I can’t wait to see how Brooker will reanimate the cadaver, enlivening what is now the fiction of truth, just as Shelley first brought life to this particular monster.

❉ You can watch ‘Black Mirror’ Season 3 on Netflix.


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  1. At the risk of failing to sufficiently ‘process’ this article before making comment – what a relief that we have still not only talented and thought provoking writers of television entertainment, such as Mr Brooker, but equally perceptive authors such as Mr Chalk. All observations he has put forward certainly ring true for me and I can appreciate the irony in having entered the ‘Black Mirror’ myself today to read – and really enjoy – this splendid article! Dare I be so bold and add to Mr Chalk’s musings on our perspective of the world being manipulated by the prism of the media by reaching for my treasured ‘Books that have changed man’s thinking’ (sadly not enough men and women, evidently) edition of 1984 and quoting the following couple of passages from the great George Orwell: ‘Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer; though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing’ and the especially relevant ‘The voice from the the telescreen was still pouring forth its tale of prisoners and booty and slaughter…’ Yes, we have had our literary visionaries along the way and yes, their predictions and understanding of the potential traps laid before the human race have been appreciated by and influenced many. Unfortunately, we still seem determined to remain on a one-way collision cause with our own demise, despite all the warnings. A thoughtful and well researched article that has reminded me that you still can find some excellent satirical entertainment in this modern age (Net-FIX will accommodate a wide variety of tastes) and that I shouldn’t necessarily be so grateful for my ‘substandard’ lot in life. However, I’m sure that anyone struggling to scrape together a half decent living in Britain today barely needs reminding of that last point. Looking forward to more from Mr Chalk as eagerly as he appears to be awaiting more from Mr Brooker!

  2. Fantastic comments, Rich! Deftly weaving in your own concerns around public reactions to the black mirrors we are provided, along with your own reflections on ‘1984’. Thanks for engaging so actively with the article! Yep, hopefully more such articles to come soon.

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