Black Mirror: The Twilight Zone of the 21st Century

Co-author: Angela Cirucci. A pulsing, spinning, circular icon appears on the void of a black screen. The circular icon flies apart, generating white circles, squares, and triangles, that flash and flicker onscreen, quickly forming the words “Black Mirror” and accompanied by accelerating electronic pulses and tones. As the tone hits and holds a high-pitch frequency, the words “Black Mirror” fracture like a broken mirror. So begins the television anthology Black Mirror (2011-).

Five decades earlier, eerie music and strange visuals appear on the voids of black TV screens— hazy gray images spread apart, an empty horizon becomes a barren desert landscape, and then a starry sky appears, twinkling against the black void. The images are accompanied by Rod Serling’s narration and followed by white, flickering graphics that form the words “The Twilight Zone.” So begins the television anthology, The Twilight Zone (1959–1964).

Black Mirror is The Twilight Zone of the 21st century. Like The Twilight Zone, Black Mirror is a philosophical classic that echoes the angst of an era. Just as the Black Mirror opening ends with a fractured mirror, many of the The Twilight Zone openings ended with the words “Twilight Zone” flying apart amid the abyss of a starry sky. The similarities are striking because both series confront the existential conditions of modern technological civilization and the truly radical philosophical challenges we face in the neverending quests for love, meaning, purpose, and identity — in our sprawling metropolises and expanding universe.

This essay is an excerpt from this anthology published by Lexington Books (2018). For more information, scroll below the bibliography.

Critical Media Television

To fully understand Black Mirror, we must first grasp its intellectual and television roots. According to Charlie Brooker, creator of Black Mirror, the series draws inspiration from shows like Tales of the Unexpected (1979–1988) and Night Gallery (1969–1973), but its greatest influence is The Twilight Zone, with its philosophical questions, paradoxical situations, and devastatingly twisted endings. In discussing The Twilight Zone’s endings, Brooker bluntly says “that’s the sort of thing that should be happening more on television.” [All endnotes deleted for this version in Medium.]

But, Brooker was inspired by more than the bizarre endings. Writing in The Guardian, Brooker explains The Twilight Zone was

“Rod Serling’s hugely entertaining TV series of the late 50s and early 60s, sometimes incorrectly dismissed as a camp exercise in twist-in-the-tale sci-fi. It was far more than that. Serling, a brilliant writer, created The Twilight Zone because he was tired of having his provocative teleplays about contemporary issues routinely censored in order to appease corporate sponsors. If he wrote about racism in a southern town, he had to fight the network over every line. But if he wrote about racism in a metaphorical, quasi-fictional world — suddenly he could say everything he wanted. The Twilight Zone was sometimes shockingly cruel, far crueler than most television drama today would dare to be.”

Brooker observed in “Serling’s day, the atom bomb, civil rights, McCarthyism, psychiatry and the space race were of primary concern. Today he’d be writing about terrorism, the economy, the media, privacy and our relationship with technology.”

Rod Serling and Charlie Brooker.

Created by Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone was the first true philosophical and existential television series and remains one of the most intellectually engaging concepts ever developed for any visual mass medium. In a sense, The Twilight Zone was the first critical media TV, clearly laying the foundations for Black Mirror. Airing at the height of the cold war, the first season (1959–60) of The Twilight Zone coincided with the peak period of atomic bomb production by the Pentagon — an astonishing 14,000 nuclear warheads were produced for the US arsenal during that two-year period. The Twilight Zone also aired just as the “space age” was exploding into popular consciousness, going from a few satellites circling the Earth to rockets that send astronauts to the moon …or drop nuclear bombs on cities.

“Time Enough At Last” (1959). Burgess Meredith plays a book lover who survives an H-Bomb (hydrogen bomb, the most powerful nuclear weapon) and makes his way to the library only to meet his twisted fate.

Side-by-side were the dystopian and utopian trajectories facing modern civilization — the spectre of a nuclear apocalypse and shimmer of space-age apotheosis. Not surprisingly, The Twilight Zone featured episodes showing the horrors of nuclear war and bizarre journeys into outer space. Throughout its five-year run, The Twilight Zone depicted numerous scenarios related to existence in the then modern world and the vast universe.

