“Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….”
– Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator
Black Mirror is a science fiction anthology series, which means that each episode is unrelated to the other. It is implied that all the episodes take place in the same universe, but the plot of one episode does not affect another episode. It first aired on Channel 4 in 2011, and then it was picked up by Netflix in 2015, where it can be viewed right now. There are 3 seasons out, and a 4th season is being worked on as far as I know.
- WARNING: there are some light spoilers ahead for the following episodes:
- White Christmas
- White Bear
- Hated in the Nation
Since the show is an anthology, and the plot of each episode is different, I will talk about the general gist and recurring themes in the series. Many people have compared this show to the show “Twilight Zone,” which is another anthology series, which often explores morality through supernatural means. For example, a woman with the power to stop time does so right before a nuclear bomb explodes, leaving her with the dilemma of living forever alone or dying with her family. This is an apt comparison, because Black Mirror explores moral and social issues that are imposed by new and evolving technology.
Black Mirror’s drone bee vs real life drone bee
What’s really terrifying is that a lot of this technology is very believable: a technology that is frequently employed (I think around 4 times in the series [Entire History of You, White Christmas, Playtest and Men Against Fire]) is augmented reality, through the use of lenses built into the eye and or brain. All the episodes use them slightly differently, which implies that it’s all the same technology, but just different variants or different levels of complexity. Nosedive has an omniscient social networking… thing, that people can use to rate and affect the social networking of everyone else. The last episode that’s out right now, Hated in the Nation, has drone bees, which were developed when the bee population could not be saved. What’s crazy is that that is something that is being developed right now: Anna Haldewang came up with “Plan Bee” (left picture, above) and you can find more information about it here.
The other half of the technology that’s so terrifying, besides how believable it is, is how people use, misuse and abuse it. Very rarely is the technology flawed; rather, it is humans who are flawed, resulting in improper use of the technology. For example, in Entire History of You, where the main technological advance is a grain sized chip that allows you to record and relive old memories, the technology is fine. The memories don’t become corrupted over time, and the visuals and audio are not distorted by the recording devices. The chip has bad memories because you have bad memories. You have bad experiences. It’s not the technology, it’s your life that’s the problem. Similarly, in White Christmas, the augmented reality device called “Zed Eyes” (which everyone has and cannot remove) allows you to “block” another person. A person that is blocked is replaced by a foggy silhouette in the view of the person who made the block, as shown below.
Not only that, the person’s voice becomes muffled, like the listener is underwater, rendering the voice impossible to understand. This results in massive psychological damage, as closure is almost completely impossible, as blocks cannot be turned off by anyone except the person who issued it in the first place. Yes, it is the Zed Eyes that make such a terrible thing possible, but it is always the humans who ultimately decide to use the technology.
Of course, there’s the cases where people intentionally abuse the technology and intentionally hurt each other, and that is addressed in this TV series as well. This is most apparent in episodes such as White Bear, Nosedive, and Shut Up and Dance. The first two on the list really stand out, and really become like Twilight Zone, because what we, as in people in the real world, would consider abuse is actually considered normal in the fictional world. The technology has integrated itself into society so much that it has drastically changed how we treat and view each other. In Nosedive, people can rate each other on a scale of 1 to 5 stars, and the star rating drastically affects your social standing. A higher star rating allows you to buy a house, get into buildings, rent better cars, etc., and a low star rating results in what is essentially excommunication from society as a whole. This places everyone (except the very few rebels and out-liars) in shackles of forced niceties and conformity.
The series does touch on the subject of flawed technology in two episodes: Playtest and Hated in the Nation. In Playtest, as the title suggests, the the augmented / virtual reality technology is under development and the main character is brought in to test it for the developers. To be fair, the problem(s) caused in the technology is brought on by human error (developers tell him to not do a thing, but he does the thing), but if the technology is that fragile, then it’s flawed and needs more work. In Hated in the Nation, the bee drones are revealed to have a major security flaw, allowing someone to hack into and control them for more nefarious purposes. While this episode was one of my favorites because of how intriguing the set up was, and how good the execution was, I felt that this episode was too much like an action movie. “An evil hacker who seizes control and terrorizes the public using new technology that everyone trusted” is not true to what Black Mirror is about. To me, Black Mirror is about exploring the moral questions brought up by new and powerful technology, and the episode does address that: the bees are a means to an end, and the villain is driven by the desire for people to understand they should not abuse the power technology gives them. However, there is so much emphasis on the bees that it distracts from the moral questions that we should be thinking about and just sheds the technology as being flawed or wrong. Likewise, Playtest does present the horrors of technology gone wrong, but it doesn’t really bring up any moral or societal questions for the viewer to think about after they have stopped watching the episode.
Black Mirror is one of the greatest TV shows out right now. Pretty much every episode is critically acclaimed, and for good reason: every episode has great acting, realistic characters, a really cool set up, and the technology seems fully realized. I highly recommend that you go into each episode knowing as little about it as possible, not just because of spoilers and plot twists, but because it’s fun to be thrown into a completely new world each episode without knowing what to expect. Definitely check it out on Netflix if you can! If you only want to watch one episode to get a feel for what Black Mirror is like, then I suggest the episode White Christmas. I feel that it does the best job of informing you of the dark and awesome nature of the series.