Welcome to our weekly video series Sight Unsound, where filmmaker and writer Ted Wilkes offers his own alternative theories on film, television and pop culture.
This week: ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, the second episode of the first season of Black Mirror. As Ted states, “In my eyes this storyline is the best to start with as it’s the one which most accurately represents Charlie Brooker’s own voice and the overall message he’s trying to convey to us through Black Mirror… before it’s too late.”
And for those who prefer a long-read, here’s the full text from the video…
If you haven’t had the delight of seeing them yet, each episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is a frighteningly warped insight into a slightly altered version of our not too distant future that critiques the present day. In an interview Brooker professed that the series was like a “box of dark chocolates” – riffing on the famous quote from Forest Gump – you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s going to be bleak.
‘Fifteen Million Merits’ draws on the two things Brooker is best known for: video games and ranting.
The overall aesthetic of the episode gives the feeling that the occupants of the pod-like structure we’re introduced to is akin to a large games console. Even our hero’s name, Bing, is a reference to this. It’s onomatopoeic – eerily similar to the noise that an Xbox or Playstation makes when you turn it on. Also, at the end of ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ we see Bing’s assent from bike to on-camera commentator. The second of his rants is one which could be an extract from Brooker’s own on the Channel 4 series Ten O’Clock Live. It could also be said to be a more complete representation of the themes and tone that are within the rest of the series; touching on several motifs which will pop up throughout. So this is where we’re starting.
This will be no means a complete discussion of all of the themes and references within the episode. Brooker has packed so many interesting ideas surrounding control, freedom, creativity and technology in that I can’t possibly cover them all in the time I have, but I’ve tried to highlight some of the more interesting ideas contained in the show.
The world of ‘Fifteen Million Merits’
In ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ we’re introduced to Bing who lives simply to pedal away on a static bike in front of a screen in order to earn ‘credits’ – the currency of the world he inhabits. He’s in the fortunate position that he has inherited 15 million of them from his brother and thus can exist rather comfortably without having to worry too much about the consequences of the world around him.
The world is reminiscent of the 1970’s sci-fi epic Logan’s Run: sparse, technological and populated only by youthful inhabitants. It shows us a future where the developments in technology have created a more effective and pleasant form of social control, which the society seems to be in step with. Doing away for the need of any totalitarian structure and forcing them to obey.
Although not ever directly referenced, it can be inferred that there is a punishment that comes with refusing to peddle, as those in the pods wake up every day and continue to do just that without being coerced. Being a slave to the mindless, meaningless, mundane task of constantly peddling brings to mind the daily nine-to-five grind experienced by most in the western world.
It’s a place forewarned by German philosopher and political theorist Herbert Marcuse. In One Dimensional Man and Repressive Tolerance, Marcuse warned that advanced industrial society would create false needs, which integrate individuals into the existing system of production and consumption via mass media, advertising and industrial management. Read: a terrifying dystopia similar to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or the Compulsion Games title We Happy Few.
The populace of ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ are controlled because they want to be controlled. We all secretly crave fascism, but don’t like it being called that. The most efficient forms of managing us are ones that we have accepted, or demanded.
Screens and simulation
The major theme within ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, and across Black Mirror, is our addiction to screens. The title of the series itself is a reference to the notion that once an LCD, tablet or phone screen goes dark we are left with only a dark reflective surface to gaze at. Brooker said he found this a cold and horrifying experience, forcing us to look upon ourselves at a time when we are not typically expecting to. It gives us a chance at a moment of self-reflection straight after the screen in front of us has ceased being active.
In this episode the characters are accompanied by a screen for their entire waking day. The bikes they grind away on have a large screen in front of them, which placates the rider during their toil. In their engagement with them they forget the blandness and absence of ‘real’ natural things around them. Even the pod they are allowed to rest in is surrounded by four walls of oppressive interactive surfaces. Screens are there, it seems, to keep the populace passive and obedient.
Seemingly the only thing that a rider is able to ‘spend’ the credits they earn from their labour besides food, is skipping the pop up adverts that pollute their vision at random intervals. What is interesting is that the penalty for not watching an ad is much greater than buying a single piece of most basic sustenance. The screen becomes a master, and it must be obeyed and looked upon at all times.
Away from day-to-day spending our characters use their hard earned credits to customise their dopples: the tiny avatars which represents them in the digital world.
As so much of their time is spent looking at screens these might as well be the actual representations of their physical self, and throws up questions surrounding Simulacra and Simulation as hypothesised by Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard claims that out current society has replaced all reality and truth with symbols and signs, and that the human experience is now only a representation of the real.
Who or what is the real Bing? Most of the interaction that he has with others takes place in the virtual world. The physical form that our characters have is seemingly only used to peddle (or create energy); bringing to mind films such as The Matrix where Baudrillard’s questions are once again considered on screen.
However, the version presented to us in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ is all the more terrifying as it has tangible links back to our own society with our obsession with the customisation of our online persona(s) across various media and the importance we place on creating and maintaining them. Frequently going as far as spending our own real earnings to alter them if not directly, then indirectly.
Brooker has written at length about the representation of the working class in the media and discussed it on his TV series Weekly Wipe. In ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ he continues this work with the depiction of a subordinate class to the peddlers who clean up the trash dropped on the floor behind their bikes.
In a game the peddlers play to pass the time, the yellow suited workers are the enemies in a First Person Shooter and are the figures of ridicule in the media that some watch on their bikes. What is interesting is that they are all shown to be overweight. This places them as unable to access the systems (the bikes) which will bring them out of their assumed poverty. A striking comment on the inability for many to gain a foothold in the processes which will allow for social mobility within society.
In the narrative this is a direct reminder that it could be worse and they need to continue with their labour, otherwise end up in a lower tier than they already are. What is interesting is that they are also encouraged to abuse and degrade those on a lower strata by the media, which spills out into both verbal and physical abuse in the ‘real’ world.
This is potentially a direct reference to the sensationalist poverty porn programming that was widely prevalent at the time of ‘Fifteen Million Merit’s release and which Brooker is on record as disagreeing with.
More next week in the second part of Beyond Black Mirror: Fifteen Million Merits.
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