Black Mirror: White Christmas
Sometimes, planetary and cosmic forces align, and good things happen. This went on recently, when White Christmas, the seasonal special episode of the Charlie Brooker-created Black Mirror, appeared on Channel Four at the end of last year. White Christmas, a 70-minute block of three nightmarish intertwining tales, managed to be even more gloriously dystopian and fast-paced than its parent series, which first appeared on Channel Four in February 2011. Black Mirror is a six-episode, two-series hell-on-earth anti-carnival concerning itself with an imagined future of technology, internet, media and social media gone wild: a future which, one imagines, might be frighteningly close to our own. The black mirror of the title is the smartphone or computer you can see your own face in, staring back, when the screens finally go dark.
The presence of the charismatic, expansive Jon Hamm in White Christmas biases you towards it from the start: he carries his morally questionable character Matt on waves of good looks, charm, and designer stubble. We first meet him in a wintry outpost on Christmas day. Matt is a disgraced seduction coach who has ended up in the wilderness with Rafe Spall's Joe, a man who has fallen foul of the real-time, real-life rules of a "blocking" system, administered via an internet accessing implant called the Z-eye, housed in everyone's heads and eyes and manipulated through a kind of virtual-reality console which floats in the air. Joe was blocked by his partner Beth after a row, and ends up a mute, swirling grey mass to her, and she to him. This is only revoked following a tragedy, and what he sees next leads him on the path to ultimately fatal anger. The minute you know that Rafe Spall is Timothy's son, it really makes sense: the plaintive screen voice, the put-upon demeanour.
Matt, too, has blood on his hands: his line in the seduction coach industry sees him witness a hook-up gone very wrong. Pre-outpost, in his evening job as an internet dating coach, he eggs his clients along in real time via the Z-eye, with a cheering rogue's gallery of rowdy lads behind him, offering bawdy commentary and suggestions: something about all this makes you think it will eventually emerge in real life. Rasmus Hardiker, who does a nice line in big-eyed socially awkward young men, is brilliant as the dating coachee Harry, and ends up in a fatal situation with Natalie Tena's unbalanced Jennifer: Matt, of course, sees it all via his Z-eye, and finds himself blocked everywhere he goes when he is considered guilty by proxy.
These things, roughly, make up the first and third parts: the second sees Matt, also pre-outpost, at his day job, fiddling about with "copies" of the human consciousness while its custodians are under anaesthetic. Oona Chaplin's Greta, who isn't amused when her copy, extracted from her head and placed in a vaguely Apple-type product called a cookie, proves unusually resistant, and insists that she is the "real" Greta. Copies and "real" people, and real and false environments, mingle and merge in the conclusion of White Christmas.
It's brilliant, incendiary stuff. It is difficult to imagine how the writing and production team fitted all the biff-bang-pow of three interconnected stories into the 70-ish minutes of White Christmas: perhaps it was even more of a challenge than making coherent, action-packed drama fit into in the 60 minutes of each episode of the original series. Even the intervals between parts in both White Christmas and Black Mirror steal your breath, and come when you don't expect them, like someone sneaking up behind you and giving you a fright.
There are David Cronenberg-y ideas in abundance; Jon Hamm's dating coach Matt with the hordes of lads behind him, and the other idea of consciousness being stored in an implant and then a shiny device which looks like it might cook eggs. Perhaps the most straightforwardly dystopian sci-fi idea turns up in the third Black Mirror episode, the only one not written by Brooker, but by Jesse Armstrong, co-writer of the evergreen Peep Show. It's set in a world where a tiny implant behind the ear records everything one sees, hears and does - which comes in handy during, say, a hellish domestic argument. There are shades of Michel Gondry's 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind here, where the hell of it all is in the playback of times past, although the option to delete is there. Like Cronenberg's ideas, the human interest aspect is intertwined with the technological head-wrecks: how much of these imagined disasters are exciting and helpful, and to what extent might we all end up dancing too close to the fire and singeing our lives and relationships? We don't quite live in this world yet, but we can feel its tentacles creeping through.
Via Channel Four, Brooker said that he was unsatisfied with the vast majority of television shows which aim, in their own ways, to comfort and reassure, and that, with Black Mirror, he was looking to "actively unsettle people". He thinks that the villain in the piece isn't technology itself, but our increasing and sometimes muddled interaction with it as we try to keep up with its breakneck pace. In accordance with this is the fact that there aren't any punchlines or happy endings in Black Mirror or White Christmas: Brooker is a fan of The Twilight Zone, and it shows. Television drama which ruffles feathers like this is rare enough to make watching Black Mirror and White Christmas feel as cold and luscious as eating ice-cream. Something that might strike you about Black Mirror and White Christmas are their potential suitability for the big screen. In sort of the same way that a lot of short stories wouldn't be much good stretched into novels, a lot of (even very good) television would take too much shaping and re-doing to morph into good films. But it might well occur to you that these episodes are almost readymades.
It's zeitgeisty in the US, too, with Jon Hamm ending up playing one of the lead roles in White Christmas after his request to meet Charlie Brooker because he liked his quirky television, and Robert Downey Jr. optioning the episode The Entire History of You. Black Mirrorproved popular in America after it was added to Netflix. Perhaps this, in its own small way, helps put paid to the notion that one side of the Atlantic or the other has the monopoly on offbeat, ironic, or gritty TV.
White Christmas and Black Mirror are these things, and more. This isn't the first time that Charlie Brooker has created a striking world-within-a-world television series - zombies-meet-Big Brother hurricane Dead Set appeared in 2008, but the Black Mirror universe is much closer to our own: is our own, really. We can relate, but we can't relax. If gritty television drama - The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, say - was a person, it wouldn't care if we liked it or not: it would do its own thing regardless, parading around in front of us and certainly not seeking to make us comfortable. White Christmas and Black Mirror work brilliantly as a kind of near-future technological and social black mass. Charlie Brooker has every right to be that bah-humbug, gurning TV guy - he has more than proved that he can do a heck of a lot better than most.