The Motif of the Awakening in Black Mirror
Written by: Miloš Cvetković
Translated by: Filip Čolović
The song “Wake Up” by Rage Against the Machine marked the closing credits of The Matrix twenty years ago. In the meantime, many things have changed, including not only the movies themselves but also the world that they depict. No, machines haven’t become self-aware (yet) and they haven’t rebelled, but if we put that aside and focus on the way that we experience reality, we come to the conclusion that we do not need conscious machines. All that we need to do is take a good look in the mirror…
The motif of the awakening in Black Mirror was treated differently than it was in The Matrix. For Neo, that moment represents his initiation into the role of the savior, a sort of superhero supposed to bring salvation to the rest of humanity (assuming that we are talking only about the first movie), but for the majority of Black Mirror protagonists, the awakening does not represent salvation. Actually, one can see how the creator of the series, Charlie Brooker, used this motif to come to a terrifying concept which is present in many of the show’s episodes – the digital hell. We’re not talking about a metaphor but a believable (at least in the domain of speculative fiction) recreation of something that was seen and treated as a divine creation throughout humanity’s history and culture. When Dante proposed his then-original vision of hell in The Divine Comedy, it was a creative interpretation of a foreign, metaphysical concept that people believed in. When Charlie Brooker created Black Mirror, the show spawned a different concept of hell, one created by humans who inherit divinity.
One of the great delusions regarding Black Mirror is the banalized impression that it depicts the dangers posed by new technologies. The only danger, as always, is posed by humans themselves i.e. the way that they use existing technology. And before someone claims that this is only a matter of semantics, let us remind ourselves that one of the best things about this show is the fact that the technology depicted therein appears far more believable than anything that we saw in The Matrix. Therefore, Brooker’s work is more of an observation than a warning: he is not as interested in showing us our Frankenstein-like creation as much as he is in showing us, in true Cronenbergian fashion, that this creation is an inherent part of the human species. Self-destruction cannot be separated from the idea of progress, as paradoxical as it may seem. In accordance with that, cynics would say that humans are more inclined to create a digital hell than a digital paradise, should they be capable of doing so. After all, throughout the show’s four seasons, the former concept is present in many episodes, while the latter is present only in one.
What precedes the idea of digital hell is, of course, the idea of hell on earth, and in this regard, Brooker also starts from something that begins as a metaphor and moves towards a more concrete concept. And so, in the second episode titled “Fifteen Million Merits”, he shows us a society where life is almost completely reduced to one repetitive matrix. The protagonist is presented as someone who, in some similar story, would be the hero to bring down the system, but that type of awakening does not exist here – to leave one matrix is to enter the next one. The essence of hell lies precisely in the absence of the possibility of change, in the constant repetition within the timeline which reaches a terrifying absolute. The protagonist of this story may be trapped in his personal hell, but even that isn’t true hell – the possibility of a compromise, a sort of deal with the devil, remains.
The motif of repetition which is more terrifying than any manner of physical pain is fleshed out in the second episode of the second season titled “White Bear”. In this episode, Brooker directly connects the motif of the awakening with the terror of repetition. The protagonist wakes up in a nightmare which she cannot escape – her own personal hell is an artificial construct resembling an elaborate TV show that serves as a replacement for incarceration. What’s novel is the fact that she wakes up each day without any recollection of past events and that way, paradoxically, she is removed from the past which is the cause for her punishment. Even though some would think that Brooker came to a logical conclusion when it comes to the idea of man-made hell, he goes a step further in what may very well be the most important episode, the Christmas special appropriately titled “White Christmas”. The terror of infinity is, after all, the foundation of suffering in hell, and infinity is something that humans cannot rule over, nor can they comprehend it. This is where Brooker comes dangerously close to the hypothetical creator within the confines of this sci-fi show by placing the terror of infinity within the domain of the scientifically feasible. That way, the digital hell comes as close as we can get to experiencing the otherworldly. In place of the soul, we have a cloned consciousness – the digital replicas are created just so they could suffer, all the while possessing self-awareness as if they were the flesh-and-blood originals. Unlike the analog construct in “White Bear”, we’re talking about actual digital hell here, the hell which comes as close to the mythical hell as science allows. The key lies in temporal manipulation i.e. in the subjective perception of the flow of time, which is how somebody’s digital copy, somebody’s “soul print”, can be sentenced to suffer by being forced to experience the same day repeat billions of times. There is no possibility of escape.
