How Black Mirror is winning over the science fiction sceptics

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Article by Ryan Lambie

Deadly robot dogs. Dystopian future cities. Killer smartphone apps.

Black Mirror, the sci-fi series created by Charlie Brooker in 2011 and now a growing global TV phenomenon, may have its roots in such anthology shows as The Twilight Zone and Tales Of The Unexpected. But the technologies that underpin its stories could be torn from today's headlines.

When, this month, a YouTube video began to circulate of a headless, dog-like robot capable of walking open doors, journalists and Twitter users were quick to point out the eerie similarity to the mechanical hunter in a recent Black Mirror episode, Metalhead.

Okay, so the robot wasn't chasing Maxine Peake around a house with a knife. But the parallels were plain to see.

Having grown in popularity over the past seven years, partly thanks to a shift from Channel Four to Netflix, Black Mirror is on the cusp of becoming the catch-all term for grounded science fiction set in a world recognisably like the present.

Indeed, it’s arguable that Black Mirror has, more than any series currently on television, helped bring sci-fi to an audience who’d normally be turned off by the genre’s cliches: the space ships, the laser pistols, the weird-looking aliens.

Real-world relevance

With the notable exception of season four’s USS Callister - both an affectionate parody of Star Trek and a disturbing portrait of human cruelty - Black Mirror’s episodes typically place sci-fi in a recognisable context.

The Entire History Of You, one of the earliest instalments, explores the emotional impact of a gadget that sits behind a user’s ear, recording and playing back everything they see and do - a kind of tiny iteration of a present-day dash cam.

If we had immediate recall on every conversation, every slight, every argument, what would that do to our relationships? As is often the case with Black Mirror, the results aren’t exactly upbeat.

Daniel Rigby stars as Jamie Salter, the puppeteer behind cartoon politician, Waldo (Photo: Channel 4)

Dark though Black Mirror’s reflections are, Charlie Brooker also brings wry, satirical humour to his technological fables. Crocodile, a grisly tale of murder and gnawing guilt starring Andrea Riseborough, is shot through with a bleak thread of irony: no matter how hard Riseborough's architect tries to cover up her increasingly brutal crimes, there’s always a hidden piece of tech waiting to incriminate her.

Season two’s The Waldo Moment, although hardly the most subtle episode seen so far, now seems oddly prescient in retrospect: an abrasive, computer-generated cartoon character enters a local by-election and, thanks to the apathy of the public, winds up winning the popular vote.

Several writers have drawn parallels between that episode and more recent events like Brexit and the ascendancy of Donald Trump, where a curious mix of cynicism, opportunism and social media helped alter the course of history.

Lingering fears

Not that Black Mirror is intended to be prophetic. Like most great sci-fi, the series gets so much right because it’s so keyed into the present.

Brooker, a former videogame journalist, is too clear-eyed about the benefits - not to mention the comforts - of smartphones and laptops, to make his series an exercise in alarmism. Rather, Black Mirror’s stories drill down into our lingering fears about the seductive little boxes we trust with so much of our personal information.

Black Mirror knows that we aren’t going to give up our phones or iPads in a hurry, but it’s also keenly aware of the background static of unease that forms a part of our modern landscape. Just what does Google do with all that search data? How is social media changing the way we interact - maybe even the way we think? Will our jobs one day be replaced by robots?

Over the past seven years, Brooker's series has given voice to that unease and quiet suspicion. Unlike the far-flung worlds of Star Trek or Avatar, Black Mirror's disturbing, darkly comic stories could take place weeks, maybe only days in the future.

Ryan Lambie is the author of 'The Geek’s Guide to SF Cinema', out now. Black Mirror is available on Netflix.

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