Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker is fascinated by creating Hells.
A lot of people focus on Black Mirror’s status as a spiritual successor to the Twilight Zone. Others focus on its effectiveness as a techno-thriller set in very-near futures, focused on the unintended consequences of eerily plausible extensions of current technology.
It’s the penchant for creating Hells that interests me the most, maybe because I’m morbid or a closet theist. He once memorably created a Heaven (“San Junipero”) but usually it’s some variation on Hell, which I will arbitrarily assign letters:
- Hell A – people whose own choices make their lives unbearable (“The Entire History of You,” “Be Right Back”)
- Hell B – people who are (arguably) punished far in excess of their crimes, or at least barbarically (“White Bear,” “Shut Up And Dance,” “Hated In The Nation”)
- Hell C – people moved into digital realities or other alternate realities where manipulation of time, space, and perception result in outsized suffering (“White Christmas,” “Playtest”)
Series 4 of Black Mirror, which just dropped on Netflix last week, contains variations on all of these hells (which also frequently overlap like a Venn Diagram), but what strikes me is that the season is bookended by two variations on Hell C that seem the most pop-Christian.
Creating digitized versions of a person which can be manipulated in space and time (and the ensuing questions of what can ethically be done to a self-aware digital being) is necessary for this Hell. However, where “White Christmas” ominously tormented its digital copies with mind-boggling boredom, “U.S.S. Callister” and “Black Museum” up the ante by exploring the idea of persistent, unending physical pain.
Take “U.S.S. Callister,” where the hapless prisoners in the “procedurally-created digital universe” are not permitted to die by their malign jailer. They can be frozen in deep space, trapped in the inferno of a rocket engine, or pureed and stored in tiny jars; they will not die, and they will feel it all. This concept adds a dark undercurrent of high stakes to what is otherwise the closest Black Mirror comes to a fun-filled romp.
Then there’s the final episode of the season, “Black Museum,” where (spoiler alert) an executed felon is revived as one of the series’ famous digital copies – in this case, a ghost-like hologram – to be a macabre museum attraction. Echoing the bloodthirsty spectre of cruel and unusual punishment as a spectator sport (explored more fully in “White Bear”), museum visitors get to strap the digital ghost of the celebrated murderer into an electric chair and subject him to electric torture, for whatever pleasure that brings them – self-righteousness, megalomania, sadistic perversion … the money-grubbing museum proprietor, a certain Mr. Rolo Haynes, cares not.
That’s bad enough, but it falls more into the “Hell B” category. “Black Museum” kicks it up a notch with the purest “Hell C of Pain” yet. See, Mr. Haynes is obsessed with giving his visitors “souvenirs,” so after flipping the switch on the electric chair, a Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V copy of the digital prisoner’s consciousness is made in that moment. This self-aware copy is downloaded into a bauble and handed over to the museum guest so they can savor his screaming face, permanently caught in that moment of extreme electric torture.
So yes … Charlie Brooker, you are one twisted Brit, who maybe took the Tower of London Torture Chamber tour one too many times. Like myself.
Reactions to the other episodes:
“Arkangel” has gotten some criticism for being predictable, but I enjoy how it plays out like an Aristotelian tragedy – every disaster following logically and inexorably from the heroine’s tragic flaws. We marvel from our comfortable distance as the protagonist mother makes things worse and worse. Her use of spying technology to protect her daughter continually backfires, until it comes to the most tragically fitting end possible. Perfect episode of Black Mirror in my opinion. For the record: Hell A.
“Crocodile” drew flak for the techno-thriller twist being peripheral and ultimately not crucial to the story. I agree with this criticism of an episode that would have worked fine (despite being brutal and depressing) as the story of a woman who commits murder after murder to cover up her culpability in a dreadful crime deep in her past. The fact that memories can be accessed and played out on screens for the police (or insurance investigators) is incidental. Subtract that device, and an episode of CSI or Law & Order could have told the same story. But there has to be some techy mind-ready aspect to this grim morality tale, or else it wouldn’t belong in Black Mirror. For the record: Hell A.
“Hang the DJ,” an extrapolation of the trials and tribulations of online dating, takes some of the elements of Hell C but doesn’t make a Hell out of it. There’s always arguments to be made about the ethics of manipulating autonomous beings; but bookended by “Crocodile” and “Metalhead,” this more upbeat story comes as a huge relief. It doesn’t mean that the readjusting clock doesn’t hit the pit of the stomach, though.
“Metalhead” is based on this technology:
Yes, it’s a real thing. Be afraid.
What did you think of Series 4 of Black Mirror?