Charlie Brooker wrote this exquisite set of superbly acted dramatic near future scenarios back in 2011, but I only managed to catch it recently. It’s compelling – if uncomfortable – viewing, and if you struggle with concepts about the illusory nature of the self and existentialism then it might send you into a downward spiral of darkness from which it may take days to recover. You might also laugh. There has since been a second series and it’s good to see Brooker shedding his role as the guy who has to moan even when he maybe quite likes something.
Ep. 1: The National Anthem
Dressed up as a softer version of David Cameron, Rory Kinnear plays a UK prime minister who’s woken up one morning to be presented with the ultimate ultimatum: The Princess, wife to the heir of the throne, has been kidnapped; unless the prime minster porks a pig on live television before the end of the working day, she will be tortured and killed. National shock sets in as footage of the imprisoned duchess is leaked on the web and the perpetrator lets the world know of the proposition to the PM, but nobody is in greater disbelief than the party leader himself.
More like a Twitter Zone tale than a Twilight Zone episode, The National Anthem considers the havoc that such a situation, were it ever to occur, would send through the hive mind of social media. As the collective mood swings from: 87% of Britons think he should definitely not engage in sex with a pig, to, later in the day: 90% say the swine MUST do it, the mental and physical crumbling of a proud, rational and intelligent man takes mere minutes to set in. All options (CGI, body doubles, bargaining, call/IP tracing) exhausted and the terrorist still not found, he has to make essentially one of two decisions: Commit political and public suicide by opting out and condemning the nation’s sweetheart to a painful death; or saving her by engaging in the most traumatic act of his life, one which will destroy his family for good. The consequences will never be the same.
Ep. 2: Fifteen Million Merits
In the cold alternate reality of episode two, humans are living out an Orwellian existence comprised largely of computerised virtual interaction in which exercising on a pedal bike all day is the only way to earn credit. Cycling communes are artificial and utilitarian cells built out of titanium and plyglass, isolated and windowless – the only ‘world’ to see if that of an inescapable Postman Pat-alike digital vista which flashes on the surface of each tiny cubicle the inhabitants sleep in. If you don’t pedal enough, you can’t afford oral hygiene products, porn services or junk food – don’t each too much of that last one though, or else you’ll be stripped of your right to life, dressed in a yellow onesie and made a subject of daily mockery and debasement. You won’t even be able to afford toothpaste.
This one digs really deep, blurring the lines between performance and truth, being alive and actually living. In an age in which the technologically privileged consume and demand more entertainment than ever before, how long will it be before entertainment takes precedence over experience? Fifteen Million Merits is the amount a hard working few must pedal to in order to enter Hot Shots, this dystopian society’s life consuming version of X-Factor/BGT/Them Shows, and upon entering they are wrangled like cattle, drugged and made to perform in front of millions of anonymous jeering audience members. What makes the competitors different to the viewers is hard to pinpoint. It could be genetics; it could be ‘willpower’; it could be circumstance and environment; at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. There are big ‘F yous’ to the Simon Cowell freak parades that make belligerent dullards of their viewership every Saturday night (and Sunday night, and let’s not leave out repeats and post-show analysis), and through the two main characters Brooker satirically observes our own pathetic desire for acceptance.
Be transfixed as Daniel Kaluuya reaches breaking point, literally, and decides to turn the black mirror of media madness in on itself with a hair raising speech that will have you jump out of your chair (or pedal bike, if that’s your preferred viewing podium) and yell, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore! Except when I begin to take it again soon!’
Ep 3: The Entire History of You
If you could watch everything you ever experienced back again in 1080p, would you want to? Episode 3’s futuristic twist comes in the terrifying form of the ‘Grain’, a highly advanced piece of personal tech which records all the information processed in your brain as your eyes perceive it and uploads it to the cloud, automatically creating a history of your entire existence from a POV perspective. The very idea that every single interaction with anyone else would be recorded for future viewing would surely render most social humans inoperable. Everything would be fake, and your few unplanned and enlightening experiences would be pored over time and again without ever capturing the sense of vitality and euphoria you felt as it happened to you. Some humans indulge their wistfulness by flicking through old photo books or, nowadays, a back catalogue of text messages/phone pics, but this eye-cam ‘Grain’ concept is on another level of sad. Nothing would get done; people would suffer breakdowns in a matter of weeks or days. Sustaining a relationship wouldn’t be possible. Nothing original or interesting could happen. Besides, your rose-tinted memory movies are far superior to the mundane reality, and unless you’re David Attenborough or an astronaut then there’s not much to be gained from seeing it all over again.