I had to get some blood work done this morning at my doctor’s office. I was struck, as I always am when I submit my body for testing, of the sense in which the body is treated as a confession by the medical establishment. I am always nervous about this process because I fear what truths my body will tell. I fear that I cannot hide my bad habits as they might show up in my body. I am reminded of a police procedural, maybe it is the CSI series, where it seemed like in almost every episode someone would say, “The truth is in the body.”
This week I was also having a conversation about the status of the body in Black Mirror, specifically in some of the episodes that produce cookies out of human DNA, which is to say, the DNA becomes digitalized in ways that produce a person in the virtual digital world. What strikes me about the cookies is that they are independent even though the person controlling the system can change the bodies of the cookies (as in USS Callister) and cause them great pain (White Christmas, Black Museum, Playtest). It seems to me that even in the digital world, the truth seems to be in the body. That is, the fact that the body suffers is a report on the conditions. The body is taken as material that exhibits a truth about the situation. Read more
So apparently listing all of the Black Mirror Episodes in the order from best to worst is now a thing. So I’m getting on it. For me best to worst does not mean I don’t like the episodes on the bottom of the list, I just mean, in terms of Black Mirror episodes, they were not as good as the ones ahead of them.
I was trying to think about what my ranking criteria are. One element is how believable it is, not in terms of the technology, but the ethical dilemmas and decisions people find themselves facing as a result of the technology or the aspects of the human condition the technology reveals. The more those dilemmas seemed to capture the truth of humanity in this moment in time the better I thought the episode was. But I also coupled that with how interesting the technology / world created by the technology was. So while I thought Shut Up and Dance captured the truth of humanity, the technology seemed pretty much already possible so the episode didn’t seem that imaginative to me. Read more
I am the kind of person who watches Black Mirror out of duty and not out of enjoyment. I have to gird myself to sit down for an episode and can usually only watch one episode at a time, mostly because of the dark capacities of human existence that I think the show explores. Leigh Johnson is right about a lot of things and one of them is that the show is not fundamentally about technology. I think it is important to see the show as investigating how technology can open up or put to work some of our baser instincts, rather than suggesting that the technology is the cause of them. I just finished the fourth season, which Johnson maintains is worse for seeming to be more about the technology than about the human condition.
I am not entirely sure that it is more about technology, but I think there is something to the notion that the more it seems to be about the anxieties or problems that the technology produces rather than the human depravity the technology enables or reveals the less compelling the show is. Still in Season 4, I think Hang the DJ is about the darker side of the eternal return of the same and that Arkangel is about how the very things we think will allow us to control the disorder and unpredictability of life and relationships end up bringing disorder and chaos to those relationships. I was disappointed by Metalhead because the basic plot device seemed completely unmotivated.
But I found Black Museum particularly interesting. One thing I like about Black Mirror episodes is that they stand up to further reflection and rumination. While I was watching Black Museum the episode seemed self-satisfyingly self-referential in a way that made it seem was a series of short BM episodes squeezed into one. But at the end of the episode, I started to wonder whether the show is in fact raising questions about watching Black Mirror itself. (SPOILERS) The episode is set up as a tour through a museum of Black Mirror-like technologies that lead people to treat others badly. One involves the endless torture of a cookie in a sketch that is a mix of White Bear, White Christmas and USS Callister. Another involves a woman in a coma whose consciousness is placed in a teddy bear. At the end of the episode, the woman on the tour who turns out to be the daughter of the man whose cookie is being endlessly tortured destroys the tour guide by turning him into a cookie who is being endlessly tortured. The annoyance of the self-reference made me wonder if the episode is talking about Black Mirror. The show, like the guide, has taken a sort of pleasure in presenting us with macabre possibilities of humanity and technology, in an episode that shows quite explicitly how people just did not think through the implications of the technology they created, which led to their demise, including to the demise of the tour guide. This turn of events made me wonder whether the show is reflecting on how the show itself might have unintended consequences, how it might get out of their hands, as the technology always seems to do. Or rather, the technology shows itself to have never been fully in their hands in the first place.
The end of the episode involves torching the “Black Museum,” the monument to these destructive technologies. So I’ve been wondering whether it is a kind of call for viewers to torch it and what that would involve. And more, why might it be something the creators want to warn us about or suggest we do? Of course, the makers of Black Mirror have not made new destructive technologies as much as worked within already existing technologies to imagine new ones. Is the possible suggestion that even the old technologies can be destructive and we need to get on thinking and reflecting about that instead of fixating on what is to to come? I think Johnson is right to warn against coming up with a moral for each episode. But this one struck me as saying something was not good, doubly and perhaps triply. The tour guide describes how the technologies went wrong. The tourist punishes him for being the purveyor of these technologies. And she destroys the museum, as if keeping the memorials was just as much a problem. This last point is what makes me think the makers of Black Mirror are asking for reflection in relation to the show itself. Even though each episode does not have a moral, I do think the show in general is asking for thoughtfulness around technological advances that far outpace our thinking about what they mean for being human and how they might make being human mean something else.