Questioning Concerning Humanity: Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror

blackI recently watched 3 episodes of Black Mirror for a class (#gradlife). Here is my review:

In his 1954 essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” philosopher Martin Heidegger explores both the “essence” of technology and the relationship people have to that essence. He begins with a pair of declarations—one: “In what follows we shall be questioning concerning technology,” and two: “Questioning builds a way.” Heidegger doesn’t set out to prove precisely what technology is or what it means to humans; he questions and explores his way through the topic instead. Though far-removed from Heidegger’s writing in many ways, writer and show-creator Charlie Brooker’s science-fiction anthology series Black Mirror treads a path that often intersects and runs alongside that set by the philosopher. Brooker’s show is not as obscure or as esoteric as “The Question Concerning Technology,” and it aims to entertain in ways that philosophy simply does not. And yet, Black Mirror’s central aim is not to provide clear answers to large questions about humans and technology. Rather, the show uses technology and its science fiction situations to ask viewers to question their way through a set of issues surrounding the essence of humanity. Black Mirror asks audiences to think about questions they might not otherwise; in doing so, they could just “build[] a way” to something profound.

Three episodes that illustrate the importance Brooker places on questioning are The National Anthem (the pilot), Men Against Fire (season 3, episode 5), and San Junipero (season 3, episode 4). Though inconsistent in terms of character development and sheer entertainment value, all three episodes put viewers in contact with important and potentially disturbing questions concerning humanity and the ways that technology can be used to alter and control what it means to be human. While the show’s anthology format does not necessarily foster strong emotional attachment or any long-term investment in some overarching plot, Black Mirror remains intriguing and intelligently written. The show is also deeply unsettling, and it has the potential to move viewers to look at the world with altered eyes—though Brooker does leave it up for debate whether this potential is something to praise or to fear.

With Black Mirror’s pilot, Brooker risks alienating audiences to declare that his show can feature just about any subject—no matter how taboo—as long as it can be used to provoke, disturb, and encourage questions. The National Anthem—in which the British Prime Minister (Rory Kinnear) is blackmailed into having sex with a pig on live television to prevent the death of his nation’s princess (Lydia Wilson)—goes whole-hog. If a tale about a prominent political figure engaging in bestiality doesn’t send viewers running for the hills, it’s possible that nothing will. Positioning The National Anthem at the beginning of Black Mirror is a power move on Brooker’s behalf. It’s also an indictment of viewers. In the episode, people all over Britain are showed glued to television sets as their (supposedly dignified) leader debases himself in abhorrent fashion; if audiences of Black Mirror feel the urge to judge them for their behavior, they must first acknowledge their own inability to look away from the show, even when images of man fornicating with a pig are well within the realm of possibility.

At the heart of The National Anthem are questions about the power of television and the media, as well the boundaries between media and reality. The episode works to demonstrate the ways in which YouTube videos, news, social media, and just about anything that appears on screens can be used to control those who view them, but it leaves viewers to decide for themselves whether the screen is an agent of evil. That said, if viewers leave The National Anthem more upset by the idea of a man having sex with a pig than they are by the coercive potential of television, then perhaps it is already too late for such coercion to ever be thwarted.

The National Anthem was directed by Otto Bathurst and features serviceable performances from its cast, which includes Rory Kinnear (The Imitation Game), Lindsay Duncan (Sherlock) Donald Sumpter (Game of Thrones), and Anna Wilson-Jones. Given the episode’s political setting, the characters are mostly ciphers, and the actors play types more than they do individuals. This prevents viewers from connecting to them on an emotional or personal level, but the resulting distance also makes it more likely for them to absorb The National Anthem as the set of questions and concepts that it is.

Where The National Anthem engages the potential dangers of television and similar media, Men Against Fire focuses on the ways in which war and technology alike destabilize the boundaries around the category “human,” as well as the way that viewing a group of humans as “other” can lead to their destruction.  In the episode—which takes place in an undefined country in an undefined future—a young soldier named “Stripe” (Malachi Kirby) goes on his first “roach hunt.” According to Stripe’s leader (Sarah Snook), roaches are a type of human that must be exterminated for the good of everyone else. The soldiers are also equipped with technology referred to as a “MASS” implant, which makes them much more effective killing machines than they would be without them.

