The former British Channel 4 cult series Black Mirror (now the transatlantic popular Netflix show) depicts how new technologies can alter human behaviour and society for the worse. Often described as dark and bleak, the show draws on dystopian classics like 1984 and Brave New World.

Black Mirror and technology

Each episode presents a unique, self-contained world, focusing on a new technology and examining the impact it has on characters. The show’s creator Charlie Brooker scours the technology arena and creates near-future scenarios based on germinating tech ideas.  

Black Mirror and our future

None of the technologies or storylines of the series are beyond our comprehension, and each scenario seems feasible in that it only takes us a few steps beyond our current situation. Recognising ourselves in the show’s characters is what makes the series so gripping and terrifying.

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Stand Outs: Best Black Mirror episodes

Even the most hardcore Black Mirror fans will admit the series is a mixed bag in terms of calibre. While each storyline undoubtedly has something interesting to say, there are superbly executed gems in amongst episodes you can probably skip… 

Below are some of the more thought provoking instalments (in my humble opinion.)

The Entire History of You (Season 1, Episode 3) 

This episode plays on instant messaging software and the automatic saving and backing up of entire conversation threads. IM, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp all have “seen” and “active” functions, fostering anticipation of 1) the reception of your message, 2) receiving a response to it and 3) mounting pressure to reply immediately and remain constantly available. 

Obsession with interactions

All this precipitates an obsession with each and every interaction we have with others. We reread conversations, analyse each word in a thread and regret and lament our choice of phrasing.

In The Entire History of You individuals are equipped with a chip in their brains and recording device in their irises, allowing them to retain and replay visual and auditory memories.

This leads the protagonist to obsess over slight details as he replays former interactions — on each occasion observing something new. He ceases to function effectively in the real world, so obsessed is he with revisiting the past. 

Character who doesn’t partake

Especially interesting in the The Entire History of You episode is the inclusion of a character who willingly doesn’t partake in the technology — as shocking to her colleagues as somebody today saying they don’t use social media or messaging apps. 

15 Million Merits (Season 1, Episode 2)

This powerful episode packs in a lot of social criticism in a single storyline. 

Firstly, it comments on the insidiousness of adverts. That is, how we are forced to imbibe commercial content and respond to its stimuli unless we pay a fee to skip them. Often the ads we see on the internet appeal to carnal desires and are specifically aimed at trying to get you onto porn websites (where you are presented with yet more ads.)

Dystopian world of commercials

In this dystopian world, you need to spend your hard-earned credits to be allowed to skip these male-gaze erotic commercials. The phrase “The hottest girls in the nastiest situations” voiced with a movie trailer inflection and background pornographic sighs is a motif of the episode. And, in this dark world, closing your eyes won’t bring you solace as the ad pauses until you look directly back at it.

Critique of social immobility

The Black Mirror 15 Million Merits episode also presents us with a critique of social immobility. Like William Nicholson’s Dystopian novel The Windsinger, a colour code system determines your social class and occupation.

The majority, including the main characters, wear grey and ride stationary exercise bikes all day in order to earn credits. The credits are exchangeable for food and visual content. Another class of people are larger bodied, wear yellow and work as cleaners. The only way to surpass your working fate is to earn enough credits to appear on a talent show and hopefully find fame. 

The critique of the talent show

This brings us to another key theme of the episode: the critique of the talent show. It perfectly captures the vacuity and calculatedness of shows like the X Factor: scripting the talent intros, giving contestants “compliance juice” before stepping on stage, and manipulating the audience’s responses. The panel of judges, headed by a Simon Cowell-esque character, bullies the heroine of the episode into pursuing a life of fame she didn’t anticipate.  

Along with ubiquitous screens and an array of GM foods, this episode presents us with a hellish world not too far beyond the realm of our current reality. 

Nose Dive (Season 3, Episode 1)

The Black Mirror Nosedive episode is my personal favourite as it so cleverly translates the world of Instagram into embodied living. 

Need for approval in society

The premise of the story is a society built on social approval and ratings. Every interaction you have — with friends and strangers alike — results in the reception of a rating out of 5. This, along with the rating on your social posts, determines your societal ranking. However, this rating is more than just a popularity contest: it dictates the life you lead, from the cafés you’re permitted entry to, to the kind of car you can rent. 

Falsified sense of self

Characters with ratings of 4.5+ satirise today’s influencers and cyber celebrities, and they function as the idols the episode’s protagonist aspires to be. Everybody, including our heroine (Bryce Dallas Howard), portrays a heightened, falsified sense of self in order to achieve acceptable — or even enviable — ratings. As Charlie Brooker himself said: “It is basically the world we are living in.”

Instagram parallels

The best thing about this episode is the pastel aesthetic which is essentially a pastiche of Instagram, not to mention an accurate projection of our cyber inspired, subdued urban palette. 

San Junipero (Season 3, Episode 4)

This is certainly a standout episode for its heartfelt optimism and happy ending. While still bringing into question the morality of novel technologies, it lets us imagine (albeit briefly) that progress won’t necessarily lead to our downfall. In fact, Black Mirror San Junipero shows us that technology can offer us a second chance. 

Honourable mentions

The viewer

Ultimately, Black Mirror is about confronting our own relationship with technology through forcing us to consider how our behaviours are continually altered by it. As children, we didn’t whittle away the hours scrolling through news feeds, and we didn’t chiefly express our emotions through a limited array of emojis. Whether we’re aware of it or not, technology is rewiring our brains — whether that’s for better or worse is for you, the viewer, to decide.

Shows like Black Mirror

If you’re a fan of the series, you’re probably on the lookout for shows which deal with similar subject matter. Here’s a quick list of other programmes available that offer dark, dystopian themes akin to Black Mirror:

The Twilight Zone (2019)

A dark anthology series featuring science fiction, suspense and horror. 

Electric Dreams (2017)

An electrifying science fiction series based on the short stories of Philip K. Dick.

Westworld

In the near future, free will is a confronting concept and social class has never been so important.

Weird City

A look into the private lives of the citizens of a futuristic world. 

Black Mirror review

Black Mirror is about projecting the potential harms of future technologies. While some storylines ring true and hit rather close to home, the show is intended for entertainment as much as it is a reflection on society and tech. Indeed, the show’s platform Netflix could easily fall into the category of new technologies we should be wary of!

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