Even though science fiction deals with possibilities and all the wonder that may be, it also has a habit of tempering that notion with a lot of paranoia and suspicion of advanced technology and its application. In the science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, there's a dichotomy with nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons and nuclear energy become both our greatest hope and the greatest threat to civilization. Within a lot of stories, nuclear weapons are humanity's trump card against whatever threat we might be facing. And yet, something nuclear might also be the cause of genetic mutations or whatever accident that creates the hideous monster that's killing people one by one.
Among the many examples of technological suspicion in fiction:
- Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has at its core a fear of technology encroaching on the territory of the gods, hence the novel's subtitle: The Modern Prometheus. The “big three” monsters in pop culture (i.e., vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein’s monster) each represent an aspect of fear over corruption of what it means to be human. Vampires are a fear of sex, since becoming a vampire is usually depicted as an act of seduction which taints like a venereal disease. Werewolves are a fear of nature, where the unknown of the wilderness contains something which can strip away reason and make those touched by it into ungodly feral creatures. And Frankenstein’s monster is a fear of science, and how it will twist the human form into something ghastly, and create things which threaten life itself.
- 2001: A Space Odyssey positions human history as an (alien induced) succession of tool development, from beating things with bones to putting kill-satellites in orbit in order to scorch the Earth. The HAL-9000 computer is the culmination of those tools, where it is in some ways more human than the human characters within the story.
- James Cameron's Terminator, Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, and the Colossus series by Dennis Feltham Jones all deal with man destroying itself by making machines too smart. In all three instances, computers designed to help fight global wars in defense of humanity instead decide to either murder, control, or torture humanity.
- In Frank Herbert's Dune, one of the highest laws is a prohibition on thinking machines. Thousands of years before the events of the book, humanity fought a religious "jihad" against the machines which caused a state of apathy and ruled their lives.
- Futurama both inverted this trope and played it straight when the characters visited a world populated by robots who hate humans in “Fear of a Bot Planet.” For entertainment, the robots of that world watch horror movies where humans are depicted as monsters that attack young robots trying to have robot sex.
- One of the defining aspects of Star Trek is its theme of technology and science being mediums through which people will be united for a better future. The development of Warp Drive is a seminal moment for humanity in the overall story, and Data's (Brent Spiner) story is usually used to comment on the human condition and test the boundaries of "human" rights. However, the franchise takes a negative view of genetic engineering ("Khhhhaaaannnn!") and any augmentation to the human form as a forfeiture of the qualities which defines one’s humanity.
- In The Matrix series of films, the development of artificial intelligence, and humanity’s shitty treatment of it, leads to conflict and a future where people become living batteries, with their minds trapped inside a virtual reality.
- In Ronald D. Moore's re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, the characters eventually embrace spirituality, and come to believe "God has a plan" for them and the universe. They must reject technology in order to have a chance at unity and peace.
- Spike Jonze's Her is an aversion of this particular trope. The relationship between the artificial intelligence Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) and Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is used as a metaphor for relationships where one partner is moving forward and the other is stuck in a rut. Instead of taking over the world when they gain sapience, the machines just become another form of life sharing the planet with us.
People like their smartphones which have apps for everything between shopping and porn, their smart TVs with 500 channels, and things like air conditioning and refrigeration and modern plumbing and MRIs. All of it, from the most superfluous crap to our greatest achievements, are built upon 6,000 years of advancements. And yet, there is a gnawing suspicion and paranoia which surrounds technology. Whether it be fears of losing one’s job to a machine, the feeling that what we’ve gained has been payed for by melting ice caps and poisoned rivers, or that one day the supercomputers, robots, and drones will rise up and kill us all, a certain amount of technophobia is pervasive in worries about how changes might affect what it means to be human.
Black Mirror sees these issues through a prism in which the newest creature comforts are twisted into something which distances people from their nature … or reveals it. The fifth series of the anthology series is comprised of three episodes.
- “Smithereens” was intentionally set in a world with no extra-ordinary technology by Brooker, and centers on a man (Andrew Scott, probably best known to audiences as Moriarty from Sherlock) who takes a man hostage and threatens to kill him in order to speak with the head of a Twitter-like tech company. The episode reiterates themes the series has touched on before, with the effect of smartphone technology on everyday life, how it warps how people perceive themselves and what they value, and whether human suffering is just now something relegated to a pop-up notification that can be apathetically dismissed. The story, which has some similarities to the Book of Job’s quest for God to acknowledge suffering, also envisions tech creators, which media and fanboys deify in god-like status, as emotionally fragile and immature individuals who wield power rivaling governments. Where Job’s God claims superiority, the “god-mode” Zuckerberg of “Smithereens” claims impotence.
