Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I grew up loving science fiction across all media, thanks to being surrounded by older people who had great taste. I loved the playfulness and the imagination of the genre, for sure, but what I reacted to was the genre’s capacity to discuss latent present day anxieties by projecting them towards the future to see how they may develop into full blown social ills. I saw it in James Cameron’s “Aliens” with jingoism and xenophobia (and STDs) following humanity into deep space; I saw it in Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future II” with capitalism and nostalgia running rampant thirty years into the future; I saw it in Philip K. Dick’s “Ubik” with its proposed double-layering of drug abuse and simulacrum and reality as pervasive illusion generated by mass consensus; I saw it in Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series with the Mule as a charismatic manipulative leader garnering mass support via subtle mind control.
This is the history and tradition “Black Mirror” situates itself into. It is the latest brain child of Charlie Brooker, an English humorist in the classical sense of the word, known for his acerbic, spiteful, and satirical analyses of mainstream media consumption dating back from the early 90s via comic strips and essays and mockumentaries and radio and TV shows — in the early 00s, he once ended an essay for The Guardian jokingly asking for the assassination of George W. Bush, for example. I know him from “Dead Set,” a terrifying five-episode zombie TV special that came out 2010, set, aptly enough, in the Big Brother house, packing a critique of reality TV celebritydom into the horror genre de rigueur of the time, with some bits of blather about TV production behind the scenes, and succeeding as one of the better examples of the genre, too. Charlie Brooker knows the score, it seems.
“Black Mirror,” in broad strokes, is all about how tech enables, intrudes with, enhances, and denigrates human emotions, interactions, vices, and relationships. Its major themes are media and the state manufacturing consent of the population, state and black hat surveillance, online call-out culture, inconspicuous tech (true cybertech interaction of the biological with the technological), how tech humanises and dehumanises both the individual and the society, in effect an exploration and critique of transhumanism. It is basically the sci-fi that we need right now.
There are 13 episodes so far — the first debuted 2011 and the latest came out just last Friday. I tried my best to rank them through some qualitative way, through a question of how successfully — deftly, subtly — each episode engages with my perceived reading of what “Black Mirror” aims to do. Except for the episode that I rank at the bottom and the one that I rank as the best, I regard the majority of the list fluid.
13. Shut Up and Dance (Season 3)
A young man’s laptop gets infected by malware that allows the perpetrators to record illicit footage, which is then used to blackmail the young man into performing various odd jobs across the city, ranging from the mundane to the criminal to the murderous. Not much tech is discussed outside of the usual and everyday — laptops, mobile phones, GPS, drones fitted with cameras — but on show is amoral belligerent troll culture, pushed to the already-not-too-distant extreme. This episode is probably the least interesting of all the episodes to date, featuring concepts that feel like they happened yesterday, and thus requiring the most significant suspension of disbelief from the audience — why not just risk having videos of you masturbating circulate YouTube? It’s more preferable than following a stranger’s instructions without question, unknowing just how far it’d take you, in the same way it’s far more preferable to let your files lie be corrupted by ransomware than to pay the hackers €500 so they can maybe unlock it for you.
12. The National Anthem (Season 1)
A member of the royal family, incidentally a social media darling, is kidnapped, and the terms for her release consist of only one request: for the prime minister to perform sexual intercourse with a pig, to be broadcast live all over the country. Anxiety on tech terrorism with a special blend of anarcho-art protest — in a sense, it is terrorism that has no economic gain in mind, its politics not based on race nor religious beliefs, thus it is terrorism that has no apparent moral, thus terrorism you cannot win against — is mixed with online spectator culture and modern day media distribution systems and how those two feed into each other, influencing public opinion influencing state affairs. Nothing really new, but this episode effectively showcases Brooker’s background as a sharply satirical English humorist, and terribly telepathic, too: four years after this episode first aired, rumors came out about then-Prime Minister David Cameron sexually penetrating a dead pig at least once in his life as part of an initiation ceremony (albeit it wasn’t broadcast live across the country). Not quite as effective as it seemingly wants to be in a show about tech anxiety, especially seeing as this episode is literally the show’s pilot, but it hits some notes worth hitting.