In many ways, Serling and The Twilight Zone were philosophically grounded in the mid-20th century existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, yet the series repeatedly pointed toward issues that would soon be addressed by theorists and philosophers emerging in the 1960s: Marshall McLuhan, Guy Debord, Michel Foucault, and Jean Baudrillard, among others. By the end of the 1960s, there had been no nuclear war, but NASA had landed humans on the moon in a triumphal moment viewed on global television and celebrated worldwide as a great human achievement. “We did it” cheered the humans on planet Earth.

But once NASA pulled the plug on the Apollo missions and everyone realized they would not be drinking martinis at a hotel on the moon, a new utopian destination appeared on the horizon. Outer space was replaced by cyberspace as the next human destination. Personal computers and laptops thrived and began linking up via the internet and World Wide Web. Chat rooms evolved into social media echo chambers. Google, YouTube, and Facebook became the archivists of our information, imagery, and selves. Television eventually migrated online with digital users, their hands tightly gripped around their mobile phones, poised for a selfie moment or status update.

Emerging in the wake of The Twilight Zone, these are perhaps the three most influential books of media theory and cultural criticism of the past 50 years.

Five decades after The Twilight Zone, Brooker and Black Mirror are steeped in the technological and cultural worlds described above and critiqued by McLuhan, Debord, Foucault, and Baudrillard. Rather than facing the proliferation of atomic bombs, Black Mirror confronts the proliferation of information bombs, the billions of screens and mobile media that have colonized human consciousness where they have been introduced. If The Twilight Zone reflected the existential angst and Cold War fears for the baby boomer generation, then Black Mirror expresses the philosophical angst and technological fears for millennials in the 21st century. Though produced more than 50 years apart, The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror represent critical media TV at its best, explicitly exploring similar philosophical themes and dystopian futures around which this anthology is organized. The chapters in this anthology provide the critical media theory for a deeper and richer understanding of the critical media TV that is Black Mirror.

Technology Is Never Neutral

The similarities in the opening titles are revealing. Both “Black Mirror” and “The Twilight Zone” emerge from flickering white images against a black background, with “Black Mirror” fragmenting like a broken mirror and “The Twilight Zone” often flying apart at the very end of the opening title. Both series project a fractured and fragmented future, a soon-to-arrive tomorrow with no coherent meaning or purpose, other than the challenge of existing within our contemporary civilization full of people armed with the latest in technologies, yet seemingly unable to build a better and more humane world.

The opening of Black Mirror is very subtle in the profound meaning of the pulsing, spinning, circular icon. We have all seen them on our electronic screens. Colloquially known as “throbbers” and often represented in circular forms, these animated graphics are meant to suggest that a computer program is performing an unseen action in the background of a laptop, tablet, or mobile phone.

Just like the throbber let’s us know the computer is working on something unseen, technology is working on our consciousness, mostly unseen.

These unseen actions might include rebooting, processing data, downloading content, or connecting and communicating with an external device. Similarly, our media technologies are operating in the background of our consciousness, performing unseen actions among our neurons, invisibly downloading beliefs and behaviors from the circuitry and networks. Of course, all these beliefs and behaviors are made clearly visible on the pages of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and on the streets of our towns, cities, and metropolises. Black Mirror dramatizes these behaviors, showing today through the lens of tomorrow, a moment soon to arrive.

Technology is never neutral in its effects, subtle, profound, and usually unexpected. Fire gave us heat and kept us warm, but it also made us into carnivores, leading us to kill off the mammoths, endanger other species, and eat billions of hamburgers every day. Wheels and cars made us highly mobile, leading to malls and suburban sprawl, fast food and traffic jams, air pollution and fossil fuel dependency. Mass production began with the noble aims of eliminating poverty and scarcity, but has since crossed over into the excess of an epic consumer society — busy pillaging the planet, polluting the lands, and plasticizing the oceans. Microscopes have peered into our cells and genes to reveal that we humans share 99.9% of the same DNA and are made of the most common elements of the cosmos. Telescopes removed us from the center of a universe, now known to have two trillion galaxies and stretch across 100 billion light years.

Electric light is erasing the night sky in virtually all cities on our planet, thus returning us to the center of the universe. Our black mirrors, our electronic screens, are the new night skies filled with the stars of the spectcle.