A dystopic war story, Men Against Fire paints a decidedly bleak picture of society and its capacity for destruction and subjugation like. Though they are not always surprising, the episode packs numerous twists, which serve as grim reminders that viewers cannot trust the evidence of their own eyes, especially when what they see is in any way mediated by technology. With Men Against Fire, Brooker also questions the acts of manipulation and dehumanization that make war possible while calling attention to the justifications often lurking behind such acts. This dark and rather violent episode also asks viewers to regard any attempts to cast a group of people as lesser than another with harsh skepticism. (For what it’s worth, Men Against Fire also includes a character named “Heidekker,” a nod to Black Mirror’s connection to Heidegger.)

Directed by Jakob Verbruggen, the episode features Malachi Kirby, Madeline Brewer (Orange is the New Black), Sarah Snook, Michael Kelly (House of Cards), Ariane Labed (The Lobster), Francis Magee (Game of Thrones), and Loreece Harrison. While there are no real standouts among the bunch, the intensity of the story gives the actors more room to make an impact than those in The National Anthem. However—and as thematically rich as the episode is—Men Against Fire drags near its end. In a long scene featuring Kirby and Kelly, Brooker’s script wastes precious time overexplaining the issues at its core, and the lack of subtlety soon grows dull. As Kelly’s military suit Arquette drones on about how “it’s a lot easier to pull the trigger when you’re aiming at the bogeyman,” Men Against Fire loses momentum. For whatever reason, Brooker seems to doubt whether plot alone can convey the questions he wants the episode to raise (it can) and resorts to heavy-handed dialogue instead. The episode remains a solid piece of idea-driven television, but it is not as compelling or as well-paced as it could have been.

An episode of Black Mirror that doesn’t suffer from such issues is San Junipero. Of the three episodes discussed here, it features the strongest writing and most well-developed characters. It also manages to make an emotional impact without forsaking larger questions about what it means to be human. With San Junipero, Brooker demonstrates that he is more than capable of crafting an affecting and emotionally delicate story, even if he does not always chose to do so.  San Junipero begins in the 1980s and follows a woman named Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis). With her over-sized clothes, flat hair, non-prescription glasses, and shy demeanor, Yorkie declares to the world that she has no interest in being seen, but she regularly visits the local nightclub all the same. While there, she meets Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a stunning, confident, and vivacious woman who tries to bring Yorkie out of her shell. Over the course of the episode, the women fall in love, but—as so often happens in Black Mirror—technology soon complicates things.

San Junipero is firmly situated within the realm of science fiction, but this is only revealed gradually. More importantly, it is never the point. The futuristic and technological elements of the episode are not what it is about—like YouTube and bestiality in The National Anthem and like the MASS implants in Men Against Fire, they are simply tools with which Brooker poses his questions. Though it’s not as bizarre, as dark, or as violent as the other two episodes, San Junipero is still concerned with important human problems. Among them are how a person is to keep living under the weight of regret, what is real and what isn’t, what it means to die, and whether it is acceptable to merge (wo)man with machine.

While other episodes privilege more complicated plots in their exploration of certain themes and ideas, San Junipero asks its particular set of questions through a character-driven love story. Where much of Black Mirror is cold and distant, San Junipero is tender and intimate. Perhaps consequently, the episode (which was directed by Owen Harris) also features more memorable performances than its more impassive counterparts. In addition to Davis (Halt and Catch Fire) and Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights), the episode also features Denise Burse, Raymond McAnally, and Gavin Stenhouse. While Burse does anchor some stirring moments as an older version of Kelly, it is Davis and Mbatha-Raw who steal the show. The two women have great chemistry, and each understands the value of a simple glance in conveying a story of this nature. The love that develops between Yorkie and Kelly never feels inauthentic or insignificant, and their performances tug at the heartstrings; while Brooker’s script is partially responsible for this fact, he also has the episode’s lead actresses to thank.

Though not always as engaging or as emotionally impactful as it could be, Black Mirror isn’t afraid to take risks, and both its daring and the weighty topics that it grapples with help to set the show apart from the rest of the TV landscape. Where some writers work primarily to please viewers through character construction and plot development, Brooker focuses much of his energy on bringing forth ideas and asking viewers to question. Since Black Mirror presents a new set of faces and a different setting in each of its installments, the list of stories it might tell is virtually endless. To watch Black Mirror is to enter a world where anything is possible, where anything goes, and where one never knows what sort characters a given episode will contain. Though often set in some imagined future, Black Mirror—like most worthwhile science fiction—is undoubtedly about the present. What connects the show’s disparate pieces together are the questions about humanity that it raises, and those interested in tackling (and in being tackled by) such questions should find something to like in Brooker’s creation.

Until Next Time
If you follow me on twitter and letterboxd, then you know that I’ve recently seen Moonlight (great), Hacksaw Ridge (not great), and Arrival (pretty good).

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