11. Men Against Fire (Season 3)
A cybernetic soldier on his first day in the battlefield meets the monstrously misshapen enemy head-on, only to be affected by an unknown weapon, changing his perception of the realities of conflict. This is one of the show’s many explorations of the future of military tech, but specific to the development of the historical practice of military conditioning to dehumanise the enemy, only not through propaganda but through direct digital manipulation of one’s senses. At present, this is already practiced in some limited capacity, via aggro-rock music playback fed into soldiers’ headsets while in the field, the modern day Drums of War, raising their adrenaline levels, promoting heightened awareness, and time immemorial through the demonisation of the enemy via propaganda and name-calling — this episode’s “roaches” are what in our reality we call “towelheads” and “gooks” and “pinkos” and “indios” — but this is a good extrapolation of just where these efforts are moving toward. War never changes, but hopefully our perception of it does, unfortunately at the expense of people on both sides.
10. The Waldo Moment (Season 2)
A network TV insult comic cartoon bear controlled by a failed comedian starts hounding a local conservative candidate, and later turns his trolling into a socially relevant exercise by entering the electoral race, running an expletive-ridden cynical campaign. On the surface, it treads along the traditional tracks of “The Emperor Has New Clothes,” the court jester/trickster character allowing the wherewithal to articulate thoughts and ideas that common, decent people aren’t allowed to, but it is covertly about media manipulation manufacturing consent among the buying public — it only feels like it’s your choice because you’ve been made to feel like it’s your choice but in reality, you have no other choice to make and you just don’t know it. A lot of people apparently pan this episode, but I feel it deserves a sharper reviewing, especially in light of recent global political developments where candidates are attracting voters in droves for “telling it like it is.”
9. Fifteen Million Merits (Season 1)
In a bunker techno-fascist community where entertainment, goods, and services (and skipping adverts streamed into your cell’s television walls) are paid for with credits earned from daily mindless servitude, two workers plot to buy their way to freedom by joining a reality TV talent contest. A firm and pointed criticism of reality TV celebritydom and how it preys on the working class both as its audience base and its potential participants, via feeding people rags-to-riches fantasies that are only attained if they are found likeable enough, is sandwiched into a love story seen through the eyes of a hopelessly infatuated young man. It is also a secret essay on neoliberalism, where free speech is pre-packaged and sold ad nauseam by media and the state in weekly doses; where freedom of choice only means being able to choose the best opiate your money can buy from your oppressors; where freedom is merely another cage you have to pay your way to get imprisoned in.
8. Playtest (Season 3)
An American backpacker finds himself penniless in London and then enrolls himself to playtest the next gen gaming system by a legendary Japanese developer: a riveting experience based on the user’s fear responses. Immersive reality is one of the gaming industry’s holy grails, be it narrative (multi-branching storylines that even allow you to choose which character you want to have consensual sexual relations with, regardless of race, gender, or species) or sensory (Oculus) or even actual interaction with hardware (the Wii wand). Another gaming industry holy grail is developing an experience controlled by an artificial intelligence that learns from and adapts to the player’s decisions, making for a gameplay that is near-infinite in its variations, wholly dependent on the individual players’ distinct psychological profiles. We already have both of these things today, and active research and development of the last 20 years steadily march towards gaming environments close to what’s portrayed in this episode, so this is less prescient and more acutely conscious of current tech trends (which shouldn’t come as much surprise as Brooker has a background on game journalism). That said, the episode manages to tell a convincing story of good old fashioned simulacra tailored with first world backpacker jumpscare thriller that is also a very successful piece of gothic horror.
7. White Bear (Season 2)
A woman wakes up in an empty house with no memory of who she is and where she is. She walks outside and finds herself in a suburban neighbourhood where she, together with a couple more people, is being pursued by strange hunters in balaclavas and animal masks carrying shotguns and electric steak knives as small crowds of people follow them, shooting the proceedings with their mobile phone cameras. “White Bear” is one of the most discombobulating episodes in the show that begins as one sort of torture porn, then slowly reveals itself to be a treatise on reality TV and our currently trending snuff film culture — where death has turned into an everyday spectacle in danger of turning into a mundane happening (most would probably say it already is a mundane happening), especially for those apparently perceived to deserve it, which then turns into a different sort of torture porn, one that is a proposal for the future of incarceration (where cruel and unusual punishment seems to be permitted). “Black Mirror” has more than its fair share of episodes fuelled by schadenfreude en masse, but this seems to be where it’s most pointed and most inhuman. Worth watching with Duterte’s war on drugs in mind, specific to how a large slice of our population seems to revel in its inhumane and inhuman proceedings.
