But recently he’s had another stab at writing proper drama. After watching two episodes of his dystopian-allegory-warning-thing Black Mirror, I’m guiltily hoping he goes back to what he’s really very good at.
His prose and sarcastic voiceover narratives demonstrate an enviably wry and nimble turn of phrase (“Come, friendly asteroids, and fall on Earth” was one I particularly enjoyed). But as much as he’s mastered the extraction of witty and withering one-liners from the darkness and depravity of the world, when he tries to stretch a point over an hour and a half it starts to seem rather thin.
In the second episode of Black Mirror, our protagonist is one of countless drably-clothed victims of some sort of authoritarian regime, and spends most of his time on a bicycle machine, providing the electricity that powers the world. The only other regular locations of his daily life seem to be a crowded elevator taking him to and from the cycle room, and an only slightly less cramped personal room, containing nothing more than a bed a few square feet of floor, and with television monitors making up every inch of wall and ceiling space.
Cycling earns him merits, which he spends on things like food, toothpaste, and brief reprieves from the string of loud and flashy advertisements that blare almost constantly from every screen. The only products we ever see him being encouraged to consume are a reality show clearly serving as a stand-in for The X-Factor, and pornography.
The message, such as it is, is not unfamiliar. What will happen if we get too enrapt by all this lowest-common-denominator passive consumption, and forget to think? The society of this episode (titled Fifteen Million Merits) has been entirely restructured around keeping the masses dumb and compliant, and providing them with ample mindless distractions to quell any thoughts of questioning the status quo. It’s so on-the-nose it’ll punch you in the sinuses, and Kirsty rattled off half a dozen books and films of which it was very clearly derivative without pausing to draw breath. But at least it does conjure the sense of abject turpitude it seeks to inspire, and if its ideas have been repeated often, it’s because they’re not unworthy of continued examination.
The problem lies in the shallowness of the show’s analysis of our inevitable moral and intellectual decline. The connection between society’s sexual obsessions and misogyny, our fixation with carefully manipulated and manipulative reality TV, and a decline in our capacity for (and interest in) complex thought, is made abundantly clear. But countless other important and intriguing social factors are glossed over or ignored. Surely there must be more going on, for us to have reached such a nightmarish scenario beyond the fever dreams of Huxley, than that we became too emotionally invested in some wannabe singers with tear-jerking personal histories. It starts to feel like the level of critique is dumbed down almost as far as the society we’re supposed to be thinking about.
One aspect of the world that was given less blatant emphasis was the avatars, or “doppels”, which people use to represent themselves when appearing on-screen or in a virtual world – a fairly minor extrapolation of an idea popular with a number of computer game systems today. The doppels are also customisable, and the drones are encouraged by their invisible overlords to spend merits upgrading their virtual characters with virtual accessories. Here, too, the parallel with current trends is not exactly opaque.
But the show’s examination of this phenomenon goes no further than to hurl contempt at the very notion of these unreal goods being a worthwhile form of consumption – and, dangerously, it does nothing to abnegate the spreading of that contempt to the consumers themselves. It doesn’t go any further than pointing at these forms of behaviour and labelling them as stupid, deplorable, reprehensible, and dehumanising. The people who act this way are either equally reprehensible and inhuman themselves, or (the more charitable alternative that we’re offered) they’re unthinking sheep who’ve been manipulated into ignorance of their own pointlessness. Which isn’t just an appropriately grim view of humanity’s possible future; it’s a dehumanisingly ungenerous assessment of humanity itself.
We’ve learned some fascinating things about ourselves and our brains, which relate to what we find entertaining, and the types of rewards we find enticing. What some games or advertising companies choose to do with these facts about human psychology may seem sinister, but they can also be used to improve ourselves. Will we, in the end, opt for self-improvement over low-brow gimmicks that push our pleasure buttons with all the casual ease of an addiction?
I don’t know. It’s a question worth asking, and an answer worth worrying about. But in the world of Black Mirror, there’s not much to suggest that the general mass of humanity are complex bundles of conflicting motivations and interests. It looks more like we’re a homogeneous crowd, doomed to irrelevance by our own flaws and our lack of interest in counteracting them. And it feels cynical in exactly the way Charlie Brooker is usually so good at destroying.