April 23, 2014

Culture:

Is the future broken?

TV’s sharpest writer thinks we’ll get the future we deserve. Martin Saunders asks: Should Christians listen to him?

 

‘A Future you Deserve’: one of the promotional taglines for the second series of highly acclaimed TV three-parter Black Mirror, which ran on Channel 4 in February. The alternative slogan was less opaque, more directly indicative of the writer’s withering hope. It read, simply: ‘The Future’s Broken’.

That belief belongs to Charlie Brooker, increasingly regarded – by myself and many others – as one of Britain’s most talented writers. Having made his name as an acid-tongued Guardian TV columnist, he now enjoys a threepronged career: fronting satirical TV comedy shows including his Newswipe series, continuing an occasional newspaper career, and perhaps most interestingly, writing dark comedy drama for the small screen.

Dark Worldview

It’s unclear how much of the real man we get in his writing and broadcasting, but the voice and viewpoint he uses is one of angry dissatisfaction. Brooker is one of the most outspoken critics of modern culture – widening his focus in recent years from television to wider media, politics and more. Key to the credibility of that voice is his apparent self-loathing; how else could he be so scathing about the very media that he plays such an increasingly central role in? He recognises – like the apostle Paul when he calls himself ‘chief of all sinners’ in 1 Timothy 1:15 – that he has to take his own share of the blame for the things he despises.

The Black Mirror concept is a perfect expression of Brooker’s dark worldview. Presenting three twisted fables set in a possible near future, the show imagines what might happen if some of our more worrying cultural trends are seen through to their ultimate logical conclusion. So the first series featured stories about the mixed blessings of increased technology and social media, and a nightmarish vision of where TV talent shows might be heading.

The latest run fished in similar waters, but was more sophisticated. Whereas the first trilogy sometimes relied on shocks and on-the-nose satire, the second series seemed more interested in properly exploring ideas through convincing drama. These visions of the future really felt like dark but possible realities. It kicked off with ‘Be Right Back’ – the story of a bereaved woman enabled by technology to communicate with a version of her dead partner created from the echoes of his social media activity. It raised concerns about how technology can prevent us from processing emotion naturally; ringing true with the way that social media can feed neediness and the desire for attention.

The third story (each stands alone) was ‘The Waldo Moment’, a stinging critique of political engagement among younger people who, in Brooker’s vision, would rather listen to an abusive Ali G-style interviewer than to the politicians alongside him. Again, not a great leap of the imagination when you stop to think about it. Between these two stories, however, towered the extraordinary second episode, a terrifying and brilliant work of drama that will live long in the memories of all who saw it.

Nihilistic Deconstruction

‘White Bear’ opens with a woman (Lenora Crichlow, pictured to right) waking in an unfamiliar place. She doesn’t know who she is or how she got there, and as she heads outside is confronted by scores of silent zombie-like people, all apparently filming her on mobile phones. A gunman emerges; she runs for her life and is fortunate to meet a friendly face who can help her escape. She is then told that the vast majority of the population are being controlled by a mobile phone signal, and that this pair must now travel to a transmitter in an effort to shut that signal down. As they reach it however, events take a shocking turn...

‘White Bear’ appears to be about one thing – paranoia around technology – but is eventually revealed to be about something else entirely; something much more primal and important. This is the genius of Black Mirror as a whole – like the great satirists, Brooker isn’t just poking fun at culture but making a deadly serious point about, and for the benefit of, his fellow humans.

By the end of the episode, the viewer is left with a profound image. Whether this is what the writer intended or not, that image is a vision of hell itself; of the opposite of what Christianity preaches about God’s best future for humankind. Joining the dots, then, Brooker becomes the modern-day Dante, illustrating the Inferno that awaits people if they continue on their path of self-destruction.

This is what I find really interesting. Like many atheists, Charlie Brooker is in danger of only offering nihilistic deconstruction. The way we live now has consequences: a broken future; a future we deserve. There is no sense of hope or redemption – most of these tales conclude with a bleak assessment that things are likely only to descend further. There’s never a sense that these situations could be saved or improved; no illustration of a better way. At best, Black Mirror is a great big warning sign; at worst, it’s utter defeatism.

Remaking and Renewing

Black Mirror enables us – as the title suggests – to reflect on where our world might be heading. Brooker has a gift for conveying our worst fears about ourselves through drama, which is, of course, what makes the whole thing so compelling. His stories shouldn’t frighten us, but they should challenge us. His strength is in identifying the problems; ours should be in redemptive solutions. He has no hope for us; we who know God, know hope. We know that grace plays havoc with the idea of the future we deserve.

Do Christians take the future seriously enough? Certainly in one sense we do. Yet perhaps in focusing on humanity’s eternal destination, we have forgotten God’s mission to remake and renew the earth. The show suggests that politics, media, technology and society as a whole are all on a one-way journey to hell. A Church that concerns itself with the remaking and renewing of all of these might argue to the contrary. As we gaze into the Black Mirror, we should be inspired to bring the change that Charlie Brooker fears is now beyond our reach.

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Issue published April 2013AuthorMartin Saunders

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