Technological Vertigo: A Review of Black Mirror

Ziqian is a primitivist and Daoist who regularly blogs at ‘wilderness before the dawn,’ which provides commentary on current events informed by nature, non-domesticated societies, and Dao.

The British science fiction television series Black Mirror draws from a tradition defined by genre paragons like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, shows that attempt to articulate and explore what Freud termed ‘the uncanny’—that which is at once familiar and yet strange, a paradox that defines the modern condition. However, whereas past tales of the uncanny resort to invoking extraterrestrial forces or elements of the supernatural, Black Mirror represents an important realization: when you’ve got advanced technology, the notion of the supernatural becomes redundant. Through three seasons of blisteringly clever hour-long episodes, series creator and main writer Charlie Brooker delivers a trenchant satire of modern technology. While each episode tells a different and unrelated story with a different cast, the theme of the technological uncanny looms large throughout. The technology depicted in the series, much like the technology of our own world, estranges people from their own reality, generating uncanny situations like reliving the same day again and again or encountering the doppelganger of a deceased loved one. Sharp, original, often harrowing, and unexpectedly haunting, Black Mirror excels at revealing the implacable foreignness that dwells at the heart of even our most pedestrian technological contrivances.

In contrast to what one might expect from typical science fiction, each episode of Black Mirror portrays hypothetical technology that, far from being a revelation, is largely just a modest extrapolation of our own current epidemic of smart phones, social networking services, and wearable gadgets into the very near future. It’s science fiction, but only just barely. A service that generates the textual and vocal likeness of a deceased loved one based on his internet activity during life (S2:E1 “Be Right Back”) is science fiction only in the technical details. The ability of technology to produce a reasonably accurate psychological profile of a person with decades’ worth of hourly status updates, tweets, and Google searches is already upon us. A machine that induces memory loss (S2:E2 “White Bear”), a surgically-implanted and neurologically-wired device that records everything you see and hear via your eyes and ears (S1:E3 “The Entire History of You”), a society that operates as a social network incarnate (S1:E2 “Fifteen Million Merits”)—the hypothetical scenarios featured in each episode directly reference tech that either already exists or else would probably not be surprising to see in a few years’ time, and this helps to make some of the episodes seem remarkably realistic and believable.

The narratives are facilitated by able and affecting performances from a high profile roster of British and American actors, including Toby Kebbell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), Rory Kinnear (The Imitation Game), Hayley Atwell (Captain America: The First Avenger), Rafe Spall (Life of Pi), Jessica Brown Findley (Downton Abbey), and Jon Hamm (Mad Men). However, some of the finest moments on the show come from actors that may be less familiar to American audiences, including Jodie Whittaker as Ffion, who struggles to convince her husband that not all truth can be found in the apparent objectivity of a recorded past, and Daniel Kaluuya as Bing, a young man trapped in a screen-based society that interacts chiefly through social network avatars and crass advertisements. As each episode consists of mostly different casts, it’s not possible here to do full justice to each and every superlative performance, so suffice it to say that the performances throughout the series are consistently convincing, robust, and deliberate in a way that makes the characters and stories feel thoroughly real even in the midst of the most absurd or fantastical scenarios, which speaks to the competence of the episodes’ directors as much as to the talent of the actors. The series’ cinematography and visual effects succeed in framing and accentuating the performances and help color each scene with an additional layer of emotional resonance—the bleary morning following a sleepless night of obsessing over a video clip, the garish glow of a cartoon celebrity advertisement lighting up a urine-soaked underpass, the creeping claustrophobia of a snowed-in house—resulting in an atmosphere of near pitch-perfect malaise. Each story often instills a sense of ethical or even existential disquiet that will linger for hours, days, or, if one isn’t too distracted, even weeks. This was the case for this reviewer, who found it difficult to watch several episodes in a row, needing a day or two in between viewings to digest and recover. A sort of cognitive vertigo takes hold as the mind struggles to reconcile the many moral conundrums left open at the end of each episode. The tech that defines the lives of the characters in these episodes, much like the tech that surrounds us in the real world, mitigates even the most intimate aspects of life—sex, death, memory—and, in facilitating their experiences, reduces their humanity to spectacle and entertainment. It is impossible not to feel this degradation as a palpable weight on the soul after each viewing.

As such, the series is decidedly bleak, offering virtually no suggestions for solving the problems it raises, and this might count as its chief deficiency. Perhaps it has no answers, or perhaps it is implying that there can be no answer to the problem of technology, only resignation. Thus we watch as characters resign themselves to their defeat and humiliation, endure perpetual torment or even acquiesce and convert. Black Mirror doesn’t seem interested in asking how we got to where we are or where we seem to be headed, and so doesn’t seem to quite count as cautionary tale or allegory. Rather, the show seems content to simply reflect back at us the true bleakness of the technological world that entraps us without speculating on what we could or should do, a wake-up call as opposed to a battle plan. Part of what makes Black Mirror an exceptional series is its insistence on approaching the subject matter unequivocally, without the apologism that is typical even of dystopian science fiction that may level some half-hearted critique at technology. Thus it avoids the usual pitfalls that cause lesser sci-fi tales to end up undermining their own themes when they inevitably try to salvage technology, rehabilitated or otherwise somehow pardoned, from where it really belongs—oblivion. Black Mirror combines compelling narrative, incisive wit, and cerebral cinematography to articulate technology’s inherent duplicity in a laudable and sorely needed effort to reawaken us to the progress that encroaches upon all facets of our lives. In this, the series hopefully represents the beginning of a shift in industrial society’s attitude toward technology as embodied in our fiction—a move away from the glorification and worship of machines that characterizes the majority of science fiction and a much needed step toward a skepticism and apprehension of the techno-industrial enterprise. Black Mirror provides us a reflection more faithful than most, unadulterated by your typical propaganda and contrived happy endings, so that we might manage to pull out the wiring in our brains for a moment and take a clear look at ourselves for the first time in a long time.