Meanwhile, electricity and electric light have erased the night sky from our consciousness while creating a 24/7 civilization that spans the planet and gives off a glow visible from space. And our satellites and media technologies have connected our peoples and nations around the world, ensuring that our world remains aglow on our screens, too. The consequence is more than mere global warming and climate change, because we humans have effected the Anthropocene, the new epoch of planetary evolution caused by the “great acceleration” of technological civilization since the middle of the 20th century.

The Twilight Zone appeared as television, consumer society, and the great acceleration began to change the planet. Black Mirror is smack in the middle of the Anthropocene and the proliferation of technologies. Implicit in both series is the idea that our technology and civilization have evolved far faster than our species, leaving our brains the challenge of making sense of the world in which we can peer to the edge of the universe, drop nukes on the other side of Earth, and trash talk on Twitter and Facebook. We are primates in search of a philosophy, knowing we are trapped in old worldviews and superstitions, yet fantasizing that futuristic superheroes can save us. The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror show the need for new philosophies, new worldviews, and new modes of being, yet Serling and Brooker alike leave us trapped with no one to save us but ourselves.

Key Themes in The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror

What does it mean to be human? Can we save ourselves? These are questions that have challenged humanity since the first petroglyphs and cave paintings. These are also two of the questions posed in episodes of The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror.

Across the millennia, the question of human identity has grown ever more complex, precisely the effects of Galileo, Darwin, and the rise of modern technological civilization. Galileo yanked us off the center stage of the cosmos, showing we were not the center of the universe, while Darwin showed we are one species that has evolved along with all the other species on Earth. Modern technological civilization has increased our life spans, enabled material comfort and consumer abundance, and extended our technologies around the planet and deep into our bodies and the universe. Billions of people live their lives in sprawling electrified metropolises, going to and from work, raising families, cheering on their favorite teams, gazing upon stars and celebrities, and enjoying art and entertainment — all with most of each and every day spent staring at electronic rectangles.

We now live in a society of ever-evolving views of human identity, constant planetary surveillance via satellites and social media, and the endless events of the spectacle and hyperreal playing our on screens and streets. We can make copies of copies of copies of our lives, organize and archive it all in digital databases ready to be mined as needed — and in so doing, perform the very behaviors that raise questions of privacy, authenticity and autonomy. We live in a world where technology is our total mode of existence and aesthetic experience is deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life.

The beautiful and the sublime are daily experiences in the spectacle and our metropolises, yet we cannot seem to imagine a future that is not naively nostalgic or hopelessly dystopian. This is the very world of Black Mirror, yet these themes and issues were first presented in The Twilight Zone. The following six themes outline the structure of Black Mirror and Critical Media Theory. Because the contributors drafted their chapters before the Fourth Season was released, these chapters are not included in the body of the book. However, we provide analyses of season four episodes, through the lenses of this book’s six themes, in the conclusion.

Human Identity

As consumer society and television spread in the 1950s and 1960s, several episodes of The Twilight Zone addressed issues of human identity and authenticity.[1] Similarly, Black Mirror deals with human identity in “Fifteen Million Merits,” “The Entire History of You,” “Be Right Back,” “White Christmas,” and “San Junipero.”

Becoming a reality-TV star is the only path to meaning in “Fifteen Million Merits.”
A more realistic Siri is in the egg in “White Christmas.”

Surveillance Culture

The surveillance culture of The Twilight Zone era is nowhere near as pervasive as it is now, yet Rod Serling and the series did address surveillance-related issues of paranoia, totalitarianism, and enforced conformity.[2] Of course, Black Mirror offers masterful takes on surveillance in several other episodes: “The Entire History of You,” “White Bear,” and “Hated in the Nation,” among others.

Total personal and sexual surveillance in “The Entire History of You.”
Surveillance and punishment, over and over again, in a theme park prison in “White Bear.”

The Spectacle and Hyperreality

The Twilight Zone explored the early effects of the spectacle and hyperreality in episodes that dealt with robots, cloning, simulation, and the realms of movies and theme parks.[3] In the spectacle, life becomes a mediated experience where images become the top commodity. Hyperreality takes it further, where the signs and symbols of the real replace the real, where the maps overtake the territories they represent. Black Mirror tackles the ramped up 21st century spectacle and hyperreality in numerous episodes, most notably “National Anthem,” “Fifteen Million Merits,” “The Waldo Moment,” “Be Right Back,” and “Nosedive.”

