Black Mirror – Fifteen Million Merits

(and I’m too cheap to pay for an upgrade to get /spoiler tags. Sorry – #studentlife )

Black Mirror. What a disturbing – but fabulous – little show. I’d managed to catch the third season on Netflix last year, and was transfixed by the episode Nosedive from start to end; but I’d not made my way back to the earlier seasons. When Fifteen Million Merits (“15MM” from hereon in, for the sake of my word count) appeared on our ‘homework’ list for ALC203 I was looking forward to it. But I wasn’t prepared for the in-your-face parallels this episode drew.

15MM brilliantly covered topics as broad as copyright infringement, social isolation and the all-pervasive nature of reality TV and the moral choices it offers its viewers. A fellow student also identified in his blog something I’d missed – an almost obsessive spending in a gamified world on cosmetic “upgrades” which have zero function. In fact, that blog entry reminded me that I needed unjumble my thoughts a bit and write this entry for my own good; so – thank you, Zach!

Because of the #studentlife issue mentioned above, I’m going to hide the rest of this behind a “more” tab. 1. I hope it works. And, 2. Please, please read on. And, 3. If you do, I hope it was worth it. Leave me a comment and let me know!

(Also, please lend me a link to a campaign for free /spoiler tags on!)

Thanks for joining me on this side of the break. Now… where were we?

Copyright infringement? Yep. That one may be seen by some as a broad stroke, but here goes. Our hero, Bing, is offered information by an acquaintance on how to retrieve an apple stuck in a vending machine, and is given a choice comment about the apple being the most natural thing available, despite it being grown in a petri-dish. Bing, being a man of a certain age with a certain set of needs and desires, happens upon an attractive new colleague in distress: a situation caused by an apple stuck in the vending machine. So he proffers the advice, and the one-liner about petri-dishes, retrieves the apple, and wins a new friend. Our man Bing is smooth. But he fails to attribute either the technique, or comment, to their source. Intellectual property theft 101. *grin*

Back to more serious topics. The reflections 15MM makes of society’s current obsession with reality TV and the moralistic choices that obsession brings are, in my uneducated opinion, very sharp. The clarity with which it demonstrates the potential for the destruction of the moral fabric of society against the choice of being famous are extreme, but appear not that far flung from reality. Our hero, after his brush with copyright theft, takes his newfound friend on a journey to become a “star” in a show which spookily resembles the XYZcountry’s Got Talent series. The choice the friend is faced with – escape from her desolate existence riding a bike for merits every day or, becoming a star (just not in the way she’d envisaged) – is a sharp commentary on what we as a society would give up either to become famous, or escape our druge-like world. She picks the escape, despite having to lower her moral standards below those most of us would be comfortable with. Bing is horrified. And concocts a plan of revenge.

So he works. And works and works. He makes it onto the show, buying his ticket with the rewards of his peddling for power – the titular 15MM. Promising “a kind of performance”, he sets out to place the judges in a hostage situation: threatening suicide on live TV as revenge against the choice they “forced” on his friend. They artfully manipulate him, telling him it’s the most audacious act they’ve seen; and would he like to repeat it, twice a week, for all to see – and hence orchestrate his own escape from riding a bike. His moral compunction to suicide in payback for his friend’s fall from grace is destroyed – presumably along with his humanity – and he takes the deal. The shard of glass that was meant to end his life is now his tool of trade, and treated with the reverence of a religious artifact. All puns aside, it’s cutting stuff.

The technical side of 15MM is also brilliantly demonstrative of technology’s marvelous advance. Marvelous in the sense of ‘amazement’, or ‘awe-inspiring’; rather than just plain ‘good’. He’s awoken daily by a rendered rooster embedded in his room’s interactive walls; he controls his world with exaggerated movements like those used to control your smart phone. He gets ready for work in front of a mirror that displays social feeds and credit status updates. His toothpaste dispenser automatically measures and charges him for the volume used each day; and he’s offered a choice of visual, audio and interactive entertainment as he shaves. It’s a spooky look at modern society’s obsession with technology, information consumption and entertainment. Think Pokemon Go in the bathroom mirror. Even as he rides his bike X hours a day, he’s offered a (paid) visual stream of his own butt in a cartoon-like rendering of a landscape of his choice. He’s watching himself cycle through a “virtual” world. Until the show’s climax, we never see a single, actual, window. And even then, are we sure it’s a window? Or is it just a less cartoon-like rendering of the world? The thought being that as we escape drudgery, are we actually getting closer to the ideal world? Or is that ideal world just a higher-resolution rendering of the same dross we absorb in our work-a-day existences?

Navel-gazing aside; if you get the chance, try the Black Mirror episode The Entire History of You on for size. Stunning reflection on memory, management, manipulation and jealousy. Chilling.

More info:

Channel 4 UK official Black Mirror website
Black Mirror on IMDB (rating at time of posting: 8.9/10)
Black Mirror on Rotten Tomatoes (rating at time of posting: 96%)


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