Black Mirror takes its cue from horror anthologies such as Hammer House of Horror and The Twilight Zone from earlier television eras but adds a contemporary digital era twist. Call it technogothic. But instead of having three or four short episodes in each edition, each entire episode plays like a mini movie. Not that there’s a set running time – they last anything from 44 minutes to 89.
–In the digital twilight zone that is Black Mirror, an item of as yet unimagined but yet highly imaginable techno wizardry plays a starring role alongside the main protagonists in each highly individual story. Often it involves a little gadget applied to the temple, which in Black Mirror is a kind of portal between mind and universe. And as with the best of clever plot-making, there is always a further twist right at the end, just as there always was in the likes of The Twilight Zone.
For all of that, good, old-fashioned mystery and suspense are what drives the series, but with such a techno-millennial character that they could have invented it. The makers have created a series that is pretty self-defining… almost a genre of its own, just as The Twilight Zone and Hammer House of Horror were … others, inevitably, will emulate it but it’s unlikely anyone will improve upon it. I say “they” but in fact there are many people involved in this series that is as British as it is seemingly American, depending on which episode you’re watching.
Black Mirror has been a slow burner. A fifth series is now in the wings, but in the UK it first appeared as long ago as December 2011 on the UK’s Channel 4, with a second season in 2013. In 2014 (thank you Wikipedia for much of the information to hand here) it appeared on Netflix, which then took the show over, money and common sense having crossed hands. In 2015 Netflix commissioned 12 new shows which became the third and current fourth series. The whole bang shoot is there, so if you happen to have missed it, you can start afresh right now with the original 2011 episode. It is not to be missed by any kind of television aficionado.
This week I watched San Junipero, from the third season, and so much was so familiar, not least Cape Town’s Twelve Apostles. Filmed in the Mother City, mostly out of town and on or near beaches, this is among the most acclaimed of all Black Mirror episodes (along with USS Callister, although it’s the kind of show where everyone will have their own favourite and cry ‘foul!’ if yours isn’t the same choice). In 2017 San Junipero won Emmy awards for Outstanding Television Movie and Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special. The show’s inverted success – the Emmys came six years after its 2011 debut – suggests that Black Mirror’s best times may be yet to come. Netflix, certainly, does not seem in any kind of hurry to can it.
The stories are supremely well plotted and uncommonly unpredictable. Even when you seem to have reached the punchline, as it were, often there is a further twist, and sometimes even another one. This is not a show to turn off before the last credit has rolled. They trick you into believing it’s all over, then the credits are interrupted and you think, shit that’s clever….
Though creator Charlie Brooker admits to having wanted to write and produce a show of the ilk of Hammer House of Horror, The Twilight Zone, Tales From the Crypt and Tales of the Unexpected, in which the fear of the unknown was exploited, Black Mirror is decidedly different in that the focus is not horror per se, but how susceptible the human psyche and condition are to a different kind of unknown – the world of technology and sundry other scientific advances, the brilliant things that can and probably will be invented and created by minds which may not necessarily have your well-being at heart.
Other than these central tenets of the formula, nothing else is familiar from episode to episode. Each setting and story has its own peculiar style and mood.
The very first episode back in 2011 was The National Anthem, which has been described, Wiki tells us, as “a twisted parable for the Twitter age”. This is true of many of the episodes that were to follow. The notion that the age of social media is swamping us and that we really didn’t know what we were getting into. Far more so now, what with Trump and Brexit and all.
Yet the episode was made in 2011, when none of us would have guessed what effect social media would have on our political lives a few years hence. In The National Anthem, the British prime minister – a ringer for Tony Blair – is set a rude challenge. A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped, her ransom: the prime minister must shag a pig, live on television, as millions watch. Will he do it?
Watch the Black Mirror Series 1 trailer:
You think, immediately, “but that’s excruciating”. And it is, and that is precisely what makes it work. We’re being asked: how far would we go? We watch wars happening in our living rooms. The same Channel 4, a few years before that first Black Mirror episode, had the entire British nation up very late for several nights in a row when they screened a live dissection of a recently dead man by the spooky Dr Gunther von Hagens. I was living in the UK in 2005 and stayed up for four late nights to watch the grisly late-night spectacle. Autopsy as entertainment. It was supremely disturbing yet undeniably compelling. He went on, as we know, to mount Body Worlds, a roaming exhibition of human cadavers which has toured the world.
Watch (or maybe don’t) Gunther von Hagens’ Anatomy for Beginners:
Something I found interesting was how The National Anthem portrays how a Labour leader might respond to such a demand by a kidnapper. A PM in the Thatcher mould would have glowered, slammed down a fist and declared, “Over my dead body! We don’t kowtow to hostage takers!” A Labour PM one images to be more concerned for the princess’s welfare, and to decide: king and country and all that and, oh, while we’re about it, close your eyes and think of England old man!
There is also something of the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death about how the nation, and the palace, respond to the situation.
Watch the Black Mirror Season 4 trailer:
Arkangel, from the current season four on Netflix, is among the best of all the episodes.
I did not know it had been Jodie Foster’s work until the final credits, and my mind immediately leapt to the watchable and chilling Panic Room, about a mother and daughter holed up while burglars are in the house; although she did not direct that. Foster did direct two episodes of Orange is the New Black and an episode of House of Cards.
In Arkangel, an overprotective mother has her daughter grow up from birth with an implant enabling her to monitor the child’s whereabouts and what she’s doing and seeing. Things which could cause the girl distress become pixellated. The ultimate effect is that once she does see real life as it really is, ‘bad things’ are magnified, and the world is that much worse than how it is when we are accustomed, or inured, to the things that could, and do, trouble us.
Here’s the Arkangel trailer:
Another spellbinding episode from series four is Crocodile, filmed in Iceland with the splendid Andrea Riseborough as a highly successful thirtysomething for whom everything is going swimmingly until a dark incident from her past returns to claim her present. Will she allow it to? Answering that would spoil your fun, but do watch it. As ever, a digital invention has everything to do with how things play out.
Watch the Crocodile trailer:
USS Callister, which opens series four, celebrates, in a very dark way, the hokey greatness of Star Trek, and is about the co-creator of an online game show whose inhibited personality allows him to be domineered by his co-programmer. Jesse Plemons, as the protagonist Robert Daly, and who has the awkward, thoughtful demeanour of a young Philip Seymour Hoffman, won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie, and six other Emmys, in 2018. There’s a young actor whose name we will hear again.
There’s plenty of room for sequels or revisits to some of the stories, and Brooker gets a bit coy when asked about this. Series 5 of Black Mirror was confirmed in March 2018 and is now filming; we’ll find out the answer to that speculation soon enough. Also in the offing, as if to confirm how upside-down our world is becoming, are a series of novels based on the television series. DM