Warning: this review contains spoilers.
Even after seeing the first instalment in Channel Four’s three-part series, Black Mirror, I wasn’t prepared for just how brilliant this second episode, Fifteen Million Merits, would prove to be.
Episode one, The National Anthem, was spry and blackly comic, exploring writer Charlie Brooker’s pet themes of social malaise and media intrusion. Episode two covers not dissimilar issues, but places them in a dystopian sci-fi setting. It also happens to contain some of the finest production design, music and acting I’ve seen in a genre television show all year.
From the opening shot, director Euros Lyn (veteran of Doctor Who and Torchwood) captures our eye at every turn. The episode offers a vision of a post-iPad, post Kinect future; Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) awakens in his quarters; a prison cell of video screens that cover every surface from floor to ceiling, pumping out an endless stream of inane comedy, reality TV and softcore porn.
Bing, we learn, is but one member of a thrumming hive of workers whose job is to pedal on exercise bikes for hours at a time. Packed into sterile, gym-like spaces, these professional cyclists apparently generate the energy that runs the entire society. To pass the time, Bing and his bikers are numbed by the same stream of depressing entertainment that plays in their private cells.
Like the classic dystopian novels Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World and We, which I mentioned in my spoiler-free review last week, Fifteen Million Merits is centred around a doomed relationship. In this instance, Bing’s brief yet tender encounter with Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) is destroyed by a reality television show called Hot Shot.
His heart captured by Abi’s singing, Bing spends every last bit of cash in his bank account (the Fifteen Million Merits of the title) on an entry ticket for the show. And in an interesting inversion of Winston and Julia’s fate in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where their love for each other is effectively tortured out of them, Bing unwittingly sells Abi into a life of exploitation; Hot Shot’s judges, having decided the world doesn’t need another “average singer”, encourages Abi to become a star in its pornographic TV show, Wraith Babes (“The hottest girls in the nastiest situations”). High on a substance pressed into her hand before going on stage, Abi agrees.
Haunted by his mistake, Bing seethes with anger and guilt, and finds a way to gain an audience with the Hot Shot judges and hold them to account for the way they exploit the entrants on their show – only to be offered his own chance of escape from a life of drudgery, which he too accepts. Like everything in this TV-fuelled future, Bing’s act of rebellion is compromised, repackaged and sold back to a hungry viewership.
Fifteen Million Merits, then, is as bleak in its depiction of society as last week’s National Anthem, yet the way it handles the relationship between Bing and Abi gives its conclusion far greater power. Abi’s character tic of folding little origami penguins is an engaging one, gently highlighting that TV screens and exercise bikes are the only tangible objects in this depressing world of avatars and virtual landscapes (“You only get to keep them for a day, but there it is anyway,” Abi says, in a singularly well-acted scene). This penguin motif takes on a quite heart-breaking significance at the episode’s conclusion. Bing, now effectively a video blogger and mouthpiece for the unseen powers that run the cycling masses, has a slightly larger cell, and a penguin ornament to remind him of his lost love.
Between them, Kaluuya, Brown Findlay and Euros Lyn create a genuinely moving sci-fi drama. It’s a shame that some aspects of Fifteen Million Merits are a little too shrill; the vulgar, abusive worker who cycles next to Bing is little more than an annoying caricature, for example, and Rupert Everett’s performance was rather too obviously modelled on Simon Cowell.
Nevertheless, Fifteen Million Merits is a brilliant, heart-felt sci-fi drama. Its satirical skewering of reality TV isn’t a surprise, given the subject matter of the previous Black Mirror episode, but the touching, human element of it most definitely is. Like all great works of dystopian fiction, Fifteen Million Merits is about contemporary concerns – in this instance, about the potentially controlling, isolating downside of technology – but also about the fragility of relationships.
The warmth of Bing and Abi’s brief romance, contrasted against the coldness of TV screens, jeering avatars and manipulative reality show judges, is among the most moving I’ve seen in for a while, and the main reason why Fifteen Million Merits is such a captivating piece of genre television.