Technology makes a convenient villain in science fiction(*). In our books, movies and TV shows, computers, robots and other inventions are forever gaining sentience and turning on us, punishing mankind for the hubris of trying to make like the Almighty.
(*) Also, at times in traditional fiction, like in the way the combined works of Aaron Sorkin can be read as one long screed against that damned Internet.
Technological dread is at the heart of “Black Mirror,” the brilliant British anthology series that's the best spiritual descendant of “The Twilight Zone” I've seen, and which joined the Netflix library last week. (Last year, DirecTV aired the episodes; as a result, it wound up on my list of the best new shows of 2013.) But what makes the series so powerful is that it doesn't just present another collection of stories where technology turns on us, but where we use technology to turn on – or tune out – each other.
Created by Charlie Brooker, who wrote or co-wrote five of the six episodes that have aired so far (a Christmas special, featuring Jon Hamm, will debut in the UK next week; Netflix does not at the moment have the rights to stream that, but it will be on DirecTV this month as well), “Black Mirror” does as its title suggests – and as the best science fiction strives to do – in offering us a dark reflection of ourselves, in a series of stories set in worlds only a few minutes from our own.
(Some spoilers follow for the premises of different episodes, though you may want to go in completely blind. If so, I might suggest starting with episode 2 and not getting to the first episode to the end, simply because it's probably the least representative of the six.)
In nearly every story, technology meant to improve our lives and bring us closer together has instead isolated us from one another, with phones, tablets and other devices usurping the position of basic human interaction. In “Be Right Back,” for instance, a young woman (Hayley Atwell) tries out a service that combs through her husband's social media history to craft an artificial intelligence program that thinks and speaks like him. “The Entire History of You” involves a twist on Google Glass where people have implants that can record every moment of their lives – moments that can then be rewatched, over and over and over again. “Fifteen Million Merits” (the episode that seems to take place furthest into the future) posits a world where poor people's existences are largely governed by gaming apps, pop-up ads and reality TV competitions.
In those stories, and in the other three, technology isn't the enemy; we are. We just turn to our devices for distraction, or for comfort, or for a feeling we can somehow no longer get from other people. The “Twilight Zone” comparisons have less to do with twists – only one episode really has a significant twist, and it's one that cleverly doesn't alter the larger meaning of what we've seen before – than with the way both shows look at what's happening right outside our windows (or inside our touchscreens) and extrapolate it just enough that our reality becomes the show's satire, or horror, or both. Nearly everything Brooker and his collaborators dream up feels frighteningly plausible, whether the actual inventions only being a few years away, or the way the stories take accepted online behavior and transplant it back into the physical world.
As I said above, I would probably save the first episode, “The National Anthem” until towards the end of my viewing experience, not because it isn't as good as the others, but because it doesn't feel entirely of a piece with the five that follow, and is thus not a great introduction to the series as a whole. Social media still plays a role, but it's primarily a political satire with a sick punchline; episode 6's “The Waldo Moment” is also about politics, but leans harder on the series' other areas of interest.
The best satire, and the best science fiction, draw as much as possible from the truth. Every now and then, I would stop to wonder if if an alternate future posited by a “Black Mirror” was plausible. And then I would pause from my thoughts to play a game of Subway Surfers, then do a Facebook status update about how well I did (got the Mega Jackpot yesterday!), and then fall down a YouTube rabbit hole of “Community” clips. So mainly when I look into the “Black Mirror,” I see me, and the view ain't so flattering.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com