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The Brooker Paradox and the Welcome Return of Black Mirror

Posted: 12/02/2013 21:42

Charlie Brooker has achieved a remarkable feat. Already the nation's leading TV critic, he is now its leading TV dramatist. His Black Mirror returned to Channel 4 on Monday night for another three-episode run, and so far promises to maintain the exceptional standards of its first series.

Black Mirror is marketed and often described as a satire. But Brooker is not a satirist, at least not in the sense we traditionally understand that term. Anyone who watched the dire Ten O'Clock Live could see that plainly enough. Satire needs a standpoint, an alternative perspective, and Brooker does not really have one: just a keen sense of the ridiculous nature of the established order. He is not trying to bring down the system: with his dramas, panel and review shows, newspaper column and tweets, Charlie Brooker is the system.

Take 15 Million Merits from series one, the episode based around an X Factor-style competition. When lead character Bing rebels against his society's cultural norms, his rebellion is interpreted as just another talent show performance. Bing is given his own show and essentially becomes Charlie Brooker, in his Screenwipe guise (Brooker has pointed this out himself already). Bing/Brooker pours plenty of scorn on our cultural norms, while at the same time playing a large part in their distribution. It is an in-joke, an incredibly clever one, but an in-joke all the same.

In many ways, the 'critical insider' perspective is what makes Black Mirror so interesting. It would be easy to take a Luddite approach to the technology featured in Black Mirror, but Brooker cleverly avoids this. The world of social networking, virtual reality, memory implants and artificial bodies isn't exactly celebrated in Black Mirror, but it is accepted. That is surely the right approach, because the truth is we do all accept it: these technologies are and most likely will continue to be both socially useful and a great deal of fun. The value of Black Mirror is that it aims to tell human stories in amongst an exploration of where technology might take us.

On that basis, Black Mirror is a huge success. Monday's opener, Be Right Back, played on the mind-bending notion that computers might be able to recreate our personalities after death using our technological trail: the hoard of emails, comments, tweets, video clips, and so on, that we have created during our lives. The story focuses on one couple, Martha and Ash. After Ash dies in a car accident, Martha maintains a relationship with a facsimile of him, first through instant messaging, then over the phone, and finally in person when his profile is transferred to an artificial body.

Be Right Back had its flaws, in particular the decision to introduce the artificial body. Until that point the story had been a delicate balance of the tragic, as Martha struggled to cope with her loss, and the sublime, as the dangerous temptation of a technological fix revealed itself to her. But all that was achieved already through instant messaging and phone calls. Personally, I would have kept it at that level, with perhaps the addition of video chat, and widened the focus to Ash's friends and family. It would have been fascinating to see the manufactured version of Ash having Christmas dinner with his family over Skype, for instance.

When the new body came along, the momentum was lost. It became all too obvious this was not a reincarnated Ash, both for Martha and the audience. Brooker's decision didn't ruin the episode, but it did lead the story down a less fruitful dramatic path.

In saying that, I have to recognise how big a privilege it is to be able to offer a meaningful critique of a British drama series rather than just expressing utter despair at the standards of our homegrown output. There have been no more than a handful of British dramas in the past decade even worth watching, let alone reviewing. Black Mirror is certainly one of them.

 

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