The future, at least according to some sci-fi writers, is anything but bright. Books are burned in Fahrenheit 451. The populace is controlled by drugs and technology in Brave New World, brutally oppressed by Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and used as an energy source by robots in The Matrix.
In the future according to Charlie Brooker and co-writer Konnie Huq, motion-sensitive technology will make prisoners of us all. We’ll earn money by pedalling endlessly on exercise bikes – possibly a green energy source, but perhaps a means of keeping a directionless proletariat physically occupied – and then spend our evenings in a cell of gigantic HD monitors, where we’re numbed by a diet of soft porn, bad comedy and reality TV. We’re sternly rebuked if we dare to look away, and we’ll have to stump up a few precious merits (this future nightmare’s currency) if we want a moment’s silence.
Like most science fiction stories, Fifteen Million Merits, episode two of Brooker’s Black Mirror trilogy, deals with contemporary fears about the effect technology has on society. It’s also quite possibly the finest piece of genre TV you’ll see all year.
Daniel Kaluuya, in a brilliant performance, plays Bing, our entry point into a planet cycling into intellectual oblivion. His bland existence is one day brightened with the arrival of Abi (an equally great Jessica Brown-Findlay), who’s trapped in the same endless cycling job as everyone else, but possesses a talent for singing that may offer an escape route. Immediately smitten, Bing offers to pay for Abi to enter a Britain’s Got Talent-like talent contest called Hot Shots. You’ll have to watch for yourself to find out what happens next, but it’s mesmerising.
On what was presumably a tight TV budget, Doctor Who and Torchwood director Euros Lyn has conjured up a remarkable, distinctive-looking future environment. Its spaces are tiny, windowless, claustrophobic and brightly lit. The slate grey of workers’ uniforms is set against the garish colours of televisions and their incessant stream of chatter and bilge. This is a minimalist, Kubrickian future nightmare for the iPad and Kinect generation.
Brooker’s pessimistic worldview is all over Fifteen Million Merits, and just like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World and the underrated Russian classic We before it, the episode warns of how delicate relationships are in the face of oppression. This time, though, it’s not a military dictatorship that represses, but entertainment; the villains of the piece are surely Hot Shots’ unholy trinity of judges, played by Julia Davis, MC Bashy and Rupert Everett. Brooker’s criticism of reality TV and its ruthlessness isn’t particularly subtle, but then again, he works his barbs into the story almost seamlessly, and there’s an engaging thread of tenderness in here, too, as well as a wide streak of anger.
Where most dystopias have imagined a future run by a police state, authority is conspicuously absent here. There’s no Big Brother, no propaganda, no boot stamping on a human face forever. This is a society so perfectly subjugated, so bovine, that it makes no attempt to escape. In some ways, you could argue that this future vision isn’t a dystopia at all; nobody goes hungry, there’s no crime, and everybody gets to watch all the TV and play all the videogames they want.
Pick whatever faults you like with the concept of a city powered by exercise bikes, it’s the societal aspect of Fifteen Million Merits that is so believable. Orwell suggested that our learning and culture would be quietly stolen from us by a power-hungry totalitarian government, leaving ordinary people powerless to resist it, and trapped in a grim regime of perpetual war and the stench of boiled cabbage.
Fifteen Million Merits, on the other hand, suggests that we’ll be seduced into willingly giving up our freewill and intellects in exchange for more and more instant gratification, so that, by the time the snare’s closed around us, we’ll be too busy pedalling and tittering at You’ve Been Framed to do anything about it.
It’s bleak, depressing scenario, but entirely believable – and that’s why this is, for me, an absolutely superb, relevant piece of sci-fi television. Do not miss it.
Black Mirror episode two: Fifteen Million Merits airs on Sunday, 11th December on Channel Four at 9:30pm – in a sly bit of scheduling, right after the X Factor final.