Making my sleepy way home from Southend Airport after a weekend away, I was started by a more than usually tasteless poster at one of the train stations we passed through. A closer look explained just why it was so tasteless: it was an advertisement for a new series of Black Mirror, the dramatic Channel 4 social commentary written by Charlie Brooker. The knowledge that a second series is being launched was not one that I welcomed on an early Monday morning. Or indeed at all.
I have only watched the first of the three episodes of series one, but frankly have no desire to go anywhere near the others. To show you why, I am being lazy this week and recycling the review I wrote immediately after watching ‘The National Anthem’, still in the throes of postmodern disgust.
Channel 4’s announcement for Black Mirror immediately captured my attention: the short description posited a clever premise, and made me curious and eager to find out how the resounding names involved in its production, headed by Charlie Brooker, would develop it. I was promised ‘A twisted parable for the Twitter age [that] taps into the collective unease about our modern world’. Which, to be fair, it was. But instead of being edifying, thought-provoking or at the very least entertaining, it left me feeling disgusted, offended and very angry.
I am aware that, in the objections I would like to raise, I risk expressing exactly the sort of outrage Brooker was intending to cause, and he may congratulate himself on anticipating just such prim self-righteousness as mine in his audience. However, if people like myself are his target audience, I am sorry to say he has failed to get his point across. Yes, I watched to the end. But my motivation soon changed from wishing to see how a clever premise would be developed, to wanting to know what could possibly happen next, to making sure I knew exactly what was making me so angry. The first episode, broadcast on 4 December 2011 and entitled ‘The National Anthem’, was supposed to be ‘a political thriller in which fictional Prime Minister Michael Callow faces a huge and shocking dilemma when Princess Susannah, a much-loved member of the Royal Family, is kidnapped.’ Again, I must acknowledge this was true. There was a fictional PM, he was placed in an impossible position, this was due to the kidnapping of a fictional princess, and the pressure did come from the worrying power and influence of social media, opinion polls, YouTube and Twitter. It was clear that Brooker was going for the cyberpunk genre, by presenting the power of these anonymous and freely available media as a slightly exaggerated version of the truth: a world that is not ours, but one that ours could easily become. This taps neatly into the postmodern idea of the society of the spectacle. So well done, Charlie – you’ve read some Debord, some Baudrillard perhaps, or just one of Ballard’s early works. And the concept, I maintain, is clever, and one that, in the light of the importance of Twitter and Facebook in the development of the Arab Spring, but also their role in the August riots, needs to be addressed. But precisely because these seemingly innocent media have grown so influential, it is vital that, if they are addressed through a creative means, this is done well – intelligently, interestingly, and relevantly. Black Mirror was both callous and obtuse in getting across a message that was neither novel nor well-developed. The whole plot relied too heavily on the shock factor – to an extent that even the 45 minute time limit did not excuse. Plot turns were predictable (the severed finger delivered to the news network), and too much time was taken up by unnecessary and undeveloped additions (the unfinished subplot regarding the exhibitionist reporter; the extensive vomiting scene). It is clear what this shock factor is intended to do, of course: by appealing to the lowest common denominator, Brooker is making the audience implicit. Or intending to, anyway. ‘Look’, he’s saying. ‘You’re watching this, and judging it. But the fact that you’re watching now means that you would watch as well if the PM were really made to shag a pig on national television.’ For those who are intrigued by the kinky suggestion, by the way: we don’t get to see it. Whether because Channel 4 censored it, or because Brooker’s conscience kicked in, the camera zooms in instead on the faces of the people watching. An acknowledged cinematic technique, and one preferred by Hitchcock: horror is made more effective if the object of horror is concealed, and the audience is shown instead someone else’s reaction to it. It seems we can add a manual on screenwriting to Brooker’s preparatory reading. If only he’d paid more attention, he might have realised that more sophisticated use of these techniques would have got the message across as well if not better.
Whilst the film attempts to attain a higher plane of sympathy regarding the Prime Minister and his impossible choice, it is positively medieval in its attitude to women. The female characters are ill-defined and unsympathetic. Following neatly on from his rant about Sarah Palin, whom he considered and condemned not in terms of her policies, but as a sex object, at one point or another each of the women in Black Mirror is shown as crying, being mistreated or (ab)using their sex and sexuality. Other than that, they lack any agency of their own, apart from the ability to mess things up. Take, for a start, Princess Susannah, whose kidnapping sets the plot in motion. We are told she is the people’s darling, an eco-warrior with staunch opinions of her own. Yet the reason she is kidnapped is because she defied security in order to go to a party, and this irresponsible action on her part allows her kidnapper to plummet our sympathetic hero, the Prime Minister, into the depths of despair as he searches for ways to protect her. From the moment we meet her, she is shown only as crying, uttering desperate demands in a strangled voice, and fainting. As a later sign that all is well again, she is shown to be embracing the traditional female role of wife and mother. Next is the Prime Minister’s wife. She is egotistical and cannot – as the audience can – appreciate her husband’s sacrifice: she cries, clings to him and begs him only to consider what people will think of him and, in consequence, her. A year later she is outwardly still a loyal appendage, defining herself in terms of her husband’s career, but, heartlessly, still bans him from her bed. The only strong female character, one of the Prime Minister’s advisers, is also the only one to devise a potential way out through the hiring of a body double – and subsequently, when her cover is blown, the PM turns on her and attempts to strangle her. Nevertheless, she continues to protect and support him. Then there is the unresolved subplot of the reporter who, in order to get her big scoop, bribes a leak in Downing Street with nude pictures of herself. As a result, she reaches the scene of the action and is shot in the legs by the police – and the subplot is dropped. There are apparently no consequences for the leak, or for her news agency: we are left to conclude only that she got her dues for being so forward. Lastly, the pretty little nurse who is shown watching the gruesome event on television may be kind, in expressing pity for the PM and begging her colleagues at the hospital to turn the TV off, but is spineless (and intrigued?) enough to let herself be effortlessly overruled – and continues watching.
It is astounding to see how systematically Black Mirror ruined what was initially a perfectly good idea. The theme is both relevant and potentially worrying to present-day society, and it is important that this issue is explored – but such investigation requires original thought and sophisticated development, which Charlie Brooker’s shock doctrine failed entirely to convey. So far from painting an eerie picture of what our world might easily become, he overshot the mark and created something simply disgusting, which served only to distance me further from his work, and turned a genuine concern – the power of the media – into a farce. In doing so, he still felt it necessary to devise his script as a j’accuse to his own audience, commanding us to acknowledge that we are just as despicable as the TV audiences he portrays, because we would do the same. Yes, Charlie, we’ve been bad – we never knew till you showed us just how bad we are. But if someone who sets himself up as the public conscience to the extent that Charlie Brooker does, sees fit deliberately to insult his audience, he could at least do so with a modicum of intelligence. Shagging a pig on the telly simply will not cut it.