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Simon Read [Cathode Ray Mission 12.14.11] scifi dystopic

Think 1984 crossed with Idiocracy by way of Network and you’re starting to picture what "15 Million Merits" is trying to accomplish. Set in a nightmare future world in which all working-class citizens live in cubicles made up of flat screen monitors which constantly play streams of adverts, reality television and pornography, it concerns a young man named Bing who, along with his co-workers, uses an exercise bike to generate electricity for a living, earning ‘Merits’ which allow the purchase of genetically modified food, and the chance to switch off the screens in one’s cubicle for short periods of respite, a la Scooter McCrae’s Sixteen Tongues.

This episode of Black Mirror has cemented it as a must-see series, and actually left me feeling in utter despair about our frightening little planet. So read on!

Bing lives a simple life of ‘cycling’ while viewing his ‘Dopple’ (their version of an online avatar) on a view screen and occasionally chatting with his obnoxious neighbor and glancing at the pretty new girl Abi. One day he overhears Abi singing in the unisex toilets and suggests timidly that she enter “The Big Shot” (their exceptionally gaudy version of X-Factor or Pop/American Idol) in which three ruthless judges decide on applicants fate after they perform or entertain (usually by singing). Judge Hope is a cruel bastard played by a scenery chewing Rupert Everett, Judge Charity (the always delightful Julia Davis) provides a grotesque feminine angle and Judge Wraith (Ashley Thomas) is the proud owner of Wraith Babes, the obnoxious, ever-present porn channel (tagline: The Hottest Girls in the Nastiest Situations!). To enter requires 15 million merits, which Bing happens to have inherited from his deceased brother, and hoping to win Abi’s affections he ‘gifts’ it to her. What happens next decides both their fates.

This week’s episode improves considerably compared to last week on several levels, and is helped by pushing the sci-fi vibe and making it’s satirical points clear and amusing, if also very disturbing, like a particularly spooky old Doctor Who episode from the 70’s. The direction by Doctor Who regular Euros Lyn is streamlined and vaguely reminiscent of Duncan Jones’ “Moon”, while the sets, on-screen graphics and imaginative new technology are all extremely impressive. It is however the outstanding central performance from Daniel Kaluuya which resonates most fully as he runs the full gamut of emotions in his bizarre journey through future Britain, which seems to consist of one huge unending arcology. Taking cues from The Twilight Zone and adding a bit of Chris Morris’s “Jam” and “Brass Eye” one can only hope that future episodes (it looks like Black Mirror will have another series given viewing figures) can live up to this level of imagination and outright indignation at the media world as it stands. I particularly liked the vision of an X-Factor in which contestants may well serve as prostitutes or porn-stars, singers or media whores or all of the above, without any real sense of free will entering the equation. Everett and Davis are particularly odious in their roles as Judges, and having the audience consist of billions of ‘Dopples’ who react as their real-life counterparts do back in their cubicles was a touch of genius.

15 Million Merits has the usual Charlie Brooker banter involving references to Petri-Dishes (an old pet favorite) and the underclass’s shameful treatment by those with power (the cyclists are allowed to bully the cleaning staff, just as the judges can harass the contestants) but there is a level of maturity entering the series, possibly thanks to co-writer and Mrs. Brooker, Konnie Huq helping to craft the script.

As the slow collapse of Western civilization continues unabated, it’s heartening to see this kind of quality grown-up television probing our brains more than the usual reality guff, and as someone who has only once watched a brief snippet of X-Factor I must say the satire is rare and spot-on. We live in hellish times and Charlie Brooker has turned the mirror on us with total success this week. I am scared.


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loci (10 years ago) Reply

It could have been a 'Twilight Zone' episode about 'Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts'.


EV (10 years ago) Reply

Good review, cyclops. And my favourite episode of Black Mirror by far. You're right about Brooker (and Huq) turning the mirror on us - uncomfortably so. I was left both impressed and depressed. Damn fine TV.

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