The difficulty of writing anything set in another world comes at the beginning. How do you get viewers to relate to a completely alien reality? The solution is a compromise between the imaginative and the ordinary. The audience needs something familiar to cling onto. Hardly any science fiction, for instance, features just aliens and no humans. Even the work of David Lynch—whose name is a byword for the bizarre—has been described by critics as a combination of “the very macabre and the very mundane.” When you’re writing about weird worlds, you’ve got to get the human stuff right. For proof, look at Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, currently airing on Channel 4.
Brooker first made his name as a critic, but in recent years he has begun carving out a niche for himself as a writer of unconventional dramas. In 2007 his TV series Dead Set—in which the Big Brother house is attacked by zombies—was nominated for a Bafta. Now there is the second series of his “techno-paranoia” drama Black Mirror.
The show sets out to show the consequences of present trends in technology. In Brooker’s own words: “I like technology, but Black Mirror is more what the consequences are, and it doesn’t tend to be about technology itself, it tends to be how we use or misuse it.” As Brooker notes, the really interesting thing about technology is how people respond to it. But the depiction of people—that is, the depiction of human beings who have emotions, personalities and relationships with other human beings—is the weakest element of Black Mirror.
The problem may be one of length. Inspired by the format of the Twilight Zone, each of Black Mirror’s three episodes is a standalone hour-long story. Brooker is attempting to establish three futuristic worlds with three different sets of rules and then play out three different stories within them, all within the running time of a single motion picture.
Maybe the time constraint is why Brooker resorts to soap-opera clichés and overwrought dialogue. In the first episode, “Be Right Back,” a young widow Martha (played by Hayley Atwell) is shown at her husband’s wake. Martha’s response to the incessant needling of a friend is at first to monotonously repeat, “Please, shut up,” before finally she can take no more and screams, “Shut up!”—causing an awkward lull to descend and bystanders to hurry her away. Later, Martha’s response to a stressful situation is to go into the kitchen, breathe deeply with her back to the camera and then neck a whole glass of wine—a scene that Brooker appears to have plagiarised wholesale from my own GCSE Drama devised performance.
Then there’s the amnesiac protagonist (Lenora Crichlow) who, at the start of the second episode, mumbles to anyone who’ll listen, “Can you help me? Do you know who I am? I… I… I can’t remember who I am.” And there’s the depressed comedian in the third episode who falls in love and says tearfully to his lover, “It’s just… I haven’t been happy in a while. And this is good.” The list of clichés could go on, but you get the idea. This kind of thing does not make for compelling TV.
Are these hackneyed ploys intentional—a kind of knowing joke or clever meta-point about clichés on television by the famously TV-savvy Brooker? It seems not. Brooker sees Black Mirror not as comedy but as drama. “[The episodes are] pretty straight, but often based on ideas that could be funny if you chose to view them that way,” he said in a recent interview. In that case, did Brooker end up using these clichés as an unavoidable shorthand, establishing relationships and a story as quickly as possible within a limited timeframe? Or are they more an easy-to-grasp handhold for those who might not otherwise get on board for the trip to his weird world? The simplest explanation is that Brooker simply isn’t particularly good at capturing human relationships and the mundane.
The best episode from either series of Black Mirror—“The Entire History of You,” a nuanced and sensitively-written story about the tech-driven breakdown of a couple’s relationship—is also the only one which Brooker had no hand in writing. Meanwhile, the most enjoyable bits of his writing are familiar from his previous work: a witless media-type who appears in the third episode; an acerbic aside about Youtube, democracy and farting dogs.
Brooker has a talent for high concept about trends in modern technology. But without some emotional realism, good concepts are not enough. Brooker wants to explore the consequences of new technology, but onscreen there can be no dramatic consequences without convincing characters. If a character is two-dimensional then nothing is at stake; if there is no suspense and we are not involved with the characters, then the consequences carry no weight. Whether it’s a result of time constraints or creative deficits, this is where Black Mirror falls down. TV drama, it seems, is much like technology—whether it is good or not is determined by human relationships.