The Netflix original series Black Mirror has attracted a surprising number of critics, some ridiculing the very premise of the series - and having that backfire - others just dismissing it as "pretentious," while others claim the very title sailed over their heads, and finally a whole subsection out there blowing it off because it's similar to The Twilight Zone franchise.
Um, yeah, that's the whole point!
For those out of the loop: Black Mirror is a modern speculative fiction anthology series with a UK production beat (irregular seasons with episodes stretching to movie-length).
It focuses on hard sci-fi dystopian scenarios, taking recent developments in technology and extrapolating the "what if?" factor from there to view the human impact. Usually, it's a grim and rotten, cyberpunk world. "And they all lived happily ever after" said no Black Mirror story ever.
At any given time since the dawn of mass electronic media, we've never been far from a speculative fiction anthology series. You could even make a case that anthology formats are the foundation of modern genre fiction; pick just about any famous author and you'll find they've published short stories in a magazine periodical or ten.
The anthology series predates television itself, going back to radio series such as Light's Out (1934-47), Inner Sanctum (1941–52), and Quiet, Please! (1947–49), to name just a few more famous examples.
But when it comes to TV anthologies, 99% of modern fans can name Twilight Zone and then go blank after that. Fair enough, considering TZ was iconic enough to spawn its own magazine (publishing Harlan Ellison (eulogy here) stories no less!)...
and its own amusement park rides…
If Black Mirror is filling the shoes of a legacy that size, more power to it. But in fact, The Twilight Zone is merely the most famous example of televised fiction's most capable format. Join me for a whirlwind tour of the forgotten gems of TV speculative fiction anthologies leading us to Black Mirror as inevitably as a Black Mirror episode's protagonists meet their bleak ultimate fate.
Since we're all so familiar with Twilight Zone, it's a pity that creator Rod Serling's OTHER spec-fic anthology series died in obscurity. Night Gallery was an improvement on Twilight Zone's formula in many ways, being more focused on straight horror than TZ and ditching the preachy, mawkish sentimental schlock that dragged TZ down to its lowest moments.
The Present Author was but a little kid in jammies when the series first ran. Imagine late nights at home watching TV and suddenly this thing comes on...
...yeah, that was the series title sequence. My first introduction to horror was getting the cupcakes scared out of me by this melting, howling abomination. Each episode had Serling himself as the host of an art museum, with macabre oil paintings scattered about.
Serling would use the paintings to introduce us to each weeks' short stories of gruesome terror uncommonly seen on TV at the time. The series adapted short works by literary greats such as H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, and Fritz Leiber, so it was a cut above average for the base material.
Night Gallery was like Twilight Zone in color with the kid gloves taken off. It's highly recommended you pounce on the series for a short 3-season binge the next time you encounter it on streaming.
The Outer Limits
It used to be on a par with TZ for fame. The Outer Limits was much more focused on mature, serious fiction than the oft-sentimental TZ. Like TZ, it had several reboots and revivals over the years but has just fallen by the wayside.
Unlike TZ or Night Gallery, Outer Limits concerned itself with pure sci-fi stories, boasting the above-mentioned Harlan Ellison producing the series two signature episodes ("Soldier" and "Demon With A Glass Hand"), as well as well-known sci-fi names Jerry Sohl and Clifford Simak. But perhaps you know it best from its iconic opening title sequence…
Outer Limits stands alone today as one of the few attempts to make an anthology sci-fi series that had no supernatural or fantasy elements to it but featured the most cutting-edge of modern science fiction themes they could get their hands on.
It's noted today for having production quality beyond the pale of most TV series of the 20th century, with arty dialog, sophisticated concepts, an orchestral soundtrack, and Conrad Hall's cinematography. Perhaps Black Mirror itself is the greatest spiritual successor to the Outer Limits.
Joltingly, the next-closest spiritual cousin to Black Mirror is its philosophic opposite. Steven Spielberg in the mid-1980s launched Amazing Stories, and anthology series that was truly speculative fiction encompassing sci-fi, fantasy, and horror.
Episodes ran the gamut of magicians, psychics, aliens, monster-of-the-week, genies, ghosts, and interplanetary colonization. Most of all, the series felt exactly like Spielberg using it as a dumping ground for ideas he never saw through to development in his blockbuster feature film career.
Like Rod Serling's original conception of Twilight Zone, Amazing Stories had an upbeat, positive tone with heavy anvils upon which very important life lessons were painted and dropped on the heads of its two-dimensional protagonists.
It wasn't that popular at the time and is surprisingly downplayed now. Spielberg just doesn't have enough salt to make a good anthology series; everything with him is cloyingly sweet.
When You Look Into The Black Mirror…
Back to the main subject of our thesis, Black Mirror has a much tougher audience than any of its predecessors. We're more jaded now.
