“As we contemplate the world converted into a huge machine and managed by engineers, we gradually grow aware of its lack of meaning, and of its emptiness of human value; the soul is stifled in this glorification of mechanical efficiency. And then we begin to feel the weakness of such a creed when confronted by the real problems of life; we discover its inability to impose any restraint on the passions of men, or to supply any government which can appeal to the loyalty of the spirit. And seeing these things we understand the fear that is gnawing at the vitals of society.”
- Paul Elmer More
“Yet to establish the fact of decadence is the most pressing duty of our time because, until we have demonstrated that cultural decline is a historical fact - which can be established - and that modern man has about squandered his estate, we cannot combat those who have fallen prey to hysterical optimism.”
- Richard M. Weaver
It’s uncanny. There are different ways in which one can discover kinship with other people. As a rule, I’ve always found it pleasant whenever I have found like-mindedness in another. Sometimes it’s a shared taste in literature, film, art or music. Other times it’s common sports fandom. And occasionally it’s even a shared understanding of deeper things. But, now I’ve found that sharing some things in common can also be disconcerting. I just discovered that director, critic, journalist, and producer Charlie Brooker is a kindred spirit. And I identify with him because of this one thing that we share.
We share the same nightmares.
I’m a little afraid. I’ve also just discovered a couple other new facts and I don’t know what to do with them. (How do we make sense of new factual information? We certainly have plenty of it. We increasingly have more information than we could ever possibly absorb in one lifetime. But sometimes I wonder if we forget that increased information does not necessarily bring increased meaning. Obtaining information is now easy. Understanding what it means ... that can’t always just be googled.)
Fact #1: There is a three-year old television show from Britain. It is entitled Black Mirror . It’s dark and bleak and brilliant. The creator of the show, Mr. Brooker, is something of a cultural satirist. He’s also a self-admitted fan of the Twilight Zone. As I was watching the first series, which was originally aired on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom in December of 2011, my friend turned to me and declared, “Now this is real science fiction. This is what science fiction is meant to do!” What he said didn’t hit me at the time because I was riveted, watching with increasing horror as the plot of the first episode of Black Mirror grew closer and closer to the end.
It was like watching a train wreck. You want to look away. You can’t look away. And, even worse, Mr. Brooker has designed each story in this show to explicitly point out to you the very fact that you can’t look away. Then, as you’re watching it, his point registers in your mind. You get it. He’s critiquing the very fact that you are absorbed with this TV screen in front of you ... and then you just keep watching.
But my friend’s point was a good one. What is real science fiction meant to do? Of course, science fiction can be used to accomplish a number of different objectives. In his essay, “On Science Fiction,” C.S. Lewis mentions what he considered to be different kinds of science fiction. One popular kind that he argued to be of poor quality was when “the author leaps forward into an imagined future when planetary, sidereal, or even galactic travel has become common. Against this huge backcloth he then proceeds to develop an ordinary love-story, spy-story, wreck-story, or crime-story.” In other words, there are a large number of science fiction stories which the creators didn’t need to set in futuristic settings. There seems to be little purpose for the setting in these stories other than merely to profit off the genre’s popularity. “This seems to me tasteless,” Lewis wrote. “Whatever in a work of art is not used is doing harm.”
But popularity is not the ends for which the good science fiction storyteller aims. It is true that a very large amount of science fiction today, in both books and film, consists of merely derivative copy-cat work. “But we must distinguish. A leap into the future, a rapid assumption of all the changes which are feigned to have occurred, is a legitimate ‘machine’ if it enables the author to develop a story of real value which could not have been told ... in any other way.”
Lewis explained that he was personally interested in the kind of science fiction that could be called “mythopoeic.” This kind of science fiction is a sort of myth-making derived from “an imaginative impulse as old as the human race” but “working under the special conditions of our time.” The end result of such stories is that they will inevitably become rather haunting. They will concern themselves with universal problems that we wrestle with every day as the self-conscious creatures that we are. And, Lewis adds, because fundamental to who we are is the fact that we have moral natures, a good and truly haunting science fiction story “will usually point to a moral: of itself, without any didactic manipulation by the author on a conscious level. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde would be an example. Another is Marc Brandel’s Cast the First Shadow, where a man, long solitary, despised, and oppressed, because he has no shadow, at last meets a woman who shares his innocent defect, but later turns from her in disgust and indignation on finding that she has, in addition, the loathsome and unnatural property of having no reflection.”
Such stories are haunting because they create a myth that leaves a lasting impression upon us. These stories are impossible, but the way that the persons in them will and act is entirely believable. In fact, we may often wince at how similar, in this other world, human wickedness, folly, evil, ignorance and despair all turn out to be just the same as that in our own world. But, by placing the story in another world, the author can surprise us with good and evil. What would seem commonplace, stands out in a clearer and possesses the quality of appearing in a new light.
