Wednesday, 3 June 2015

BJ's EWTBCD: Fry does Black Mirror Redux, Part 1

Remember I did ramblings on Black Mirror a while back?  Well, Fry hated my post on it.  He felt I did it no justice, rushing through it like ‘a 12 year old with late homework’.  Harumpf.  It was only sposed to be my impressions, not a thorough analysis.  But knowing how he can analyze so well, I asked him to do it, as he would have.  So he did.  Here’s Part 1 of it.  He spoke for longer than me so we thought best to split it, cos there’s lots to digest here, and he has a very intense voice.  Which *I* love of course, but he says I’m biased. We mums get no acknowledgment.  Let me put it this way instead, evidentially:  His first post here, The Incel Experience (along with my post on the unparalleled actor Peter Wyngarde), are the two most popular posts the blog has ever had – highest hit rate, over time and immediately on posting.  So, I asked him back!

So – here’s the next installment of the Season – ‘Enough With the Bone Crunching Doom’…with this, er, dystopian, deeply doom ridden series…Er…It is funny though, very funny.  And sad…Alright, alright, it’s a different sort of doom than the one I was escaping when I started the Season!  Off we go…

Fry's Black Mirror Autopsy
Well here I am, back by popular demand it appears in light of my debut piece 'The Incel Experience' as my contribution to BBJ&S's summer extravaganza two years ago - who since has been asked to elaborate on a review she posted some months ago about Charlie Brooker's satirical drama Black Mirror. As the person who introduced her to this marvellous Twlight Zone adaptation she found it only right that Fry, with his superior yet inferior mind (just raving the geekometer there, cos we're about to hit the gas), be the one to give you a complete, thorough analysis of what the show is about, what is message is, and some of the ways it encapsulates the twisted nature of our technological revolution. 

The first matter to touch on before anything else is the show's writer, commercialized cynic Charlie Brooker. The same mind that threw the reality TV phenomenon into a zombie apocalyptic world (box office genius of a concept) three years earlier was the only person capable of pulling this show's components together to produce something both meaningful and dark enough to be realistic - not one of the episodes to date has had a conventional ending intended to give us cheesy Hollywood closure. This show makes you think, it doesn't give you the satisfaction of being told what to think. While Dead Set ultimately proved unable to live up to is astonishing hype and potential (despite it delivering Davina McCall as a zombie), Black Mirror is everything it's meant to be and some. As I go through episode by episode, keep in mind this is merely my interpretation, don't expect a clinical review with a barrage of critiques and/or acclamations. In the true spirit of the show, I'm here to give you a synopsis, it's up to you to mentally chew on it.

Episode One : The National Anthem

Perhaps the most overt of the seven episodes aired, but arguably the most relevant. While five of the others rely on an advance in technology to unearth ugly truths about the human condition, this one utilises possibly the most damaging creation of all - the birth of a social media generation (footnote : the other one falls back on simple human ignorance without an aid, but we'll get to that, #VoteWaldo). Getting straight to the point, as this episode very much does, the Prime Minister (played by Rory Kinnear) is faced with a choice - condemn the first social media royal to death or..... hmm, how do I put this both delicately and whimsically? Perform coitus resulting in a literal beast with two backs...... nope, that was impossible. Fuck a pig!!! Now it's interesting to note at this point Blackberry Juniper expressed the natural reaction to this revelation inside the first five minutes, with much squinting and a jaw that forgot the bite reflex - and much sympathy and concern for the fate of the pig (not the human of course lol). But being the emotional vacuum I can be when the situation calls for it thought to myself, 'Now this is different. I'm officially hooked'. 

