CinemaTech is Eric Emin Wood’s periodic look at how pop culture depicts the world of tech.
I have generalized anxiety disorder. At least once a day I’ll finish having a conversation with someone and begin analyzing whatever I said, worried that a stray word or phrase could have caused irreparable damage to our relationship – partly because in the past, it has. And whether a week, a month, a year, or a decade old, those moments make me shudder with frightening regularity as much now as if I said them an hour ago.
Thank goodness I don’t have a rice grain-sized chip installed behind my ear that records everything I see and do; in all likelihood I’d spend hours overanalyzing every conversation I’ve ever had, never getting anything done while alienating family, friends, and colleagues along the way – just like Liam, the protagonist of “The Entire History of You,” the third episode in the first season of Netflix original Black Mirror.
Each episode of the anthology series, a coproduction with the U.K.’s Channel 4, depicts a “what if” scenario using either current technology in an alternate present, or a near future where new technology has redefined some aspect of our lives.
I break down six of my favourites below – and apologies in advance, but spoilers abound.
“The National Anthem” (Season 1, Episode 1)
More than any other episode of Black Mirror, this is the one that you can easily imagine taking place today – and considering the rumours about former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, it’s not hard to imagine who creator Charlie Brooker (known as a humourist before creating Black Mirror, oddly enough) had in mind before writing this episode.
The setup is both simple and frighteningly plausible: the U.K.’s Princess Susannah (Lydia Wilson), as popular with the public in Black Mirror’s world as Kate Middleton in ours, is kidnapped by terrorists and, in a video broadcast across YouTube, demands at gunpoint that Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) engage in an obscene act with a pig on camera, at a specific time on a specific date, if the public wants to see her alive again.
Every stage of Callow (yes Charlie, we see what you did there – very funny)’s attempt to wriggle out of the demand unfolds in the most cynical, and therefore realistic, possible way: First he tries to block the video before it spreads across YouTube; then he orders a publication blackout which is broken by a tabloid; then he orders an investigation impeded by the media; and finally, when all other options have been exhausted, gives into the social media-led polls that indicate the public would never forgive him if he doesn’t submit.
The twist is that it wasn’t terrorists who kidnapped the princess: It was someone using streaming video and social media as a canvas for the ultimate act of performance art, a viral video like no other, killing himself in service to the stunt rather than allowing himself to be apprehended.
He even releases the princess 30 minutes before Callow’s appointed hour.
“The Entire History of You” (Season 1, Episode 3)
Would it really help us to replay send-offs like “This has been great. We really hope to look forward to seeing you again,” which Liam (Toby Kebbell) rewatches over and over after a job interview in this episode? I don’t think so, and I’m pretty sure Black Mirror agrees.
The episode’s central conflict is triggered when Liam catches the tail-end of a conversation between his wife, Ffion (Jodie Whittaker), and her longtime friend Jonas (Tom Cullen), who perhaps is making her laugh a bit too much as Liam arrives at their mutual friend’s party. It’s hard to say. Even after replaying the scene multiple times, using lip-reading software, he isn’t sure.
Through a mix of accusations and replays, the truth comes out: that Jonas and Ffion were romantic in the past; that it lasted for six months (not one month, as she initially confesses, and not a week, as she said early in their relationship – which a replay backs up); that during a fight with and temporary separation from Liam, Ffion spent one night with Jonas.
It’s admittedly debatable whether Ffion treated Liam fairly in the past; whatever that fight was about, the break was short and they have a baby son together.
Less debatable is whether Liam’s relentless pursuit for the truth leaves him happier: He learns what really happened, yes, but at the expense of his wife and son, both of whom are gone when he wakes up the morning after.
How, exactly, did having a technology-aided memory help him?
“Be Right Back” (Season 2, Episode 3)
The last time Martha (Hayley Atwell) sees her husband Ash (Domhnall Gleeson), he’s embarking on the type of routine errand that shouldn’t end with the police knocking on her door, but does. During his funeral, an overly helpful friend recommends a startup that constructs an artificial intelligence (AI) version of the dead based on their written correspondence, and at first, Martha simply finds herself enchanted by texting “Ash.”
Soon, however, she learns the algorithm can synthesize his voice from recordings, and before long is chatting with “him” on her smartphone, like Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Her. Finally, she’s told the startup has been experimenting with robot bodies, and it’s not long before Gleeson has returned to the screen.
Just like Mark Zuckerberg-defined AI, however, this new Ash doesn’t have a mind of his own, merely the appearance of one. He doesn’t challenge Martha when she becomes angry at him. He doesn’t plead when she orders him to jump off a cliff, until she tells him to (plead, that is, to not be forced off the cliff). Excellent facsimile though he is, he can’t fill the void the real Ash leaves in her heart.
“Be Right Back” ends on a bittersweet note; Martha discovers she’s pregnant with Ash’s child, and ultimately decides to store his robot avatar in their house’s attic, where a decade or so later their daughter can occasionally visit her “father.”
