Charlie Brooker was scaring us in the U.K. long before he created Black Mirror. Both in his column for The Guardian and on the TV shows Screenwipe and How TV Ruined Your Life, he regularly argued that the world was on fire and that rather than putting out the flames, we were burying our heads in I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! and documentaries about the world’s fattest family. Dead Set, one of his forays into fictional satire, was a zombie mini-series set in the Big Brother house with prima donna celebrities, arsehole producers, and airhead reality TV ‘stars’ trying to avoid being on the menu for the marauding undead. His other TV show, Nathan Barley is not technically in the horror genre but his predictions about the rise of idiots and hipsters, and the state of the entertainment industry are so painfully prescient that you can’t help but be terrified during it.
Black Mirror itself would probably more likely fall into the sci-fi or speculative fiction genres more readily than horror but so far there have been very few episodes which aren’t bollock-clenchingly terrifying or that leave you feeling distressed and disturbed for days afterwards.
Each episode essentially takes a piece of modern technology and exacerbates its use in society to a breaking point. Some episodes are set in the modern day, others in the near future, but each tends to come with a strong moral about disconnection and overreliance on the screens we spend our days staring at. Brooker has a gift for not belaboring these messages, however.
Brooker also uses his freedom to play with time to full advantage; His near-future episodes feature technology that seems like it could be just around the next corner, and those in the present that focus on existing technology used for malice, like season three’s “Shut Up and Dance”, feel disconcertingly real and make you start giving your smartphone the side eye, lest it finds a way to sneak up on you.
Brooker also keeps the story’s integrity (while maintaining its fear factor) by never descending into hysterics. Black Mirror is not a PSA about the dangers of technology. It is simply showing us its potential—to destroy us, our relationships, or our loved ones.
Season one’s “The Entire History of You” is a standout in terms of Brooker’s savvy as a creator. The episode’s premise is that a majority of people are fitted with a chip that is installed just behind their ear, and with a remote, can rewind and play back their memories, even projecting them onto nearby screens. Following a dinner party, a husband becomes increasingly paranoid about the relationship between his wife and one of the men at the party, and keeps using the memory chip to dig deeper and deeper into his paranoia until he finds out some horrible truths. It is basically your Facebook timeline weaponised. And that’s the joy and despair of Black Mirror. With “The Entire History of You” it reminded me of a jealous ex-girlfriend who took my phone and read through my messages, building up huge paranoid fantasies based on the context-less messages. Black Mirror just takes that to the extreme and gives us a worst-case scenario.
For this reason, Black Mirror is not for the faint-hearted. While sometimes funny, it is mostly unflinching and cruel, flickering and lingering in your consciousness like a nightmare from which you’ve just awoken.
Featured Image: Netflix