Social media explodes. YouTube has allowed the ransom video to be seen across the globe within minutes. By the next morning it's become the water cooler debate to end them all, everybody has an opinion, everybody has a voice, we're all seething with anticipation at this man's impending humiliation almost forgetting (dare I say excusing) the abduction of a Royal public favourite. As the clock ticks down, public view begins to stabilize, a verdict has emerged from a jury compromised of flippant twitter simpletons who form the majority. We have spoken - and we expect non-compliance. Then something happens, and second video is released. Once again YouTube has provided the perfect platform to air your art, your grievances, your portion of the spotlight to the world (all of which apply to the perpetrator in hindsight). We watch as he cuts off our beloved princesses little finger, and suddenly this ceases to be an event worthy of the grandchildren test (forget the blitz - I lived through the 'will the PM fuck a pig' fiasco) and becomes about a woman's life. We are left outraged at the mere thought of the Prime Minister putting his image before the safe return of a defenceless young girl, and once again lay down judgement with emphatic condemnation - the public demands his "sacrifice". So the deadline approaches, the Prime Minister has accepted the only choice we've given him, and as he solemnly takes his position...... (I'll just give you a second there) we all as one are transfixed. The country is temporaily shutdown as we soak in this moment in time, we've left our mark on history as the generation that made this not only possible, but palatable.

There was far better to come from Black Mirror, but this episode's message was concise and sharp - leaving you with only one question to ask yourself. Would you have watched? After all this is something extraordinary, images that will stain the foundations of our culture, an event that will be documented as long as civilization exists in some configuration. This is simply history unfolding before our benighted eyes. So again... would you have watched?

Episode Two : 15 Million Merits
From the most overt episode of Black Mirror (and can guarantee will remain so) to the most surreal, and beyond question the hardest episode to discuss in an informative tone. The world has changed. For what reason and to what extent we're not quite privy to, though it's alluded to twice that the changes implemented are that of achieving a self-sustaining world powered only by the human muscle (I shall explain presently). We're left with only two concrete facts about this futuristic society. Firstly, THE ECONOMIC SYSTEM has evolved!!! The days of the paper note have passed us by - money, or merits, is/are logged and stored into your own virtual reality self (again, I shall explain presently). Bing, the character we follow (played by Daniel Kaluuya) gains wealth by pedaling, earning his merits by the virtual kilometre. Why? Because this world seems dependent on the alternate energy source Pedal Power (I say 'seems' as it's not categorically confirmed at any point). And such is the necessity of this demand, a majority of the product, service and entertainment industries appear to have collapsed, everyone's role is made clear - with the exception of a select few, we pedal. 

But without said entertainment industries in effect, how do we unwind? Very simple, we live out our lives on screens (that we generate by pedaling) - whether that be buying a new pair of trainers for our virtual surrogate, playing the latest shoot ‘em up, or in our loveable protagonist Bing's case settle in to the latest installment of Wraith Babes (i.e. futuristic BabeStation). And here we circle round to the second undisputed fact about this reality. One of the few service industries left, commercial advertising, has a death grip on its consumers. Skipping advertisements incurs a reduction in merits, and even failure to view advertisements that haven't or can't be skipped results in every screen within your vicinity shutting down with a high pitched, spiking audio intended to torture you into watching the content. Make no mistake; everything about this reality is hollow, unnerving and devoid of any substance.

So here we're introduced to Bing, an ordinary guy searching for purpose in a world that fails to stimulate him on any level - a relateable character to anybody with a depressive streak. One day he overhears the faint sounds of his crush singing and is mesmerised by her voice. With some persuading, and a merit endorsement, he convinces her to star on a highly regarded talent show which appears to be one of the few ways you get to escape the mundane existence on the bike. For the first time in the episode he cracks a smile, taking fulfillment in his generosity and brief connection with her. Accompanying her to the studio, he watches backstage as she moves the audience and judges alike only to be told her voice isn't in demand right now, but something else is. Fast forward a couple of days later, a dejected Bing is lying in his room (which might as well be a cell), murmuring her song, totally defeated by the system enslaving him - passionless, powerless, numb to his life. The screens forming his walls begin playing an advertisement for Wraith Babes showcasing the debut of their newest girl. The girl. His girl. And having spent his merits on her admission for the show, and despite his best efforts to shatter the screens, he's forced to watch. 