In service to the vulgar forces of the 24/7 spectacle in “National Anthem.”
Life in the spectacle: Pedaling for electricity and entertainment oblivion in “Fifteen Million Merits.”
Checking the ratings for a better future in “Nosedive.”

Aesthetics

Often overlooked in The Twilight Zone is the role of its overall aesthetic worldview. Appearing during the peak of Sartre’s fame and influence, The Twilight Zone’s aesthetic is deeply existential — it repeatedly suggests we inhabit a vast impersonal metropolises and perhaps a meaningless universe in which there is no exit.[4] These sensibilities are embedded in the ambience and atmosphere of most episodes. We must face the consequences of the choices we make and world we inhabit. Unable to face reality or handle the society in which they are trapped, the characters experience alienation, loneliness, and even abject terror. We see the same experiences in numerous episodes of Black Mirror, especially in “White Christmas.”

In one of the most striking endings in science-fiction history, Matt faces the Zed-Eye, the technology which blocks one from seeing other humans. Since the white static is (in part) background radiation from the big bang, Matt is fated to contemplate the origins and destiny of the universe.

Technology and Existence

The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror deal with issues involving technology and existence, especially how it shapes daily life in our civilization and the evolution of warfare. For example, The Twilight Zone featured episodes that related to cultural acceleration and deceleration as well as the destruction of nuclear warfare.Similarly, Black Mirror features numerous episodes dealing with technological existence and current warfare, such as “Men Against Fire” and “Most Hated in Nation.”

Drone bees: saving plants and killing humans in “Hated in the Nation.”
Drone bees surveil, swarm, and kill those users hated and hashtagged in social media in “Hated in the Nation.”

Dystopian Futures

That we can make better copies of humans, but not necessarily better humans, and still cannot imagine an end to warfare among our tribes and nations is central to why we seem trapped in the dystopian futures presented in The Twilight Zone and BlackMirror. In fact, both seem to suggest there is no way out of our dilemma. For those seeking refuge against a dystopian future, The Twilight Zone warned viewers about the illusory nature of nostalgia for retreats into the past, such as small towns, quaint villages, or idyllic Edens.[5] Black Mirror is also skeptical of an non-dystopian future in most of its episodes, yet in “San Junipero” it offers hope for eternal love in a romanticized vision of the 1980s — stored and simulated in a computer of the future.

Finding true love in an idyllic and eternal 1980s in “San Junipero.”

Conclusion: Season Four and Beyond

Art, science, and technology continue to rapidly evolve and expand into the future. Medical science offers amazing breakthroughs and treatments on a daily basis, while travel technology sends products and people all over the world. Global trade and tourism are steadily expanding. We see an explosion of artistic creativity as wealth increases in many nations around the world. Amid our technological civilization, human identity remains as complex as ever, still too often bound up in unscientific beliefs and traditionalist ideologies such as racism, tribalism, and nationalism, hence the building of walls and homeland security states. Gender norms are expanding along with the cultural acceptance of increasing diversity of sexual preferences, all countered by envy from the uptight, wed to sacred texts.

Despite the recent political controversies centered on Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to target and manipulate voters in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the planetary surveillance systems are continuing to permeate every aspect of daily existence. Terrified from 24/7 news updates, parents fear for their children’s safety and place them under ever more surveillance. In the cities and suburbs, “free range” children are an endangered species, now permanently linked to their parents via social media and mobile phones — the very condition displayed in “Arkangel,” in season four of Black Mirror.

Implants to keep children under total parental surveillance in “Arkangel.”

In the future, if our Facebook memories are directly downloaded from our brains, then police detectives might well piece together unsolved crimes as shown in the “Crocodile.” But any benefit to law and order will be outweighed by the horrific use of uploaded and downloaded memories shown in “Black Museum,” truly one of the terrifying futures presented in Black Mirror.

Baudrillard’s “desert of the real” is the site for eternal payback in “Black Museum.”

If is it not drones surveilling us and hunting us down as in “Most Hated in the Nation,” then it might be the dogs of “Metalhead.” Black Mirror’s drone bees and robot dogs draw upon recent trends of weaponizing objects of nature for deployment against humans, in what can only be a dystopian future.

Fleeing robot dogs in “Metalhead.”

