By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
The BBC’s Black Mirror series, which started in 2011, is perhaps one of the best shows that provides an insight on how utopian and dystopian fiction is evolving in the contemporary world, especially with regard to the role of social media and the endless consumption of online content. Let’s look at some episodes of the show and see what they tell us.
Season 1, Episode 1
Episode 1, can be confusing for a person who does not know what to expect. In what looks like contemporary London, the prime minister of Britain is awakened by aides and told that a popular British princess has been kidnapped. There’s a very strange ransom demand made on YouTube: the princess will be released if the PM has sex with a pig on live TV later that day. Otherwise, she will be killed. Also on YouTube.
The PM goes through a bunch of phases, initial disbelief, then confidence that his investigators will find the princess, then the realization that the investigation has been too slow, and finally, the moment of truth as the entire nation waits with bated breath to see if he will perform this humiliating and completely illegal sex act, for the horrified entertainment of the global public.
Satire or Dystopia?
It is a compelling story, but it may be difficult to see how it is a dystopia. At first, the situation is so outlandish it seems funny. And the reactions of the public are also funny. We cut to the contingency plan—that the PM actually accedes to the ridiculous demand. And suddenly it doesn’t seem funny or satirical or absurd. It’s not just that this politician will never recover from the humiliation of being associated with this act of bestiality, whether or not he actually does it. It’s that he’s being forced into radically non-consensual sex.
He won’t be destroyed by the humiliation. He’ll be destroyed by the rape. Brilliantly, we watch as the British public comes to this same conclusion, mirroring our own dawning comprehension. Yes, it’s still not a dystopia, is it? Well, here’s what’s interesting. Episode 1 concludes and episode 2 begins. No sign of the Prime Minister or Downing Street or contemporary London or anything.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Episode 2 begins with a young black man sleeping on a mattress inside a box the size of a prison cell. When he awakens, we see that the walls are screens. He prepares for his day in this aseptic technologically dominated space, and we see the continuous display of his “merits”, which we see are economic credits, and he has over 15 million of them, which keep reducing as he takes toothpaste, an apple, etc. He dresses in gray sweats and walks down a windowless hall and takes an elevator with other identically dressed people and ends up on one of a seemingly endless row of stationary bicycles, where his display shows his merits increasing as he produces energy.
Now this is a dystopia. Human slaves are caught in a cycle of energy production in which their every choice is severely limited, and they have no way out unless, as we soon learn, they compete in various reality television shows.
Just to increase the feeling of technological claustrophobia, we see that citizens are continually barraged with media on the screens that are always in front of them, and they actually have to pay a merit penalty in order to turn off media streaming of vapid and often pornographic programming.
Our protagonist often chooses to spend his merits on refusal of programming, and he eventually, in classic dystopian fashion, meets a girl who appears to have a rebellious streak as well, and they both attempt to leave their cycling space for the only other world available to them, that of reality TV. In some ways, their fates will be pretty familiar to those of us who love the classics.
Learn more about free will and dystopia.
But, here’s what is so forward-looking about the show. The episode “Fifteen Million Merits” causes us to rethink the first episode, provocatively titled “The National Anthem”. It’s only at the end of the second episode that we realize that maybe a world in which the British national anthem involves live streaming a prominent politician engaging in an act of bestiality as part of a terrorist plot is a dystopia.
What happens in Episode 1 doesn’t just happen to the PM, after all. It happens to the nation as people from all walks of life are drawn to watch the public spectacle of the corruption of governmental power structures by a plot whose success resides in the complicity of the populace, the fact that people are drawn to pause at car crashes, are deeply desiring of consuming political scandals and the blurring of reality and fiction, the more bizarre the better.
Learn more about post-apocalyptic literature.
The Dystopian Vision
Episode 2’s depiction of the literal enslavement of the populace is chilling, especially when we realize that it reflects back on the power dynamics of Episode 1. As the show’s title, Black Mirror, reminds us, like any good work of dystopia, that it is showing us the darker side of contemporary reality right here in our connected global world.
That is possibly the future of utopian and dystopian literature. Although the details will change, some basic anxieties are likely to remain central to this body of literature, totalitarian government, new technologies, economic disparity, control of sexuality, and environmental degradation. And utopian and dystopian representations of these concerns are likely to continue to use the conventions established by early examples of the genre and its interest in how power, ethics, and individual identity are constructed.
Common Question about Black Mirror and the Future of Utopian and Dystopian Fiction
In Episode 1 of Black Mirror, a British princess has been kidnapped. The princess would be released if the Prime Minister has sex with a pig on live TV. If he does not, the princess would be killed.
In Episode 2 of Black Mirror, human slaves are caught in a cycle of energy production in which they have no way out unless they compete in various reality television shows. Citizens are continually barraged with media on the screens that are always in front of them, and they have to pay a merit penalty in order to turn it off.
The title, Black Mirror, indicates that, like any good work of dystopia, it is showing us the darker side of contemporary reality right here in our connected global world.