Days turn to weeks, weeks turn to months, and Bing has one core motivation left, one last goal to achieve. Appear on the show himself and if nothing else - for 15 glorious minutes, for 15 million merits, gets to make some noise.

He takes to the stage armed with a shard of glass which he places up to his throat, threatening to kill himself if security interfere with what he intends to do. He stands there stagnant, trapped in his own moment, consumed by the rush of fear, adrenaline..... The weight of a purpose rooting him to the spot. But when one of the judges (played by Rupert Everett) antagonizes him Bing proceeds to bleed from the soul, dishing out a cutting, guttural speech tearing into the "system" and it's effect on our quality of life. We're nothing but insignificant blips, so wrapped in our own pain that we can't digest the raw authenticity of reality, can't handle the glow of true beauty, that we accept the comfort of fake fodder to get us through the next moment without having to feel something genuine, something that could change us and how we percieve the world (footnote: to those of us who are wrestling fans, basically he cut your standard shoot promo). After a minute of tense, errie silence the judge pulls out the system's most devious trick that Bing couldn't of possibly predicted. In such a bleak, uninspring world people need to see the reflection of their own emptiness to retain any sense of sanity (you could even say looking at themselves through a "Black Mirror") - he's offered his own podcast in which he gets to utilise his cynicism to reach out to the millions of disillusioned like himself while they go about their meaningless lives riding the bike. He accepts.

To me, this episode is Charlie Brooker's equivalent of a Rorschach test (in which he sees himself). What you take away from it can be interpreted a variety of different ways depending on your philospical bent, your opinions about society and your faith (or lack of) in the human spirit. While not being a favourite episode of Black Mirror (#VoteWaldo) or necessarily the best from a writing standpoint, I'd go as far as to say this was the most thought provoking, giving off a chilling atmosphere that bites underneath the surface. And in spite of luring you in with a fresh world and new possibilities, it ended up reiterating two truisms that plague our existing lives and none of us can escape from.

1) No matter how things change, they ultimately end the same.
2) The system......... ALWAYS wins!!!

Episode Three : The Entire History of You

The most critically acclaimed episode to date, and based on the nature of the device it showcased it's easy to see why. While 'The National Anthem' gave you something rough and raw, and '15 Million Merits' provided something truly out of left field, 'The Entire History of You' almost acts as a steady compromise between being something with a story that leaves you on edge, but provides terrific food for thought regarding the limitless possibilities attributed to the device it centres around. The writer (Jesse Armstrong) decided to place it in a situation that while beautifully demonstrated its destructive capabilities was simply too narrow to do the concept any real justice. The device is a microchip implanted behind the ear that acts as a shadow drive to your brain's memory bank - enabling you to play back experiences for yourself and others exactly how your brain interpreted the information first time around...... what me, and thousands of other overthinks out there, would aptly refer to as 'The Devil's Device'. 

Where on earth do I begin with this? Like all truly terrifying ideas, it marries practicality with maniacalism (I believe I just made that up?). On the paper thin assumption this device couldn't be hacked - this would eradicate crime, revolutionize the academic system, demolish a crippled political system (#VoteWaldo), etc... this is artificial telepathy, a man made catapult to the next phase of our evolution, and we COULDN'T be any less prepared. Frankly at a time where we drip-feed our personal information out piece by piece spreading our private affairs over the internet (lords knows me and BJ&S are guilty of this) the creation of such a device seems almost benign, just another fun way for us to put our lives' under the microscope - and therein lies the problem. How could such a conceited generation cope with the power of being able to watch our lives in the third person and have the will to not disappear into ourselves entirely? And to be fair that's precisely what the episode got across. Meet Liam (played by Toby Kebbell), normal guy, normal life on his way to attend a dinner party hosted by some of his wife's friends. Already anxious after a less than impressive work appraisal earlier in the day, he enters the house to see his wife and a man he's never meet talking amongst themselves in a far away corner. Following introductions, as he casually asks who her friend is he immediately notices a change - she's flustered, caught off guard by his presence.

