Science fiction and horror anthology shows used to be a much bigger deal in years past. The 50s and 60s were characterized by THE TWILIGHT ZONE and THE OUTER LIMITS, the 70s by NIGHT GALLERY, then TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE and TALES FROM THE CRYPT in the 80s and 90s – as well as new versions of some of the older shows. But since then, we haven’t seen a whole lot – until recently.
Cue BLACK MIRROR, the new(ish) British series now available on Netflix. BLACK MIRROR is science fiction at its most basic, as it deals with technology and its impact on our culture and our personal lives. In some episodes, the technology is one that doesn’t exist but arguably could, like an app that recreates the recently dead by aggregating their social media posts and simulating their voices; in others, the tech is more fantastic, like brain implants that record sensory data for later review.
The show’s first episode, “The National Anthem,” is unique, though, in that it features barely any technology that isn’t currently extant – it deals almost exclusively with the impact of social media and mass media on privacy and celebrity. (There’s one part that takes some light poetic license with the capabilities of modern visual effects.) Like every MIRROR episode, “Anthem” deals very personally and intimately with its characters’ reactions to the tech in question, and offers viewers a palette of real and recognizable situations. And like all great science fiction, it uses speculation about the future to make statements about modern life.
“Anthem,” however, excels when it makes its audience deeply, deeply uncomfortable. The entire episode is infused with a sense of inevitable dread, and though its main character is the UK Prime Minister, its horror truly humanizes him. A victim of an assailant that takes advantage of the pervasiveness and immediacy of social media and our obsession with celebrity troubles, PM Michael Callow (and there’s a darkly comic irony to that name, considering his eventual loss of innocence) might be an obvious career politician, but the script’s refusal to look away from its own horror makes you truly feel for the guy. You can’t watch this episode without squirming at least a little bit.
A warning: These pages – from an undated production draft written by the show’s creator, Charlie Brooker – are pretty much the dictionary definition of Not Safe For Work. To set the scene, Callow is in a 10 Downing Street conference room with members of his staff and cabinet. They’re watching video of Princess Susannah, a member of the royal family, who has been kidnapped and is reading a statement at the urging of an offscreen voice.
Yeah, that’s what she said. But the true horror of this episode is that even Callow – with all the power at his disposal – is unable to maintain control of the situation in the face of widespread access to advanced technology. He demands that the video be kept under wraps, but then learns that’s impossible:
You can watch the episode to see how things go for the Prime Minister after that. Or you can come in and read it in our library; we have this and other BLACK MIRROR episodes on our shelves here.
But don’t say we didn’t warn you.