Black Mirror and the Return of Anthologies

Marvel, DC, Star Wars ... So far, the 21st century film industry has been dominated by billion-dollar science fiction franchises, mostly featuring prevailing superheroes or space exploration. TV shows on the other hand, seem to have taken over the time travel subgenre due to its episodic nature of limitless settings and boundless adventures. Timeless, Legends of Tomorrow and Outlander are all shows you can find on the small screen right now that specifically feature time travel. While each show has its hook -- a history professor taking on Nazis or Scottish lovers separated by centuries -- there’s a lot of the same when it comes to the sci-fi genre. However, there is one show that differs from these, that isn’t designed to make you reminisce about the past, but instead gets you thinking about the future: Black Mirror.

A modern Twilight Zone

Created by British writer, Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror is a sci-fi anthology that explores human tribulations brought on by rapidly developing technology and has often been called the modern Twilight Zone -- “where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide.” Without spoiling too much, episode narratives include: the British Prime Minister being blackmailed to have livestreamed intercourse with a pig, a device that allows people to upload their digital consciousness to a virtual world, and a chip implant for children that enables the behaviour of helicopter parents.

The allure of near-future sci-fi

When you think of science fiction, the images that come to mind are probably of space ships and distant galaxies or rogue androids taking over society -- at least that’s what pops into my head. But to juxtapose the renowned line: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” is a depiction of reality much closer to our own. While superheroes came to life during times of war and stories about space travel encourage escapism to universes far from our own, Black Mirror’s strategy is quite different. The power of Black Mirror’s near-future storytelling stems from its ability to show us our deepest fears only a step into the future, rather than leaping universes away. Its popularity stems from the unsettling truth that many of the show’s events could quite possibly come true.

In fact, some of them already have or are pretty damn close -- take, for instance, the revelation that real-life, former British Prime Minister, David Cameron’s genitals had in fact come into contact with a pig as part of a hazing ritual during his schooling -- a very similar plot to the show’s first episode. Other unnerving parallels include a rating system proposed in China to rate the trustworthiness of its citizens comparable with Black Mirror’s futuristic Bridesmaids episode, “Nosedive,” people being blackmailed through their webcams, and artificial intelligences made to mimic the dead. These are all developing technologies that are completely feasible in the near-future. Author of “Technology vs Humanity,” Gerd Leonhard states: “Basically what’s happening is that science fiction has caught up with us, so what seems like science fiction is now possible.”

Black Mirror  draws its name from the reflective dark screens of technology. 

Black Mirror draws its name from the reflective dark screens of technology. 

Drawing its name from the reflective dark screens of technology like smartphones, laptops or TVs, Black Mirror deserves praise for its impactful acting choices and diverse cast. Originally a solely UK-based show before being acquired by Netflix after its second season in September 2015, episodes have featured talent such as Jon Hamm, Daniel Kaluuya, Bryce Dallas Howard, Hayley Atwell, Domhnall Gleeson and Jerome Flynn.

While the show features a variety of alluring, futuristic technologies, one of its greatest strength is its focus on small-scale narratives about humanity. The show doesn’t over-explain and instead lets you draw your own conclusions about the implications of whatever new tech has come to play through the telling of human stories. Although many critics have accused the show of nihilism that renders human life irrelevant, it is never the technology itself wreaking havoc. As Brooker stated in an interview with Channel 4, “the villain is never technology.” Instead the plot of each episode is driven by humanity’s interaction with an animated blue bear running in a political election or responding to demands from anonymous text messages. The most well-received episodes of the show all involve relatable characters with strong emotions that are easy to empathize with.

Favorite Episode of Black Mirror?

Are anthologies making a comeback?

Other than a few exceptions such as The Twilight Zone which aired in the 1960s, anthologies on TV have always been risky. Networks concerned with selling ads typically avoid them because of their inability to keep viewers coming back for more. There are no cliffhangers or character arcs to keep the audience enthralled from episode to episode -- the themes and concepts of each episode make them strong enough to stand on their own. In many ways, Netflix can be thanked for this shift. Instead of being limited by weekly ratings, the complete four seasons of Black Mirror can be found on the streaming platform and consumed an episode or a season at a time.

With so many options in this era of Peak TV, anthologies allow viewers to consume bite-sized entertainment without the commitment of multi-season, complex storylines and character arcs. Co-creator of the new HBO series Room 104, Jay Duplass likes to consider anthologies “the Tinder of television.” Not unlike the emergence of limited series like Big Little Lies, anthologies are able to afford big name actors for single episodes rather than spending their budgets paying A-listers.

Thanks to the much less risky territory Netflix has created, Black Mirror has paved the way for anthologies of the near-future. In the last year alone, sci-fi anthologies like Room 104, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, and Dimension 404 have all been released on streaming services like Amazon Video, Hulu and HBO. So if you’re the type of person that solely consumes Disney’s mass-marketed representations of science fiction, my suggestion is to expand your watch list. It’s not likely that this anthology trend will be going away any time soon.