After obligatory exchanges with a few of the guests who are sharing a laugh over each other re-do's (the name given to the process of viewing back experiences using the device), everyone sits down to dinner and the topic of using the device to relive the early stages of past relationships comes up instigated by the man conversing with his wife earlier who goes into vivid detail. Despite this transparent attempt at alpha male supremacy alienating the rest of the women at the table, Liam's wife is reciprocating his carnal call - giving subtle indications there's more to this friendship than appears. 

And so begins Liam's self-desecration, armed with the implant his only interest becomes uncovering the truth between these two. Everything from shifty eye contact to nervous laughter by his wife on that night is scrutinized right in front of her, the device providing all the chain of evidence necessary to reinforce Liam's jealousy - completely justified when granted the opportunity to psychoanalysis micro expressions with re-do's, all of it alluding to his wife and this guy having a stronger bond than mere casual acquaintances.

The device has quickly rendered her word obsolete, just a baseless rebuttal in the face of compelling data fuelling this accusation. But despite it seeming an open and shut case the more Liam plays back the timeline it still remains just an accusation driven by paranoia, until he confronts the man in question the next morning still drunk from the previous night. Following a stony altercation where Liam's drunken state, superbly acted, pollutes the atmosphere with a tense, intimidating presence (thank god I'm always the drunk one in these situations), Liam smashes a bottle and threatens to stab him unless the man deletes all re-do's featuring Liam's wife - which upon reviewing the footage not only confirms his suspicions but brings something else into question. Sobered up and back home later that day, he informs his wife he's aware of her infidelity but presents them both with something far more troubling, a time stamp of her last sexual encounter with the man which falls ominously in-sync with the birth of their child. And so Liam, left for nothing but a carousel of his insecurities, lost in this obsession seizes the chance to relief himself and coerces his wife to play him the re-do of her sleeping with this man as he looks on, wondering what he ultimately gained with the truth. The episode closes with Liam stranded on a pile of hollow memories of his former family life which the device largely contributed to both destroying and prevented him moving on from, he aimlessly staggers between rooms of an empty house re-living the only moments he chooses to remember with precision accuracy. Once at the bathroom he gazes at what he's become in the mirror before methodically cutting into the implant and tearing it out from behind his ear. 

This was Black Mirror's first attempt to grab it's audience on an empathic level. The previous two episodes presented dilemmas for its characters while keeping the viewer at an emotional distance (more thought provoking than touching), this one just laid itself out bare. Those of us who think of ourselves as insecure, unstable, in my case bat shit fucking crazy, feel the devastation of stories like this. How quickly a paranoid delusion can transform into a full blown obsession without us realizing it, how we're much happier living under a veil of ignorance to protect us from the terrifying uncertainty of the truth. To people like us, this device is the worst thing imaginable. And the creme de la creme of this particular story, without a doubt the most unsettling plot development of all, was the fact Liam was right. The demons in his head, and the devil himself behind his ear, were correct in their assessment of his wife's behaviour, and it cost him everything. No moral. No questions. Just a story advocating the most fundamental law of human psychology....... Ignorance is Bliss.

PART 2 coming soon... 


(Completely Irrelevant closing words - BBJ&S says: And thats that for know the weirdest thing about all that?  I agree with each and every one of Fry's most negative assessments on the human race and on the future: each conclusion he makes, I see the sense of.  And yet, quixotically...I don't think we're doomed.  I see hope all over the place.  Whoever it was who said humans are 'a virus in sandals' on the face of the planet is 100% correct...and see a baby's face, and it hasn't done anything wrong yet.  It hasn't.  It will learn to.  LEARN.  Most of the vile crap we all do to one another, we are paying back for hurts we have had inflicted on us.  Sure, some of us are born with a screw loose or missing in the empathy department, and that's different.  But most of us...we can learn.  Not to invent the memory implant.  Not to enslave each other.  [To actually consider THE PIG when writing stories like The National Anthem (very humanocentric)].  To think more carefully about our actions.  Yes, it will take thousands of years, but thats what evolution is about. I feel oddly both depressed and hopeful when I watch Black Mirror.)

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