Tonight, I went to the BFI on London’s South Bank to watch the first episode of Charlie Brooker and Zeppotron’s second series of Black Mirror, the sci-fi anthology TV series in the shadow of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.
I really like Charlie Brooker (as evidenced here I think). I really liked the first series. And I really liked this opening episode, Be Right Back. All good then. It is, in tone, closer to the third episode of the previous series, looking how technology affects relationships – and how relationships could affect technology. And no nasty business with a pig to scare away the Daily Mail.
I’m going to talk about it now, and there are going to be big spoilers. Nothing I think that would impair your enjoyment of the show too much and I will try to avoid certain plot points, including the finale, but I’m going to specifically talk about the big bulky sci-fi elements of the programme. You may be a spoiler absolutist, wishing to go in blind. Which is fair enough, I can appreciate that, that’s certainly how I approached this episode, but you’re going to miss out on my own failings, entrails displayed wide across the South Bank for the passing public to piss upon.
In this story we have a young couple living in the near future, the man finding himself distracted by social networking to the annoyance of the woman. She is no Luddite, her wooden easel with its curved touch screen is a valuable tool, as is the safedrive option on the car, but there is a time and place. And she is losing him. And then… she really does lose him, in a very terminal fashion.
She discovers a service that will replicate him as an instant messenger, based on his public social messaging record. Paying more for his private messaging to be taken into account. Then all his videos and recordings to create an audio version of him. And then, the final step, to physicality…
While watching the show, I couldn’t help but think of Michael Winner, the film director and restaurant reviewer who died this week. And that I’d seen people retweeting his old tweets to comment on current things, even though he had passed away. And I was suddenly confronted with the thought that if this technology could exist, even be inspired by the show that Michael Winner may well be the first person brought back from the dead in this fashion. Again and again, come on dear why stop at one Michael Winner when you could have hundreds, bearing down on you. And I asked in the question and answer session after the showing, if Brooker was prepared for such an event. I stood up to speak into the microphone, asked to by the host.
At which point, my iPad, on which I had been taking notes and the occasional photo must have slipped down the back of my flip-back seat. When I returned to my seat, metal squeezed against metal and was crushed. Warped. Glass was shattered and splintered. Everything went dark.
I bought my iPad two years ago, it has travelled around the world, it is there when I go to sleep, it is there when I wake, it comes with me everywhere. I write on it, I watch TV , listen to radio and read comics, books and newspapers on it, I write Bleeding Cool on it as I go, it lets me be a full time blogger and also have some semblance of a life. My children play with it (when they wash their hands) And now? I can’t really explain it, but it feels like in a very small way I’m in mourning. Black Mirror is very concerned by the way as people we are reacting to technology and here I am, a classic case. There is something wrong with me.
Or is it just human nature to get attached to things like this, even something so mass produced and soulless?
I chatted briefly to Brooker after the showing, and he looked genuinely gutted when I pulled my deadPad out, and said he felt some way to blame. Not enough to offer to buy me a new one or anything, obviously, but I assuaged him and walked off into the night weeping inside.
In Black Mirror, Martha, played by Hayley Atwell, knows the well-named Ash, played by Domhnall Gleeson, is dead, and this replacement is fake. But she can’t resist the temptation to treat him as if he were her one true love restored from the grave. But it’s not him, it is the social networking him, the public – and private face – that he exhibited, There is no room for surprise, there is no room for the revelations that were only ever made face to face. And things have to come to a head.
There are many ways to handle grief. It is not uncommon at all for people to create some kind of surrogate form to comfort them, in a variety of ways. I’ve come across these “real life” dolls, it is very common to talk to the deceased person as if they are still there. And for them to answer back. As the Q&A has pointed out people have often gone to mediums as part of their way of coping, all this is, is a different… medium. Hmm.
The first part of this show, at least, will happen in the short term. Are we as a society ready for it? And the more that we live out lives virtually, instead of physically, the more there will be to replace us when we are gone. Already Facebook pages have become shrines to their past owners, at what point will they start to talk back to us?
Black Mirror is hard science fiction given a softly softly media face, it is about big problematic ideas about the way we live, given fleshy form. A bit like the concept of this first show. How very meta. Tonally, it also fits in rather well with Channel 4′s current series Utopia, full of twists, technology, just out of our reach but oh so believeable. However, the first episode of of the second series of Black Mirror does not seek to shock as the first series did. This is a very mainstream, middle class, emotional drama approach which may well welcome in a wider audience before hitting them with some very difficult ideas indeed. And maybe smashing their iPads while it’s at it.
Amazingly my iPad still works, the shattered glass in the touch screen held in place – though I have cut my finger on it twice. I can’t charge it, the frame is too warped for that. Tomorrow the charge will be gone. And all I will have left is a very expensive, broken… black mirror.
Okay, bring on the avalanche.
