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On Monday night, the second episode of series 2 of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s warped ode to the modern-day obsession with technology, aired on Channel 4. “White Bear” was arguably the most disturbing instalment to date, raising more goosebumps and uncomfortable sofa-squirming from this avid viewer than even the debut episode “The National Anthem”, pig-fucking and all. And I bloody loved it. I’ve been a huge fan of Brooker and his work for many years, from his snarlingly acerbic columns in The Guardian to the Big Brother/zombie apocalypse crossover Dead Set, but dystopic fiction holds a special place in my heart that not even the most scathing episode of Screenwipe could occupy. Unsurprisingly, then, Black Mirror is one of my favourite things on television possibly ever.
Here be spoilers. This episode opened with Victoria, played by Sugar Rush and Being Human actress Lenora Critchlow, waking in a house, seemingly after an attempted suicide, to discover that everyone had become obsessive voyeurs, filming everything on camera phones but never engaging with the world. She also finds that she is being pursued by hunters, including terrifying balaclava-wearing gunmen and a redhead in a sheep mask brandishing an electric bread knife (which may just have to be this year’s Halloween costume.) What followed seemed at first like your general run of the mill dystopia – the complete breakdown of society, rampant murder and torture, a plucky companion and a last-ditch plan to put things back to normal. It was all very harrowing, edge-of-your-seat stuff, and boy Lenora Critchlow can scream and wail with the best of them, but it was nothing earth-shatteringly different. And then came the big reveal.
A fired shotgun explodes with a burst of confetti, and a wall slides aside to reveal a live audience and a Derren Brown-esque host. A big twist indeed, but at the same time it felt sort of cheap – the reality TV angle has become the 21st century equivalent of “it was all a dream”. But wait, there’s more. The last half an hour of Black Mirror has built Victoria up to be our anchor point within the narrative, a terrified, confused character with even less of a clue about what is going on than we do. We empathise with her terror, we see ourselves in her place. Then we discover that her fiancé kidnapped a young girl, then brutally tortured and murdered her whilst Victoria filmed it on her camera phone. He killed himself in custody, leaving an outraged public baying for what it deemed to be an appropriate level of punishment – to relive this horrific Truman Show apocalypse every day for the entertainment of visitors to the chillingly named “White Bear Justice Park”.
The power of the dystopia is that in taking aspects of modern society and taking it to its most extreme form, it shows us a horrible, possible future which is all too familiar. “Orwellian” has become a ubiquitous buzzword for oppressive and authoritarian actions of the government. The nightmarish Christian theocracy which rules in Margaret Atwood’s masterful novel The Handmaid’s Tale seems awfully familiar to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the religious right of today. The current, ongoing horsemeat scandal is chillingly mirrored in the 1973 sci-fi classic Soylent Green (IT’S PEOPLE!).
“White Bear” initially looked like its target would be our mindless techno-zombie obsession with filming things on our phones – one shot of a screaming Victoria running away from a hunter past lines of videoing voyeurs was eerily reminiscent of last summer’s Olympic torch relay. Instead, Charlie Brooker focused his ire on our tabloid-fuelled, medieval and plain voyeuristic desire to see guilty people punished to what we consider the appropriate amount. Victoria is forced to repeat her horrific punishment day in, day out – and regardless of her guilt, we see her suffer and I found it genuinely difficult to watch. But I watched it anyway, and that was the whole point. Well played, Brooker – you win again.