I can heartily declare that all three of the episodes of the first series of Black Mirror are these kinds of stories. Each episode is a stand-alone episode similar to The Twilight Zone. “But,” Brooker explained in an interview, “they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in ten minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”
Fact #2: This show, Black Mirror, which has been around now for two years, was only made available to the United States for the first time this November (and only for DirectTV subscribers.) It did not air in the U.S. (on either networks or cable) and no one has even bothered to distribute it on DVD for North America. It is not available for online streaming on websites like Netflix or Hulu.
I fear that if it were to come to the states, it would probably come in the diluted form of so many other Americanized versions of good British TV shows. Copycat directors and screenwriters would take it, add things to it that are considered more popular in American entertainment with a combination of better hype, better advertising, worse directing, worse writing and worse acting. Things that in Brooker’s version are quite serious could so very easily, in America, be played only for laughs. It bothers me to think upon what this says about us.
Are we so far gone as that? When Neil Postman wrote that our “culture’s adjustment to the epistemology of television is now all but complete; we have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane,” was he right?
If so, then we are in deep trouble.
Another kind of science fiction that C.S. Lewis described was when the story “is satiric or prophetic: the author criticises tendencies in the present by imagining them carried out (‘produced’, as Euclid would say) to their logical limit. Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four leap to our minds” as examples. I would suggest that Brooker has also made this kind of science fiction with Black Mirror, except he’s mixed hints of the “mythopoeic” in it too. There is a glimpse of the sort of story here that you find in Cast the First Shadow. Some of the “myths” in Brooker’s stories aren’t far away from the myths of Narcissus or Orpheus.
Now, this review is going to be unlike most TV show reviews. When you look for writing on a TV show, most of what you find will be a Cliff-Notes recap of each episode’s plot. I can’t do that here. Half of the power of Black Mirror is all in the surprises. So instead of doing that, I’m only going to generally summarize the ideas of each episode and discuss some of the philosophy that necessarily intertwines with each story.
The first episode of Series 1, entitled The National Anthem, is rather offensive. It makes it difficult for me to even be able to recommend the show to many of my friends and family. Suffice it to say that it explores the effect that mass entertainment media and internet websites like YouTube have upon our politics and upon how we think. It won’t be easy to watch. I seriously doubt whether I’ll watch it again. But it does leave an unfortunately strong impression.
The disturbing nature of the episode is quickly revealed in the first five minutes. Rory Kinnear does an outstanding job playing the kind and decent British Prime Minister Michael Callow. He is woken early one morning and informed that the English princess (played straight by Lydia Wilson) has been kidnaped and that she has been forced to read the kidnapper’s demands to prevent her from being executed on a video released to the world on YouTube.
It’s almost too easy of a plot. If you were to read more about it, you might just think that it’s a stupid joke of an episode. But Brooker doesn’t mean it to be joke. The actors play the whole thing straight (something that I suspect wouldn’t happen if it had been produced in the states). They take it deadly seriously. The consequences, and the alternative prospects of how the story might end, turn out to be both rather disgusting and profound at the same time.
What have mass media and internet videos done to us? Do we even bother to think about what is now possible - about what this is already used for now in some corners of the web every single day?
I often forget how our culture shapes even my own sensibility. More than once, I’ve stopped to find myself taking pride in my “knowingness” and my ability not to be shocked. To be innocent of things that are out there, to not know about them, to not have seen them - is looked down upon in our culture as sheltered and naive. But what if shame were a good thing? What if the ability to be shocked was a sign of moral character? In this episode, Brooker asks us to consider whether shame might still have moral value and that is something I don’t think I’ve seen on TV for a long time.
If innocence, dignity and honor still have value, how often are they scoffed at and desecrated in the mass entertainment culture that we have today? Does it really please us to see dignity laid low? Is it really entertaining to see goodness stomped on, laughed at, humiliated and violated?
Neil Postman is famous for his critiques of how we use technology and has consequently built something of a reputation for being anti-technology. Yet I’ve always thought that he had some very important things to say. For example, he is one of the best thinkers I know on the subject of what viewing everything as entertainment can do to us.
“To say it still another way: Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to ‘join them tomorrow.’ What for? One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights. We accept the newscasters’ invitation because we know that the ‘news’ is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say. Everything about a news show tells us this - the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials - all these and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping. A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis.”
