Charlie Brooker's award TV series returned to our screens on Monday night and showcased how we must stop blaming technology for our failings, but rather ourselves.
Countless column inches were devoted to the first outing of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. Was it comedy, science fiction or techno-horror? Was the tone cautiously optimistic or nihilistically misanthropic? And if push came to shove, would you fuck a pig?
Such guessing games are par for the course with this kind of TV. Like Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, which Brooker himself often cites as his primary inspiration, the stories are modern day parables – OK, technically, they’re the day-after-modern-day parables. Rather than taking the stories literally, we’re invited to see the fantastical scenarios being played out by a parade of largely unlikeable characters as analogues of contemporary living, and the vice-like grip that technology has on our collective subconscious.
Brooker holds up the eponymous black mirror and invites us to reflect upon our humanity, as we spend ever increasing amounts of time channelling our lives through those glassy little touchscreens.
Last night’s instalment, the first of series two, was filled with neat little glimpses of tomorrow’s technology – wafer-thin smartphones, interactive drawing boards and coffee cup lids that glow red when ‘the beverage you are about to enjoy is extremely hot’ – but this wasn’t a show about gadgets. Because Brooker knows that technology isn’t really the villain of the piece; we are. In ‘Be Right Back’, a young couple called Martha and Ash move to a remote cottage where Ash grew up.
Less than 24 hours into the nesting phase and Ash has been killed in some kind of non-specific accident. Cut to the wake, and before the sausage rolls have even cooled, a friend is proposing an ominous, yet oblique solution to Martha’s still raw grief: “I can sign you up to something that will help,” she offers, “It’s not some crazy spiritual thing. And I mean, it’s still in beta…”
It turns out that someone has invented a new software programme capable of amalgamating all of Ash’s social media data, and cobbling together a virtual version of him. At first, the tentative pair interact solely by email. But before too long, the voice synthesiser means Martha is able to have long conversations as she wanders the windswept hillsides, bantering with her dearly departed about the perils of roaming charges.
In perhaps the programme’s only positive note, we can at least look forward to a future of uninterrupted 4G coverage. However, after accidentally breaking her phone, the now pregnant Martha decides to get herself a crying, talking, not really sleeping, walking, living doll.
Programmed with Ash’s personality, the synthetic person looks like him “on a good day,” but that’s because, as he explains, “we tend to only put our most flattering pictures on social media.” He’s obviously never seen my Facebook page. The only mistake seems to be a missing mole on his neck, but that is quickly rectified – although it’s not clear whether this is an automated system upgrade, or just the downside of being a redhead.
At this point, you’d be forgiven for expecting all hell to break loose – the last time we watched a woman stuck in close confines with an android called Ash, things ended messily. Instead, Brooker prefers to exact a more psychological torment on his protagonists, rather than force-feeding them a rolled-up magazine. In a refreshing twist on convention, there’s no rampaging robot here; Ash remains a curiously compliant companion. It’s Martha who’s the ostensible villain of the piece – selfish, manipulative and impossible to please. By the time she attacks Ash for not making the appropriate sleeping noises in bed, it’s clear that Martha won’t ever be happy with her relationship. Banishing Ash downstairs, she even berates him for not putting up a fight.
In the end, Martha drives him to a cliff-top and instructs him to jump. She’s trapped in a partnership that’s merely a facsimile of what it used to be, and the only way out is for Ash to kill himself. However, the epilogue reveals that, at some point, Martha had a change of heart. Instead, Ash 2.0 is consigned to the attic, where his family has previously stored their own keepsakes and mementos of his dead sibling as a child.
This was dark, powerful stuff, shot through with the oppressive mood of a contemporary horror story – even the daylight scenes appeared to filmed through a muslin shroud. The performances were brittle and shrill, with automaton Ash the only character with any real sense of light and shade. But maybe that was the point all along.
Brooker challenges us throughout to question the way we manage our digital lives. He asks whether the relationships we develop on social networks are the real thing, or just binary simulations. He wonders whether we put so much of our lives on the internet that our personalities could be recreated by some kind of aggregation algorithm. And in the early stages of Martha’s engagement with digital Ash, what is he, if not a glorified version of SIRI?
But the morality of digital technology is really just shiny, black veneer. The show asked much more provocative questions about the nature of relationships. “Did you just look that up?” Martha asks, when Ash pauses before answering a memory question – like anyone who expects their partner to have instant recall of every conversation they’ve ever had.
Ash’s improved bedroom technique is attributed to an online porn database; an incisive commentary on how pornography is gradually evolving the norms of sexual behaviour. Ultimately, when Ash spends the night outside, he asks to be let back in, arguing that he’s “Feeling a little…ornamental.” Are our relationships for show, or for feeling?
In the end, the main problem with ‘Be Right Back’ is that it simply had too many ideas for a one hour show. But since we live in a world where TV producers are lining up celebrities for another series of ‘Splash!’ with Tom Daley, that doesn’t really feel like a criticism at all. Black Mirror is provocative, insightful and challenging TV at its best. And it reminds us that we must learn to stop blaming technology for our human failings. No matter how dark the glass, we can’t blame the mirror if we don’t like the reflection.