Is the British show Black Mirror a modern-day The Twilight Zone? Being a fan of both shows, I give a resounding yes. Truth is, I can’t think of any show of its type other than Black Mirror to better capture the fear and trepidation of the modern day the way The Twilight Zone did for 156 episodes, from 1959 to 1964.
Certainly, it can be argued that The Twilight Zone was working within a broader context. Back then, people had the Red Scare on their minds. But they were also wary of the unrest about to erupt in the ’60s over the Vietnam War, civil rights, drugs, and a disgruntled youth. That was a lot to cover, but the show did so very successfully during its five-year run. Black Mirror, in its three seasons and 13 episodes so far, chooses to focus in one area: How the continuing growth of technology and living in a digital world affects us, emotionally as well as physically. But in today’s more sophisticated world that is still a broad canvas on which the show does its work. And it does it extremely well.
Both shows grew out of the vision of a single writer responsible for the vast majority of the scripts: Rod Serling for The Twilight Zone and Charles Brooker for Black Mirror. Rod Serling, it can be argued, had the more difficult task in that he created his show in a television environment not open to looking at the taboo subjects he wanted to explore, such as racism, xenophobia, and extremism. He needed to place his stories in the realm of science fiction and fantasy to make it easier for viewers to consider these difficult issues. In fact, it was, in large part, thanks to Serling’s willingness to treat the TV audience like adults and open up television so it could write about these darker subjects that allowed other shows to do the same, and, eventually, led to an anthology program like Black Mirror. Black Mirror does not need to hide its topics in genre storytelling. The show may set many of its stories in a not-too-distant future, but it is still a world today’s TV audience can easily recognize. This is not a world where aliens regularly visit Earth, children develop supernatural powers or people travel back through time. Black Mirror‘s stories are clearly set in today’s world of technology, with all its possibilities. This is a world we understand as not being too distant from the world we live in now.
Much Darker Tones
Black Mirror is a gloomy show compared to The Twilight Zone. Not that the latter didn’t regularly deal with dark subjects. The Twilight Zone episodes like “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and “The Shelter” showed how easily people turned against each other when faced with adversity. And aliens from other planets often had bad intentions, such as the cannibalistic aliens of “To Serve Man” or the denizens of Mars who turned a visiting astronaut from Earth into a zoo animal for all to look at and study behind bars in “People Are Alike All Over.” But Black Mirror has shown time and again that it pulls no punches when it comes to showing humankind at its worst. This may be a show about the affects of technology, but as Charles Brooker has said in interviews, his show is not anti-technology. The fault is never in the technology itself, but is in the way it is used by humans. In this respect, focusing on how we act and react as humans makes Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone very much alike.
Certainly, Black Mirror showed it meant business with its opening episode. “The National Anthem” was set smack dab in the world of today, forcing us to look, in a rather disgusting manner, at how we often live and react in our voyeuristic/instant news/YouTube world. In this highly disturbing story, a member of the royal family is kidnapped and the prime minister is told he must perform a live act with a pig on national TV by four o’clock or the princess will be killed. The story becomes a taut 44 minutes in which authorities rush to find the kidnappers while others try to find ways to simulate the act to fool the kidnappers and news sources at first hold off on reporting it before the Internet gets a hold of it and then all bets are off. It’s difficult to say what is harder to watch: the prime minister when he is finally forced to do it or all the people who, after being warned not to watch it by the government, watch it anyway with a combination of fascination and horror. The realization in the end that the princess was quietly released before the deadline and that the kidnapping was the act of an artist creating performance art to make a statement only added to the horror. With this first salvo, Black Mirror and its creator proved they weren’t interested in showing the human race in a good light. Again, it’s not the technology that’s horrific; it’s the human race.
Unease of the Digital World
Humankind’s capacity for mistreating each other has been a continual theme of the show. The second season’s “White Bear,” took a brutal look at a voyeuristic society of people who hide behind their cell phones as they take particular joy in “Nancy Grace” kind of TV journalism. People blithely watch, and some film on their cell phones, while a poor young woman, who has no memory of why she is there, is hunted by masked people trying to kill her. What, ultimately, looks like a game-show variant on the death penalty takes another vicious twist by the end, showing us reality TV at its most insidious.
Black Mirror took this theme to its extreme in the third season’s final episode, called “Hated in the Nation.” In this episode, police investigating the brutal deaths of a journalist after she wrote a particularly vicious column and a rapper after he makes a nasty comment on television about a child exposes a murder plot connected to an app on which people can vote for the most hated individual, after which the chosen person is killed. How the chosen are killed involves a kind of nano-technology that is almost as impressive as it is terrifying. The final twist near the end turns the story on its head, condemning those who judge by forcing them to face the same punishment performed on the judged. It’s a riveting episode.
Black Mirror looks at technology and the digital world in all their many forms, then pushes them to extremes. In “Fifteen Million Merits,” people in an Orwellian society live like slaves, forced to spend their day creating energy by walking on treadmills, and made to watch television by which they earn merits to receive certain privileges. The only way out seems to be collecting enough merits to be selected for and appear on an American Idol type of show and, maybe, become TV stars themselves. In “The Entire History of You,” people have brain implants which allow them to access every memory they’ve ever had. In “Men Without Fire,” soldiers are given implants that cause soldiers to see their enemy not as humans but as roaches. “Nosedive” looks at a world where people constantly look for approval ratings from their fellow human beings to upgrade their status on social media and, therefore, improve their lives. People whose ratings fall below 4.5 suffer. In “Shut up and Dance” a teenager is caught performing a sexual act via the camera in his computer, then starts receiving texts threatening to show it if he doesn’t do what his unknown blackmailer says.
Dealing with Death
The show even takes a look at how today’s technology can affect us after death. “Be Right Back” takes a look at a widow who deals with her husband’s death in an automobile accident by utilizing a service that allows her to communicate with him by creating a sort of synthetic doppelganger. This is accomplished by using software that collects all his previous online communications and approximates what his answers to her questions and comments would be. Black Mirror also dealt with the afterlife in “San Junipero,” one of the show’s few (perhaps only) uplifting episodes. In this one, virtual reality is offered as a possible alternative for the human soul after death. Or is it the digital soul?
Just like The Twilight Zone before it, Black Mirror asks heady questions about the world we have created for ourselves and whether human beings truly understand the consequences of our creations. Comparing the two, Black Mirror is more of a constant horror show than The Twilight Zone was. But there’s no doubt that Charles Brooker owes a debt to Rod Serling. In large part, it was because of The Twilight Zone that a show like Black Mirror could one day reach our television screens.
The good news is that Black Mirror is already set for a fourth season. May the show have at least as long a life as Rod Serling’s creation did, and in many ways, still does.
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