- Inspired in part as a parody of Miley Cyrus’s Hannah Montana character, as well as how Disney controlled and managed Cyrus’s image during her years with them, “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” plays exactly as a Disney Channel original movie where Hannah Montana doesn’t want to perform anymore and young fans need to her escape from her captors ... except it’s warped by Black Mirror’s sensibilities. The episode features Cyrus performing Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole,” whose anti-consumerism lyrics fit the themes of the story. The story also touches on the increasing trend of using, and manipulating, a person’s image to perform, sometimes even after the performer’s death.
To me, the episode which had a concept that gave my mind a lot to chew on was “Striking Vipers.”
Two old friends, Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), attempt to reconnect over the latest edition of a Street Fighter-esque fighting video game called Striking Vipers they played in younger days. The two have been estranged from each other after Danny settled down into family life with his wife, Theo (Nicole Beharie). Danny’s and Theo’s sex life is now organized around an app which tells the couple when ovulation is best for conceiving a child. The characters are surrounded by things which signify success, but no one seems happy.
What makes this a Black Mirror episode is the video game Danny and Karl play uses aspects of the same technology seen previously in episodes like “USS Callister,” “San Junipero,” “The Entire History of You,” and “White Christmas,” which allows one’s mind to be subsumed into a fully interactive environment. Karl assumes the form of Roxette (Pom Klementieff), a Chun-Li inspired fighting game action girl who shows her panties a lot. And Danny takes on the role of Lance (Ludi Lin), the traditional Ryu-like martial artist character. As the two men test out the game, they try to recapture the moments of their youth where they enjoyed sitting on a couch, mashing buttons, smoking weed, and being a part of each other’s lives.
As they bounce around the simulation, they use their video game forms to kick, punch, and tackle each other until Karl-as-Roxette is on top of Danny-as-Lance. But then they kiss ... and, after some attempts to blame it on alcohol, return to the game to kiss some more … and then go further. And the rest of the episode, which plays in some ways as Brokeback Mountain if it had been made by Capcom, asks what exactly does it all mean?
Reactions to the episode have wondered exactly what the series, and Brooker as the episode’s writer, are trying to say about sexuality, relationships, and escapism. Are these two characters, whom when removed from the framework of social norms, are able to express their feelings about each other and connect with an intimacy not possible in the really real world? Are these men on the down low afraid to be real in the really real world? Or, if this were to actually exist in the here and now, would it be a high-tech form of pornography that doesn’t really say much about sexual identity?
I’m not sure Black Mirror knows the answers to those questions any more than the audience. And the use of video games as a metaphor for sexual fluidity may or may not add to the ambiguity of the situation. Similar to some of the arguments with “USS Callister” and the malevolence of Robert Daly (Jesse Plemmons) in a video game environment, there’s a general conceit most allow for fantasies without the implication of deeper meaning.
If people kill characters and other players in Grand Theft Auto, or shoot up others in Call of Duty, we generally don’t assume they have homicidal tendencies. Does the fact millions of women like Fifty Shades of Grey and other romance stories which could arguably be labeled “rape fantasies” say something about their sexuality? There’s a huge market for incest porn currently. Does that mean the same people really want to sleep with their sister or stepmom, or their stepdaughter or brother? Many self-identified straight women watch lesbian porn for gratification. Is that indicative of an unacknowledged fluidity? Or is it strictly a fantasy which allows a segment of an audience to get off in a way that stimulates something somewhere?
And yet, the characters in this story think there’s more to it than just fantasy. Danny’s and Karl’s hookups in “Striking Vipers” take on the form of an extramarital affair. Danny’s sex life with his wife suffers, with Theo blaming herself, and Karl starts to find sex with female partners in the real world not as satisfying. And the episode leaves it an open question as to whether this is a gay relationship by technological means, whether for Karl it’s an expression of transgender identity, or if it’s just two dudes who like fucking their PlayStation and are overthinking it.
Natalie Degraffinreid: There’s a very clear implication that what Danny is doing is cheating, which I don’t necessarily disagree with. And I felt the same about the sex and relationship aspects! The sexual orientation aspect I was torn on. I wish this weren’t another “living out my gay life in VR” thing like “San Junipero” was, especially because this one very much toes the lines of the “downlow man” trope, but I found myself ultimately feeling pretty OK with how they handled it in the end, even though some of it was so whimsical I couldn’t deal.
There’s a scene of Danny trying to decide if he wants to send a little kissy “x” at the end of his text message to Karl, and for me it was just like, this great moment of wondering about boundaries and feelings and, really, Danny’s whole self-concept. I know we get tired of seeing reluctant gays on TV, or “straight people” doing gay stuff but not actually gaying it up, but there is something to be said about discovering or exploring a new aspect of your sexuality—whether orientation or kinks—later in life. It’s like, they’re feeling this strong urge in a way they hadn’t or hadn’t in a while, and that means something.
