Proper Gander: Reflections on Black Mirror
A video is posted onto YouTube showing Britain’s beautiful new Princess tied up and crying. She struggles to read out loud a message from her kidnapper: she will be killed unless the Prime Minister has sex with a pig, live on television. The first story in Charlie Brooker’s trilogy of state-of-the-nation dramas – Black Mirror – wasn’t going to be easy viewing. The bizarre, nightmarish scenario was acted and directed with thorough seriousness, making the programme feel more like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, drawing the viewer in.
Brooker is savvy enough about the media to make the viral spread of the threat across the internet central to the plot. The kidnapper’s message zooms through YouTube, facebook and twitter without the traditional methods of communication – press releases, newspapers and television news – being able to keep up. The new types of media are changing how we relate to the world. Information is open directly to more people, to interpret, spread and act upon. According to Brooker, this turns us into social-networked, YouTube-sharing voyeurs, for whom everything is titillation. He’s saying that reducing events to tweets and facebook updates cheapens them, and robs them of their real meaning.
Back in the drama, the government’s improvised back-up plans fail, and the situation for the Prime Minister and the Princess gets fist-clenchingly desperate. The kidnapper’s deadline for the live bestiality broadcast is approaching. Like the crowds gathering in front of their screens, the viewer is both appalled and dragged into watching, thinking, ‘will they really show it?’
Brooker succeeded in crafting an intelligent, challenging drama. Anyone hearing about the premise and tuning in for a PM-on-porcine-action trashfest would have found themselves to be the target of Brooker’s bile. The final scenes shifted the blame for the horrible situation to the gawping masses. This is where Brooker is perhaps too cynical about our lust for what we watch on our screens, whether on a television, computer or smartphone. So, Black Mirror is best watched as a warning of the risks of alienation by the share-and-spread immediacy of modern media.