“Nosedive” (Season 3, Episode 1)
What if everyone you knew and everything you did was connected to the same social media network – and if, like Uber, you could rate every interaction out of five stars, and see how many stars everyone gave you? What if that affected where you could live, who you could associate with, the work you could do?
“Nosedive” protagonist Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard), a 4.2, embraces this nightmare scenario with the same blind ambition typically associated with a new promotion or raise, pursuing the 4.5 rating that would allow her to live in her unnamed city’s upper-class Pelican Cove neighbourhood by striving to be the right level of friendly with the right type of people, such as college friend Naomie (Alice Eve), who invites her to be maid of honour at her wedding, lest strangers begin giving their encounters with Lacie a mere four or even – gasp! – 3.8 out of five.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Lacie’s cross-country attempt to attend Naomie’s wedding goes awry. First, a series of chance encounters reduces her rating to 4.1, preventing her from getting on a flight reserved for those rated 4.2 and above. Then, after Lacie reacts less than happily to this news, she loses a full point as a 24-hour “temporary measure,” limiting the type of car she can rent. When it breaks down, she hitches a ride on a bus filled with cosplayers after successfully pretending to be one of them. When the truth is discovered, naturally, her rating drops even more. By the time Lacie has reached Naomie’s wedding, her rating is an abysmal 2.6 and she’s no longer welcome to attend.
The joke, articulated by Lacie’s video game-obsessed brother at the beginning of the episode, is that Lacie starts by pretending to be a version of herself that doesn’t exist, and by episode’s end is being punished for being the person she truly is (whether this rings any bells in the viewer is up to them). The ending, in which she finally connects with someone rating-free, might come about after she’s been arrested for crashing Naomie’s wedding, but is also probably the best possible outcome she could have experienced.
“Men Against Fire” (Season 3, Episode 5)
Black Mirror doesn’t dig too deeply into the circumstances that would have been necessary for this tale’s dystopian vision to come about, and I’m not sure I’d want it to. What matters – and, personally, scares me more than any other episode of the series – is that the way its technology is applied makes perfect sense.
When we first meet Stripe (Malachi Kirby) and his squadmates, they’re using a familiar term to describe their enemies – “roaches.” They’re sent to a Danish village which has recently been attacked, and we gather from their exchanges that the perpetrators are mutated humans.
Except… well, they’re not.
They’re simply humans – refugees, in fact – who could potentially pass on genetic diseases, and in the eugenics-obsessed world of “Men Against Fire,” that simply will not do.
So when Stripe is momentarily blinded by a mysterious green light during an attack and begins seeing the “roaches” for what they truly are, his superiors are ready with a treatment.
Stripe learns that in order to prepare its soldiers for their mission, the private company that employs him injects its soldiers with an implant that not only enhances their senses and feeds them information on the battlefield, but causes them to see – and hear, and smell – the “roaches” as inhuman.
Worse, to cover itself legally the company secures permission from its recruits before injecting them, then erases their memories so they don’t remember what they’re doing, or why.
Stripe is given a choice: retain his memories and be punished for his insubordination by experiencing them over and over again… or consent to being injected a second time, then receiving shore leave.
Which would you choose? Tellingly, Stripe’s home is quite dilapidated – you can practically hear the show asking how far removed its scenario is from the lack of financial resources that lead many soldiers to join the military in the first place.
“San Junipero” (Season 3, Episode 4)
Yes, I chose to write about this one out of order. There’s a good reason for that: “San Junipero” is the only episode of Black Mirror (so far) with an unambiguously happy ending.
It didn’t have to be. When CDN editor Paolo Del Nibletto asked who the above characters were and I told him they were the leads in my favourite episode, he said the title city, a 1980s SoCal pastiche with endless white beaches and neon-soaked nightlife, sounded like it could have been the setting for a horror film – and he isn’t wrong.
In its first half, “San Junipero” appears to be less an example of Black Mirror’s typically biting depiction of technology and more its attempt at a 1987 period piece – with the two noticeable touches that whatever fun we’re seeing always ends at midnight and our tale’s star-crossed lovers, Kelly and Yorkie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis), don’t age.
Eventually we learn that San Junipero is one of many virtual resorts people afraid of death can be uploaded to when they pass on; that the living are limited to five hours per week; and that Kelly and Yorkie are much older than they look.
It’s easy to imagine this as a dystopian scenario. What if people were uploaded against their will? What if they used the opportunity to pursue their darkest impulses? (A possibility alluded to in “San Junipero,” but not deeply explored.) What if they were unaware they were living in a simulation?
But just as we ourselves are capable of being both selfless and selfish, technology can be used to magnify both the good and bad. Kelly and Yorkie both have very good reasons to consider uploading themselves into San Junipero, just as our most disruptive startups and their leaders have good reason to pursue the technology that could make their situation a reality – and the episode seems to be Black Mirror’s way of acknowledging that.
“It’s not a trap,” Yorkie assures Kelly partway through the episode, and just this once, she’s right.