Gita Jackson: Yeah that’s exactly how I felt! That kind of urge or development of sexuality is very real. It’s entirely possible to have your sexuality continue to grow well past your 20s. I think it was best expressed in that one scene where Karl is trying to explain the female orgasm to Danny. He uses a dumb metaphor, but you can tell through the acting that he is fascinated by the experience of being a woman. He doesn’t necessarily want to transition, and clearly still enjoys sex as a man, but being able to also exist in a space as a woman is something that excites him. And he and Danny just have great chemistry!
- The game doesn’t make sense … unless it was always meant to be porn: There are many times in Black Mirror, and science fiction in general, one just has to go with the story and not think too hard. And, in this case, if one thinks about the technology too much, there are a lot of questions which creep in. For example, if I’m a programmer on this, I might wonder why I have to code life-like genitals and orgasms into a Street Fighter V-type fighting game?
- Ambiguity abounds: Karl has no problem sleeping with Danny-as-Lance, but it's unclear if he feels any attraction or romantic feelings for Danny proper or men in general. Outside of Striking Vipers, he doesn't express any attraction for other men, but his sex life with women begins to slow down. Karl-as-Roxette tells Danny-as-Lance that he loves him, but later says it was a slip, and agrees that he doesn't feel anything when the two kiss later. But are the two being honest? Or are they afraid of what it means if they actually do have feelings?
- Round One — FIGHT!: It’s interesting, and very symbolic, that in the arena where the characters are told to “Fight” within the game, it becomes a place where they’re intimate. When they attempt to be intimate in the real world, in a setting where Karl and Danny should in theory be the most at peace with themselves and each other, they fight.
So what was the inspiration for this tale? Were you playing Street Fighter and went, “You know, that ninja is actually pretty cute?”
Charlie Brooker: You’re nearly right. Those games are incredibly hypersexualized. When you actually compare the actual physical characteristics of characters in those games to actual human beings, they’re insane. They’re like a sexualized Hulk. Once again, it came out of two thoughts. The first was, we wanted to do a story where two people went into a virtual environment and had a romance but didn’t know who the other one was. And then I remembered years ago in the ’90s I used to play Tekken on the PlayStation a lot. And my flatmates and I would play it all hours of the day and night. And I remember thinking the people below and above our flat must have thought we were operating some sort of S&M dungeon because of the constant noise of men [making shouting, grunting noises]. And I thought there is something homoerotic about this arena in which you’re physically grappling with your friends on the screen. There’s something weirdly primal about it.
- Polar bear: The line which caught the internet’s attention is Karl telling Danny about his virtual attempts to move on to other partners in the game, which culminates in: “I fucked a polar bear, and I still can’t get you out of my mind.” For the record, the polar bear seems to be based on Kuma and Panda from the Tekken franchise.
- Bisexual lighting: The episode plays with color symbolism to represent the feelings of the characters. The only point where the real world is colorful is when the characters are young, happy, and together. After the 11 year jump, their middle-aged lives are dominated by the color grey and muted colors. The only time bright, vivid colors appear are during the virtual reality environment of the game, or when game equipment is in use in the real world (i.e., Karl’s pinball machine, Danny playing Tetris, the character select screen for Striking Vipers, etc.), and those colors are done with “bisexual lighting”—lighting characters with pink, purple, and blue.
- Is the ending positive or negative?: I’ve seen many reviewer argue over whether the ending is supposed to be seen as a happy, where all three character find a compromise which works for them. But I’ve seen some commenters, especially those sympathetic to polyamorous relationships, bristle at those who see the ending as pessimistic, and a house of cards waiting to fall down. The Karl character doesn’t seem to be in a healthy place at all. Depending on one’s perspective, the way he pines for Danny to be in the game with him is either love, obsession, or addiction. And the ending leaves him alone, in a loft with his cat, waiting for one day out of the year on the calendar where he can have fulfillment. Brooker, who wrote the episode, sees things as “pragmatically romantic.”
Brooker: Once a year [Danny] gets a free pass to go into the game and [Theo] gets to indulge her fantasy — and hers arguably places more jeopardy on the relationship since it’s in the real world, or we assume it is. There’s a lot of trust there. They’re allowing themselves one day to indulge their selfish fantasies in exchange for 364 other days of union and fidelity and fatefulness and they’re raising a family. There’s a theme throughout where he’s not communicating directly with his wife and not sharing with her, and that’s perhaps why this whole situation has come about. So by the end, their relationship is a lot healthier because they’re discussing their wants and needs. It works for them in the time we see it because there’s an equality to it. That’s obviously not a one-size-fits-all solution. What if she falls in love with the guy she meets in the bar? And Yahya’s character’s existence is fairly lonely; he’s clearly waiting for this one day a year. So he’s sort of in limbo too.