Obviously, Brooker realized that he had come across something important here. Whether the technology that would enable the creation of a digital hell was something that can be achieved in the near feature is less important than the question of whether humans would want to create something like that, and most of all, whether they would want to use it. It seems that Charlie Brooker has no dilemmas regarding the answer to this question, since the use ofsuch technology or other similar technology becomes a sort of leitmotif of the show.
In the fifth episode of the third season, “Men Against Fire”, we follow a protagonist who finds himself in a Matrix-like situation, in the sense that he lives in a false reality. However, upon finding himself facing the choice, he decides not to take the “red pill” because, in his case, it would constitute not just a cruel awakening from one nightmare but also an awakening into another a new nightmare – one where he would be forced to repeatedly go through the same traumatic experience over and over again. In the first episode of the fourth season, “USS Callister”, he toys with the idea of a digital paradise only so that it could become perverted into a digital world where its creator assumes the role of a wrathful god who has absolute control over the digital copies of real-world people, among whom he is a pariah.
In the final episode of the fourth season, “Black Museum”, more layers are added to the concept of the digital hell by introducing the motif of hellish suffering. Namely, we’re talking about the cloned consciousness of a death row inmate whose existence is prolonged indefinitely in the form of a hologram that repeatedly goes through the moment of his execution in the electric chair. In place of a wrathful and/or just divine presence or its human equivalent, we have only a greedy manipulator and countless terrifyingly regular people – sadists who put in varying amounts of effort towards hiding their nature and who are standing in line just so they could experience, for but a few moments, what it feels like to be a god… In the same episode, we see another perversion of the idea of digital paradise – the transfer of the consciousness of a dying person into the body of another person (in this case, the transfer of the consciousness of a man’s comatose wife into his own mind), where she would take on the role of a passenger in the back seat (we’ve seen similar concepts in the films Being John Malkovich and Get Out). The desire for privacy triumphs over love in this case, and so this seemingly noble idea becomes twisted, and the wife ends up in the body of a teddy bear whose “mind” is reduced to a primitive computer chip that can only do two pre-programmed things.
This manner of anthropological pessimism is turned down somewhat in the third and fourth season so that some of the aforementioned stories end with the innocent protagonists being delivered from the digital hell while those who deserved damnation receive it (although the unuttered question still hangs heavy in the air: does anyone truly deserve such punishment?) Even the inherently horrifying concept of a cloned consciousness gets depicted positively in the fourth episode of the fourth season, “Hang the DJ” (even though some moral dilemmas remain at the end.) The fourth episode of the third season, “San Junipero”, is the only one that depicts the concept of a digital paradise which doesn’t get ruined by the end of the episode. It’s no coincidence that the paradise presented therein takes the form of a virtually reconstructed 20th century (with a special accent on the 80s); as if it wants to suggest that such a positive outlook is a thing of the past.
As for the uncertain future, the future where we might wake up one (not so distant) day without noticing it, will probably be akin to an eternal White Christmas which stares back at us silently from the depths of the black mirror.
Miloš Cvetković was born in Belgrade in 1979, where he currently resides and studies literature. He published film critiques and essays in the following magazines: Popboks, Yellow Cab, Huper, and Filaz. He published an essay titled “Revenge Film: The Ballad of Cruelty by Radivoje Lola Djukic” in Novi Kadrovi (CLIO, Belgrade, 2008). He published several essays in English in the following books: 101 Sci-Fi Movies and 101 War Movies (Barron’s, New York, 2009). He compiled two collections of short stories: Anomalija 1 (2012)and Anomalija 2 (2015), published by the Drustvo ljubitelja fantastike Lazar Komarcic. He writes the occasional short story but he prefers reading and editing.
Translator Filip Čolović (1995) – born in Belgrade, he is currently finishing his undergraduate studies at the Faculty of Philology of the University of Belgrade (English Department). At the moment, he works as a content writer and translator. Appreciates the avant-garde and all forms of quality art and fiction.