Mirror, mirror, on the wall (on your desk, in your home, in your pocket…)

I can remember once doing a GCSE English coursework assignment on the portrayal of fear and horror in Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds and the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. I didn’t enjoy Poe’s stuff at the time, and I’ve never been much of a horror fan anyway; I thought du Maurier’s book was cool and unusual though.

 

The main argument in my essay (I wish I’d kept it: I got an A!) was inspired by an article I’d previously read in the monthly magazine that was later rebranded BBC Focus, on the possible origins of horror stories (theories that vampire myths originate from symptoms of the medical condition porphyria, and so on). It also explained the psychology behind horror writing, and I wish I’d been able to keep a copy of that article too.

I think we partially grow out of ‘traditional’ horror as our childhood fears of ghosts and monsters are replaced by other things: as an adult, I find psychological thrillers more effective. The gist of that old Focus article was that traditional monster-themed horror stories feature an exterior threat, but psychological horror is more frightening because the threat comes from people, and as a result is much harder to hide from.

In the 1990s reboot of The Outer Limits, the most chilling instalments for me were of the SF variety (apart from the episode “Under the Bed”…), featuring people tampering with technology rather than fighting supernatural beasties. Fast-forward to the day in 2015 when I discovered Black Mirror on Netflix…

I know of Charlie Brooker for his dry, humorous commentary on current events in Weekly Wipe and How TV Ruined Your Life, so between these and his newspaper columns I already knew that he’s a damn good writer with a sharp eye for satire. Although there are elements of dark humour in Black Mirror (the twisted premise of the opening episode National Anthem for instance) his writing mostly plays it straight here and charges fearlessly forward, casting aside doubts over plot holes along the way.

Behind the sardonic wisecracks and puns of his presenting style, I’ve always detected an underlying fierce intelligence and firm sense of morality in Brooker’s work. There’s rarely a happy ending in Black Mirror’s stand-alone stories – there’s a sense of resigned hopelessness that reminds me of Philip K Dick’s and George Orwell’s most well-known works – but the downbeat cynicism doesn’t completely obscure his moral compass. Rather, these are cautionary tales told from the point of view of someone who’s all too aware of our weaknesses but still has enough faith in us as a species to believe that it’s worth warning us in the first place.

The settings of the stories are set in alternate presents or near-futures, which adds to the realism and ease by which the audience can relate to what’s going on. SF is such a broad term that it covers a wide spectrum from “hard” to “soft” science, from university degree-level terminology to circumstances that are virtually indistinguishable from our own. Black Mirror plays down the science-y side, using recognisable terms and familiar-looking people and places to keep the events close to our own experience.

The end result is a set of stories that can deliver their emotional and intellectual payload – often within forty-five minutes – without large amounts of info-dump exposition or obscure jargon. The storytelling is concise, vivid and leaves a lasting impression: as with a lot of futuristic SF, it extrapolates the course of existing technologies and trends, and then examines where that course could take us, but says as much about our present as it does about its own fictional worldview. The things it has to say are truly unsettling.

 

My derision and distaste for X Factor-style talent contests and ‘fat shaming’ now feel vindicated. The phenomenon of “trial by social media” feels like even more of a pressing conversation that our society needs to have. While social media has helped us in so many ways, Brooker is absolutely right to liken it to a drug; a drug whose side-effects we’ve yet to fully grasp.

I think the downplaying of the nuts-and-bolts of the technology that appears in these stories is a wise move, and not just to ensure that viewers who are uncomfortable with hard science aren’t put off. It doesn’t really matter what algorithms are used to create a ‘virtual’ personality of someone using their social media data. It doesn’t matter what mind control is used to wipe someone’s memory. It doesn’t matter what active ingredients go into Cuppliance.

The problem isn’t the technology itself; the problem is our relationship with it, our addiction to it, and all too often the root cause of the paranoia and tragedy that unfolds is due to old, familiar human nature. Domestic arguments already happen without couples recording past conversations and experiences for future reference. Desperate people still sacrifice their dignity and principles for fifteen minutes of fame. Our notion of ‘justice’ is still influenced by revenge and spite as it is by deterrence and rehabilitation.

Simply put, technology should be handled carefully and responsibly, but the problems it appears to cause still stem from human failings such as cowardice, jealousy, selfishness, ignorance and cruelty. I’m recommending it with trepidation here, because I know that you’d probably find it gripping and memorable, but at the same time I don’t know whether you’d want to thank me for it afterwards. The mirror may be black, but it’s a mirror nonetheless. Gaze into it, and we still see ourselves.

At the time of writing, both the first and second season are available on UK DVD, Netflix  and the 4oD catch-up service