It could be that men and women from other past ages would be horrified at how callous, desensitized and cynical we all have become in the 21st Century. It could be that how we view our political news now - in itself another form of entertainment - has a moral and spiritual dimension. It could even be that we have a trivial attitude towards real goodness and real evil. As you watch Prime Minister Callow slowly tread through this nightmare of an episode, and as you picture yourself in his or in his wife’s shoes, I would bet that you’ll think of these questions slightly differently than you ever have before.
And that is good science fiction.
The second episode, entitled Fifteen Million Merits, is arguably the best episode of Black Mirror. It brilliantly takes another look at our media saturated culture, but from a different dystopian angle. It’s set farther into the future than the first one. In fact, I will never be able to think of Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four quite the same again without also thinking of this episode. At the same time, it also doesn’t feel as if it were that far into the future.
Fifteen Million Merits has all these things. The people in this other world live in what are essentially prison cells covered floor to ceiling with video screens. Commercials play on their bathroom mirrors. Pornography plays at their work. Reality TV shows are what they all live for. They get meaning for their lives by hoping and dreaming and wishing and working to be ... TV stars.
Imagine a world where almost everything natural has been replaced by technology to make it work better and to make it be safer. Imagine a world where a human being’s value can be measured in how he or she interacts with virtual media. Imagine a world where technological pleasure and instant gratification is always at your fingertips, always there to temporary satisfy insatiable appetites as many times as you could ever ask for.
The world of this episode also has all these things. It’s a satirical look at Reality TV and objectification of other people. But all these latest technological improvements are what everyone likes and wants. Pleasures are given and given and given as long as the consumer keeps paying for it. It is a world that has lost any connection between gratification and the existence of a moral sphere.
British philosopher Roger Scruton wrote, “The idea of ‘evil pleasures’ has slipped from our grasp. But it is through pleasure, power and glory that Mephistopheles tempts the soul of Faust. And perhaps our most vivid experiences of personal evil are granted to us in the context of sexual pleasure, when desire overrides, disregards or violates the freedom of its object.”
The sinister potential of these powers that Plato feared is precisely what Brooker explores in this episode. Everyone seems satisfied with them except one character, Bingham Madsen (played first with irony and then with passion by Daniel Kaluuya). Bingham is confronted with a sanitized, processed, prepackaged, artificial, media saturated world, and yet he is hungry for something more. Like most dystopian stories, he gets a hint that there could be something more when he meets a pretty girl, Abi (played with considerable charm by Jessica Brown Findlay). And then he hears her sing.
She is somehow untouched by the sordidness all around her. Her innocence and naivety are attractive to Bingham, but her singing hints at something even deeper. Her favorite song is old. It was passed down to her from her mother who learned the song from her grandmother. Abi becomes the first person to show Bingham beauty. In his eyes, she is beauty incarnated. Her very existence and personality is a light for him in a world covered with dark multimedia screens.
It is mesmerizing how, in a sterile inhuman setting, Brooker directs Kaluuya and Findlay to create something that seems a little magical. In a sense, Bingham understands something about truth. Abi understands something about beauty. When the two of them meet, you get the impression that real goodness is possible. Their relation to each other is morally good. But, that’s just the beginning of the story. In a world devoted to spectacles, false images and appetites, what would such a world so dominated by entertainment do to innocence, truth or beauty?
The nightmare of the second episode lies in how unnatural and abnormal it all feels (at least I hope it would seem that way to any viewer). Bingham and Abi bring back something normal again, and thus appear to be human beings. But there are many ways in which normal human relationships can be placed in great danger.
“An abnormity,” explained Russell Kirk, “in its Latin root, means a monstrosity, defying the norm, the nature of things ... An abnormal generation is a generation of monsters, enslaved by will and appetite. To recover an apprehension of normality, then, is to acquire an understanding of one’s real nature. The alternative to such recovery is not a piquant pose of ‘noncomformity,’ but monstrosity in the soul and in society.”
Honestly, one of the reasons why Black Mirror may not have yet aired in the United States is how it takes down the Reality TV show, American Idol, and its other hundred derivatives. Ranked the number one television show in United States in ratings for eight years, American Idol is watched every week by tens of millions of viewers at a time. Stopping to think about this for moment, what exactly are they watching? American Idol is a show where countless celebrity worshipers take turns subjecting themselves to an public exhibition so that they can be judged based on their looks, personality, charisma or popularity. They will either be praised or shamed. This exhibition is entertaining enough to become the top-rated show in the United States.
No one that I have ever talked to who watches American Idol has stopped to ask if this kind of entertainment has any kind of moral affect. What does it mean to value populist praise - or even to care about the popular spotlight? Chris Hedges writes: “The moral nihilism of celebrity culture is played out on reality television shows, most of which encourage a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness, and betrayal. Education, building community, honesty, transparency, and sharing are qualities that will see you, in a gross perversion of democracy and morality, voted off a reality show.”
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