6. Nosedive (Season 3)
A pastel-coloured suburban paradise furnished on minimalist Kinfolk couture is the backdrop for the histrionics of an appearance-conscious woman making an effort to climb the social ladder. In this world, class standing is based on how high other people rate you on your social interactions based on a five-star system wired through an omnipresent social media network. “Nosedive” is probably one of the most pressingly Today of all the episodes so far while still giving us a good long glimpse of how life might be like Tomorrow with how we frame our lives and relationships online in our various social media accounts, and the current trend of people asking for things from corporations and media personalities via farming for likes and shares and comments. This episode also makes for a damning critique of life as we know it right now: artisan life, wherfe even our past is given the crafty treatment thanks to photo manipulation filters evoking instant nostalgia (although the episode stops short of criticising our obsession with nostalgia, one of its few blemishes). Has social media turned us into a population of social climbers and attention whores, only performing politeness and kindness and other acts of humanity for the thumbs-up? Required viewing to understand this brave new world that has such people in it.
5. The Entire History of You (Season 1)
People walk around with implants they call “grains” inserted under the dermis behind their ears and wired to their spines, recording each and every sensory experience in high definition with at least a 30-year storage capacity for instant playback of all your life so far, all the good, the bad, and the mundane. In this world, we follow a couple and explore the ramifications of such a technology when it comes to everyday kitchen sink spats and the occasional bouts of jealousy. How would you resolve an argument if each and every word uttered can be replayed verbatim with the same pitch of high emotion? How would you quell your jealous rage when you can review and re-review scenes in high-def playback and lossless zoom-ins to analyse and over-analyse facial tics and awkward glances your partner unconsciously sends out to other people? How would you ignore your partner’s past dalliances and suspected infidelities when their first-person POV sex tapes are available for your viewing on demand? It’s a good and sticky concept that quickly generates ideas that spiral from our endless fascination with chronicling each and every bit our life in social media to how our life decisions in the past constantly impinge upon our present, from our strange fascination with our partners’ former sexcapades with people we don’t know to how we constantly filter our lives for the benefit of living with other people. The episode proposes that part of being human is telling white lies to people you love, that part of being human is having faulty unreliable memory. It’s one of the more affective episodes of the show.
4. White Christmas (Christmas special)
Two men are snowed-in in a cabin somewhere unknown, sharing stories about the lives they used to live back in the outside world. One tells a story about his stint as a date coach gone wrong and about being a programmer who (for a lack of a better term) breaks-in recently-born AI (Artificial Intelligence) to a life of smart house slavery; the other tells a story about the real life implications of social media blocking and cyberstalking in a world where social media is reality. Of all the episodes, this one bears the marks of Brooker having loose cloth ideas in his head and trying his best to make whole canvases out of them, and he succeeds albeit you still see the joins, even as the three stories blend into one another and tries to resolve itself into one big finish. The idea of social media blocking as real life ostracisation of people is great and somewhat frightening, especially the visuals employed to show it — an almost literal “ghosting” of a person — but what really fascinates in the episode is how the concept of brain-simulated AI is explored with regard to incarceration and slavery — is it still punishment and repentance if only a simulation of you is in prison for a thousand years? Is it still slavery if it’s a simulation of you that’s doing all the mindless work for the actual you?
3. Hated in the Nation (Season 3)
A detective and her partners investigate the bizarre deaths of people currently maligned by an online mob in social media, who are promoting a public shaming campaign using the hashtag #DeathTo, the deaths apparently abetted by a nationwide network of remote controlled robot bees. Like “Playtest,” this episode is a “Black Mirror” episode couched within a bigger genre — this time it’s “detective mystery” — with the dramatic arc of a proper Hollywood blockbuster in miniature; and like “White Christmas,” it is a canvas episode made up of several ideas, although this time the joins are smoother. The concepts it plays with are varied and practical: it explores a world right after today’s impending global extinction of bees and ties that up with developments in drone warfare and domestic surveillance, with social media call-out culture as backdrop. The story it chooses to tell is not as emotionally or intellectually complex as the others, but it is high on my list as it’s an episode where the show tries to prove it can also do old-fashioned big screen deft tech thrillers just as well or even better than most network and cable TV shows, featuring characters whose lives I would want to visit weekly. All the other stories thus far are one-offs, while this one has a promise of an ongoing. I normally don’t wish for such things, so this is an interesting effect.
