This article contains spoilers for Black Mirror episodes up to and including White Christmas.
Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is often described as The Twilight Zone for the modern age. It’s easy to see why, as both shows use an anthology format and regularly present us with a somewhat familiar world made scary through an unsettling new twist. For Brooker, this usually involves social media and/or technological advancements.
There’s a huge audience for this, as evidenced in the fact that online streaming giant Netflix recently bought Black Mirror from Channel 4 and thrust a new, longer series quickly into development, having witnessed the overwhelmingly positive response to the original episodes when they eventually reached American shores. Robert Downey Jr swooped in and bought the movie rights to one of the episodes, too.
One of the keys to this success is surely that it’s all so close to home. Technology and the internet play a larger role in our lives now than ever before. And on occasion, the series is made even creepier and more effective when Brooker’s scripts end up coming true. This serves to make the show even more intriguing, as what may have seemed an unlikely idea at the time suddenly becomes reality.
Spurred on by a few recent news stories, then, I examined its eerily accurate visions of the future…
The National Anthem
The first episode of Black Mirror was The National Anthem – a grim story focused on fictional Prime Minister Michael Callow (played by Rory Kinnear). As the episode unfolds, it becomes increasingly apparent that Mr Callow may have no choice but to shag a pig on live television to meet the demands of a princess’s kidnapper’s bizarre ransom demands. In the end, he does.
The ransom message appears on YouTube before going viral. YouTube, of course, was already a big deal when the episode aired in 2011. However, the idea of social media playing a role in political attacks has become ever more pertinent in the years hence, especially with the Anonymous hacktivists vowing to shut down the Twitter accounts of the so-called Islamic State terrorists after the recent Paris attacks.
(Further reading: although it’s not strictly relevant to the YouTube-blackmail-centric events of The National Anthem, Anna Erelle’s jaw-dropping Guardian article ‘Skyping with the enemy’ provides some specific – and frightening – examples of how ISIS uses social media.)
Of course, the idea of a British Prime Minister getting intimate with swine has also become surprisingly relevant recently. The #Snoutrage of Black Mirror seemed to become a true story when Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott alleged – in their unauthorised biography, Call Me Dave – that David Cameron had put ‘a private part of his anatomy’ into a dead pig’s mouth as part of an initiation ceremony for an Oxford University dining club.
As these uncorroborated events were never broadcast on national television, we’ll probably never know if they’re really true. Charlie Brooker has denied having any prior insights to the Prime Minister’s personal life.
Fifteen Million Merits
Familiar ideas like electricity-generating exercise bikes, reality TV shows, online pornography and digital currency are blended with a disturbing dystopia in Fifteen Million Merits, the second episode of Black Mirror series 1.
Society in this episode is something of a Bitcoin-sponsored nightmare, as people trapped in an enclosed environment are forced to win ‘merits’ by cycling and generating electricity. These allow them to eat, purchase more entertainment, skip adverts, and not much else. Those too fat to cycle are humiliated and embarrassed for the amusement of the rest.
The only way out of this world is through reality TV competitions such as Hot Shots, which sends one character – who wanted to be a singer – into pornography, and another to stardom as a suicidal ‘entertainer’ who rants about the system (again, not the intention of his audition).
This might seem a little harsh on Shayne Ward, but I can’t help but see the fact that his aspirations towards pop music superstardom on The X-Factor paved the way to a role on Coronation Street as a similar mandated-by-the-system compromise of dreams (admittedly, this isn’t a full-blown Brooker premonition like The National Anthem). I’m probably just being cynical, though, as Google tells me that Ward has had loads of hit records.
The multitude of TV shows inviting the masses to gawp at overweight people these days – such as Channel 4’s own Shut-Ins: Britain’s Fattest People from last year – also constantly remind me of Fifteen Million Merits. That being said, shows like that have sadly been around for years.
The Entire History Of You
The final episode of Black Mirror’s first season was The Entire History Of You. It followed Toby Kebbell’s aspiring lawyer Liam, in a society when everyone has a ‘grain’ – essentially a miniature camera – implanted in their head. Their entire lives are filmed, leading Liam down a path of seething jealously when his girlfriend’s ex shows up and starts talking about masturbating to old recordings.
The idea of filming your entire life is one of Black Mirror’s most plausible posits about the future of mankind. You could do it right now really, if you fancied sticking a GoPro on a beanie hat or gluing a Dash Cam to your face. [Ed – er, please don’t do either of those things. Especially the second one.]
On a more serious note, Google announced Google Glass less than two years after the episode first aired, making the idea of putting a tiny camera and playback screen in front of your eye a reality (albeit one that isn’t yet available to consumers).
In 2015, biotech experts MHOX announced the development of a 3D-printed WiFi-enabled eyeball that can film your entire life (if you’re willing to have your original eye surgically removed). They don’t reckon it’ll be ready until 2027, though. Google has recently announced their own plans regarding a device that can capture your every move, too. The ability to record your entire life will eventually be a reality, it seems.