When we think of the original Twilight Zone, we all remember the ground-breaking signature episodes like "It's A Good Life" or "Eye of the Beholder," but for every one of those Serling got through ten mawkish passion plays with Hallmark card Aesops and tearjerker endings. That would never fly today. Sci-fi anthology series need to have tons more grit.
And Black Mirror has proven itself equal to this challenge! The common ground is that Twilight Zone had a number of techno-phobic plots, usually about a robot replacement for a previously human function where we discover, snore-yawn-surprise, robots have no heart and therefore are no match for human compassion.
In quite a few more episodes, it's all about the protagonist being confronted with some new technology wrinkle and sparring with it, right down to "A Thing About Machines" where, in a Maximum Overdrive way, machines simply turn on one man for no good reason.
Black Mirror take the technology-vs.-humanity template as its sole repertoire, exploring all the facets of how technology is changing our lives faster than we can keep up. As opposed to TZ's persistent lecturing, Black Mirror doesn't claim to have the answers. It just plops us in the lap of the latest conundrum and tells us "This is what it's like to be human now. There are no right answers. What do we do now?"
- Alan Turing wrote his essay "On Computable Numbers" in 1936.
- Texas Instruments engineer Jack Kirby (not to be confused with the comic artist) created the first microchip in 1958.
- Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie created the Unix operating system in 1969.
- ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet, came online about 1977.
- Sir Tim Berners-Lee handed down The World Wide Web to us in 1991.
- The first social networks could be said to have been Geocities and Tripod, circa 1995.
- Facebook launched in 2003.
Every development in the above list was a revolutionary, ground-breaking landmark in communications science that changed how every human on planet Earth lived and breathed forever.
Even if you live in the outback and never saw a computer or a phone, the advent of these devices changed the world around you, altering the global politics that determined your borders, the planes flying overhead, and the air you breathed. Every development in the above paragraph is less than a century old.
As of this writing, we are 18 years shy of the century anniversary of Alan Turing's first hypothetical guess as to where we'd be right now!
In the eighty or so ensuing years, every generation has been born into a brand new world we never knew before and has seen the pace of progress accelerate at unimaginable rates during their lifetime.
In the news on a daily basis, we see problems posed by the front of technology progress meeting the conservative quagmire of human nature.
Fake news, social network psychology, the influence of having a phone in everybody's pocket, botnets, astroturfing, and so on. We have had 80 years of continuous leaps to computing and telecommunication technology without getting a single minute to pause everything and ask "What is all these media doing to us?"
That's what Black Mirror is asking, and it's a damned, damned important question to be asking. For all we know, we could be headed over an evolutionary cliff right now, and we're going far too fast to put on the brakes in time. Everything is up for grabs.
Twilight Zone merely warned us that humans weren't meant to merge with microchips, but Black Mirror lives in the universe where humans have decided to do that anyway and have vowed to change ourselves into the kind of species who IS meant to merge with microchips, if we have to drill holes in our skulls and implant them there ourselves.
It should come as no surprise that Black Mirror's creator, Charlie Brooker, has spent time in a career path that led him to ask these questions. If you've ever seen his Screepwipe series or other UK news/satire works, you'll see where he was chewing on the seeds of several Black Mirror plots before they were ever written.
For instance, here's Charlie talking about how video editing technology is able to take true footage and alter it to fit any narrative you'd like.
Years later the Black Mirror episode "The Entire History Of You" would address this same theme of subjective focus on past recorded events.
The nut of the matter is that we're lacking our quota of public intellectuals who serve as media watchdogs. You're all familiar with Marshall McLuhan's theories on media temperature or Andy Warhol's wry observation that is the future, we'd all be famous for fifteen minutes.
Add to that: Robert Anton Wilson's hefty thoughts about the "reality tunnel" we each construct for ourselves to navigate media, Paddy Chayefsky's brimstone-grilling of modern media in a little masterpiece you might have heard of called Network (1976), Michel Foucault's assessments of the balance between power and knowledge and how they're used for social control, Erving Goffman's studies of symbolic interaction which were prescient of social media interaction, Marcel Duchamp's trolling dada art statements, and Hunter S. Thompson and his "gonzo" approach to modern journalism.
All THOSE guys are dead too, and who do we have taken their places? Elon Musk? We have Charlie Brooker and Black Mirror, the first TV speculative fiction anthology TV series to dare to fictionalize modern computing and telecommunications at the same rate they're developing.
That leaves me. Forgive your humble author's hubris if you catch me winkingly referring to myself as a prophet sometimes. It's not that I'm suffering from such a delusion that I'm divinely ordained to be so. It's that the position is desperately vacant and nobody else is willing to fill it.