2. San Junipero (Season 3)
Two young women meet in some bar in some seaside town in 1987, hook up, vow to find each other again one week later. One of the two breaks the promise then the other repeatedly tries to find her in the subsequent weeks throughout three decades, before finally finding her in a fourth. It’s probably the simplest story in all of “Black Mirror,” but also the most fragile that it’s really quite difficult to talk about — even in synopsis — without feeling you’ve already spoiled too much, so if you haven’t seen this episode, yet, tread carefully past this sentence’s last word. “San Junipero” explores the future of life after life, a sort of reversal of AI hell in “White Christmas,” now with brain simulation AI heaven as an endless nostalgia trip with teledildonics. It is reminiscent of The Sims as transhumanist immersive MMORPG, where people who for one reason or another can’t function normally in real life anymore – like, say, sexually — can once again enjoy all the normal things life has to offer but without the consequences. But then, isn’t consequence — like pain and suffering — part of living? So can we still call a life without pain “life?” The story tries its best to deal with this question while also trying its best to skirt around the perimeters of the specific romantic movie subgenre of the Terminally Ill Beloved, best exemplified most recently by “The Fault in our Stars,” but the high sci-fi tropes help the story not fall into that genre’s sappy trap. It plays all its happy, sad, sci-fi, and romantic notes well, and I especially love the double register of nostalgia in the story, where both the viewer and the characters are allowed to indulge in an eternal Throwback Thursday of Max Headroom, Alanis Morissette, Dance Dance Revolution, and Belinda Carlisle's “Heaven is a Place on Earth.” This episode also made me cry, and it is also worth noting that of all the thirteen episodes thus far, this is the first that features a gay relationship, and for a show that regularly deals with transhumanist concepts, this is both an improvement and a sort of diminishing of the show, too. I hope for more episodes that veer away from heteronormative setups. That said, though, I immediately eat my shoe as I reveal my number one “Black Mirror” episode….
1. Be Right Back (Season 1)
A man dies in an accident and his girlfriend reconstructs him first as a chatbot based on text and email messages, then as a voicebox based on audio and video footage, then as a silicon homunculus based on all the other textual detritus we find ourselves filling our social media accounts with. At first the charm and novelty are high, slathered with a healthy dose of really good acrobatic sex with sustainable erections on demand, but the rekindled relationship turns sour once the homunculus proves to be both too flawless — his features are based on photographs culled from social media, all apparently too flattering — and too flawed: He never closes his eyes to sleep (because he doesn’t need to), never breathes (because he doesn’t need to), never eats (because he doesn’t need to), never fights back (because he’s not programmed to do harm), doesn’t know people he hasn’t talked about in his social media accounts (because that wasn’t part of his programming library). This is probably the show’s subtlest treatise on human-ness — it is the accumulation of lived experience and the requisite processing of that experience with the people one shares her life with. This proposal is weighed against the framing of the self in social media, that it will never be the real you as it will always remain an endless performance of your ideal you; you will always inevitably post only flattering photos, videos, and status messages where you will always be thinner, younger, smarter, more well-read, cooler than you actually are IRL. And who is the real you, anyway? The performed ideal self who you say you are in Facebook and Instagram, or the flawed self that motivates the performance to begin with? And can love be so transcendent that one can love the ideal performance as much as one can love the flawed performer? Which self of our beloved do we actually love, anyway? Is it the concept or the reality?
The episode seems to propose: we all begin to love the ideal but then learn to love the real to the point where the real becomes the ideal. All this, and it is also an elaboration of the concept of what could happen to our social media lives once we die. As of 2014, it is estimated that there are already 30 million Facebook accounts belonging to dead people, turning a significant section of the website into a virtual mausoleum, where people can visit every once in a while to post memorials and even to interact with the deceased. And just last month, a coder just finished reconstructing her dead friend based on a randomisation of online correspondences, begetting what she calls a memorial chatbot, where she and other friends and family of the deceased, can interact with the dead friend via real time chatting, much like this episode’s homunculus’s first incarnation. It is hopeful and wonderful and scary and ultimately heartbreaking again and again, and seems to be a viable future of the afterlife, where we will be both the ghost and the machine.