Of course, I can replace my iPad. It will cost me a lot, more than I can spare, but I’ll do it. It won’t be the same one that travelled with me around the world, that took those photos, those videos of my children, but will I really notice the difference? I’ll just pop into the Apple Store on Oxford Circus tomorrow. I’m too tempted not to. Given that this is how I react to a crushed iPad, how less able will I be to resist a virtual version of my wife if she were to die before me?
Black Mirror asks lots of questions. It doesn’t really give anything close to a satisfying answer. That’s what mirrors do, reflect our questions back at ourselves. Answers, I guess is for us to come up with.
As well as the money for a new iPad.
Did I mention it got broken?
Black Mirror will be broadcast by Channel 4 soon. Here are the press synopses for all three episodes of Black Mirror. Spoilers.
Recent International Emmy winner Black Mirror, produced by Zeppotron, is returning with three brand new films for 2013. Each story is in turn, disarming, suspenseful and darkly satirical, and all explore our modern reality.
Be Right Back
Martha (Hayley Atwell) and Ash (DomhnallGleeson) are a young couple who move to a remote cottage, where Ash’s parents used to live. Ash is a big user of social media, tapping away on his phone, just a bit too much. Martha doesn’t really mind, she loves him and they’re looking forward to their new life together. The day after the move, Ash is killed, returning the hire van.
At the funeral, Sarah (Sinead Matthews), a friend of Martha’s, tells her about a new service that lets you stay in touch with the deceased. By using all his past online communications and social media profiles, a new ‘Ash’ can be created – disarmingly ‘real’ and a help to a grieving partner. Martha is disgusted by the concept and wants nothing to do with it.
Martha decides to stay in the cottage, despite her sister, Naomi (Claire Keelen), being worried about her isolation. Then one morning Martha receives an email from ‘Ash’. Sarah has signed her up. Martha is furious and deletes the message.
But then she discovers she is pregnant and in a confused and lonely state Martha decides to talk to ‘him’.
The Waldo Moment
Meet Waldo. A blue bear from a children’s educational TV show, teaching them about the world through interviews with politicians and establishment figures. In reality however Waldo is an anarchic animated character on a satirical late-night topical comedy show who, once he has lured someone into the studio, unleashes a series of humorous innuendo, sarcasm and childish vitriol.
Behind the scenes, Waldo is voiced and controlled by failed comedian Jamie Salter (Daniel Rigby). The public success of Waldo contrasts with Jamie’s less than happy personal life.
When the channel decide they would like to give Waldo his own pilot, the production company come up with the idea of Waldo standing against one of his victims, Conservative Liam Monroe (Tobias Menzies), who has been parachuted in to win a safe Tory seat in an up-and-coming By-Election. Worried about entering the world of politics, Jamie takes some convincing by Jack Napier (Jason Flemyng), boss of the production company. On the campaign trail Jamie meets and falls for Gwendolyn Harris (Chloe Pirrie), the Labour candidate who is a rising star in the Labour party. When Gwendolyn backs away, warned off Jamie by her campaign manager, Jamie struggles to contain his disdain for career politicians.
And in a ‘Meet the Politicians’ election hustings, when taunted by Monroe, Jamie lashes out at all the other Party candidates accusing them of being more artificial than Waldo is. The clip seems to hit a nerve with a disengaged mistrusting public. It becomes a hit on YouYube and generates a lot of broadsheet commentary about the state of politics. Could this blue bear actually win the By-Election? Or is there more to play for?
A woman, Toni (Lenora Crichlow), wakes in a house that she does not recognise and cannot remember anything about her life. There are photos of her with a man and another photo of a young girl on the mantelpiece – neither of whom she recognises. The TV is on and is playing a symbol that means nothing to her.
Confused and agitated, she leaves the house only to find a deserted street. Knocking on doors, no one answers. Sensing movement behind the curtains of the houses she looks up and sees a young family – the father is filming her on his phone.
A car pulls into the road and a man gets out (Michael Smiley). Toni starts to approach him until she sees he is a carrying a gun and pointing it at her. As she runs away a few people come out of their houses to film her. Running round the corner she stumbles into Damien (Ian Bonar) and Jem (Tuppence Middleton), who together with Toni seek refuge in a petrol station. The man with the gun tries to break his way in. A group of people have gathered outside and are filming this on their phones. As the glass shatters the man with the gun enters the petrol station and Damian tries to grapple with him. The girls make a run for it. They see Damien try to escape but he is shot and dies. Toni and Jem manage to escape.
Jem explains to Toni that this has been going on for months – a signal started being transmitted that has caused most of the population to become dumb voyeurs. This apathy has allowed others to do what they want and they have essentially become what Jem calls “Hunters” – out to get people like her and Toni.
During Jem’s explanation, Toni is plagued by various flashbacks – they are becoming more and more regular and involve her in a car with the man and the girl, her assumed daughter, from the photos.
Jem and Toni set out to find and destroy the transmitter, to stop its signal. It is their only hope of finding a safe way out. Reaching the transmitter they try to set fire to it just as the ‘hunters’ arrive. Will they manage it and is this the end of their torment?