Be Right Back
Arguably the most heart-wrenching episode the series has produced so far, Be Right Back starred Hayley Atwell as Martha and Domhnall Gleeson as her boyfriend, Ash, who dies early on in the episode.
Despite her initial reluctance to the idea, Martha allows a new technology to use the social media correspondences that Ash left behind to build a digital copy of her deceased other half that she can speak to. Later, this software is uploaded to an artificial flesh body. It lacks a few physical blemishes, personality traits and emotions, but the clone is pretty darn close to the real thing.
Startlingly, an Australian start-up company called Humai believe this might be plausible in real life. They’ve studied ‘conversational styles, behavioural patterns [and] thought processes’ and want to use this data in coding ‘multiple sensor technologies, which will be built into an artificial body with the brain of a deceased human.’
The technology doesn’t yet exist to bring this idea to fruition. As it stands, Humai are developing apps to gather information on their customers. In the event of a customer dying, Humai plan to freeze their brain cryogenically while they work out the rest of the process.
Admittedly, Humai only have four employees at the moment and think – perhaps optimistically – that it’ll take them 30 years to perfect the process. But still, it’s scary to think that someone is actually working on making Be Right Back a reality.
On a related note, a scientist called Dr Helen Driscoll has predicted that sex with robots will be socially acceptable by 2070.
Lenora Crichlow stars in White Bear as Victoria, a woman convicted of assisting with the abduction and murder of a young girl. But we don’t find this out until the end of the episode, as the main narrative we see is actually Victoria’s punishment – she’s unwittingly forced to partake in a public humiliation themed around her crimes, as an audience of onlookers voyeuristically film her on their phones (which is what Victoria did while her fiancé killed the girl).
White Bear essentially shows us the idea of poetic justice as punishment, which Victoria has to live through every day for an unspecified and possibly endless amount of time. As far as we know, there aren’t any nations yet employing this incredibly expensive justice system in real life.
The closest thing I can think of to a White Bear-style scenario where an audience is encouraged to watch criminals being punished would be Gordon’s Behind Bars, the short-lived TV show that saw Gordon Ramsay teaching convicted criminals to cook at Brixton Prison. That’s hardly the same thing, though, and it preceded the episode by nearly a year.
The Waldo Moment
This episode saw Daniel Rigby of BT adverts fame take the role of a comedian called Jamie who controls the cartoon character Waldo on a popular TV show.
After Jamie/Waldo amusingly lampoons a politician during an interview, an ideas meeting to capitalise on the character’s popularity snowballs to the point of Waldo embarking on his own political career. He enters a local by-election, and captures the heart of the nation before becoming the public face of a global dystopia.
Years later, comedian Al Murray entered the 2015 general election – as a potential MP for South Thanet, and an alternative to Nigel Farage – in character, as his fictional Pub Landlord persona. Like Waldo, he didn’t win, but he did succeed in lampooning the other candidates and winning a few votes.
At the time of publishing, Al Murray’s Pub Landlord hasn’t announced any plans to become the public face of a global dystopia. Naturally, we’ll update the article if that changes.
Due to its various plot strands, White Christmas presents us with a fair few different ideas. One of these – the ‘Z-Eye’ – isn’t entirely different to the ‘grain’ implant from The Entire History Of You, in the sense that it offers a way to plug miniature technology right into your head. As we discussed in the section about that episode, Google and MHOX are already working on ways to put devices into/around our eyeballs. A chap called Ben Engel is also working on installing a Bluetooth headset within his head.
The Z-Eye’s most unique feature, though, is that it allows you to ‘block’ someone in real life in the same way that you do on Facebook. You can’t see or talk to a person who doesn’t want you to. Sex offenders (like Jon Hamm’s character Matt) are automatically blocked by everyone, while some choose to block their annoying exes (like Rafe Spall’s Joe).
While it’ll take a lot of time before we all have computers in our heads and the ability to block people in this more literal way, the idea of erasing your ex from existence is growing in prominence in the digital world. Facebook are making it easier to untag yourself from romantic pictures in bulk, while Google Photos lets you ‘hide a person from appearing.’
White Christmas also features the idea of a digital consciousness being copied from a person in order to control the real person’s ‘smart house.’ A few companies have tried to develop this kind of avatar technology. Intellitar – which, admittedly, predated Black Mirror – notably took regular payments from customers in exchange for developing an interactive digital copy of themselves, before the company died a death.
In 2014, Ertinme appeared as another company aiming to produce a similar outcome – a digital copy of yourself that could answer questions after you die. They want to make it possible to ‘Skype the past,’ in a way. Admittedly, that sounds more like Be Right Back, but if the technology advances far enough maybe people will use these avatars to control their homes, or to interrogate suspected criminals.
All of this points towards one simple conclusion (which isn’t the cheeriest way to end an article): judging by the endings to all of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror stories, and the fact that they’re all gradually coming true, we must be careening towards a dystopia.
Leave your thoughts on the decline of mankind in the comments, folks!