Like surveillance culture, the spectacle and hyperreality are the dominant modes of determining what counts as true, good, beautiful, and meaningful. Copies of copies of copies are everywhere, big data is piling up in servers dotting our lands and migrating to the North Pole in search of cooler temperatures. But that does not mean we cannot find love as we transform the planet. Season four of Black Mirror offers some future optimism in the episode “Hang the DJ” — where big data is shown to produce true love via a computer dating system that merges Tinder and Match.com.

Dating apps meet big data in “Hang the DJ.”

Our screens are our maps, the maps of our consciousness for 10–14 hours a day, the maps that have replaced and shaped the territories they are supposed to represent. Everywhere we turn, the signs and symbols of the real stand in for the real, apparently too unbearable, too degraded, or too boring in comparison to the artificial selves and glorious worlds on our screens, always aglow like Las Vegas. It is undeniable that a reality-TV star is the president of the United States, continuing the downward entertainment trajectory from B-movie star (Ronald Reagan) to baseball team owner (George W. Bush) to Twitter tough guy as “leader of the free world.” Given the techno-cultural trends impacting the brains of our species, Donald Trump is not the bottom and neither is “The Waldo Moment.” Since our glowing cities block out the stars, and NASA has no plans of sending humans to deep space, virtual reality and hyperreality will be the best option for those seeking to explore (copies of) the cosmos, as long as you do not get trapped on the “USS Callister.”

A possible future for Star Trekkies trapped on planet Earth in “USS Callister.”

With consumer culture reigning supreme and the Anthropocene in effect around the planet, the lands and oceans seem doomed to evermore pillaging and pollution. No wonder so many fantasize about the off-world destinies in Interstellar, The Martian, and Star Wars. After all, Elon Musk claims our new future is back in outer space, where we are supposedly destined to terraform Mars into a suburb of Earth. The space visions are meant to symbolize optimistic futures for humanity, yet that seems far-fetched considering the United States, China, and Russia are busy weaponizing space. That we cannot imagine a utopian or war-free future in space is why the “USS Callister” is such a powerful and symbolic story. There is no Captain Kirk or Spock to save our technological existence.

In “USS Callister,” the demented would-be Captain Kirk faces a future floating in deep space, virtually, forever.
Nanette and crew get even with the Captain, yet still face the challenge of finding a universal narrative in the vast and awe-inspiring universe (even in a video game).

Fractured Mirror in The Twilight Zone

Ironically, it is the concept of exploring space that poetically connects Black Mirror to its fractured mirror origins in The Twilight Zone and its pilot episode entitled “Where Is Everybody?” The episode opens with a man (Earl Holliman) walking on a dirt road and into a small town. Wearing a one-piece jumpsuit that is modestly futuristic, the man enters a café. Store windows are full of goods, the coffee is hot in the café, and the ice cream is cold in the general store.

But, there is not a human in sight. In the general store, the man sees a bookstand filled with multiple copies of a paperback entitled The Last Man on Earth. The headline on the back cover says: “Don’t Be Half a Man.” Don’t be half a human. Is this not the subtext for Bing’s actions in “Fifteen Million Merits,” for the relations between Martha and Ash in “Be Right Back,” and for the Prime Minister in “National Anthem?”

By the evening, the solitary man ventures into a movie theater. A war movie is playing and it shows a B-52 bomber taking off and coming right toward him. The man realizes he is in the United States Air Force. That explains the jumpsuit. He says to himself: “That must have been it. A bomb. But if there was a bomb, everything would be destroyed. And nothing is destroyed.” Panicked, he questions the very nature of reality. He runs down the theater stairs and crashes into his reflection in a wall-sized mirror, fracturing the glass in a strange anticipation of Black Mirror’s opening.

After running wildly through the town at night, he screams repeatedly, “Help me! Somebody help me! Somebody is watching me! Help me!” It seems there is no one to save him, not unlike Victoria in “White Bear,” Potter and Matt in “White Christmas,” all the victims in “Most Hated in the Nation,” and various characters in other Black Mirror episodes.

The final scene cuts to a U.S. military facility, where we learn the man is inside an isolation chamber with electrodes taped to his head and connected to a machine. He was in the box for 484 hours, in a “simulated trip to the moon,” for the purpose of testing the effects of extended isolation on astronauts who will take real trips to the moon. But he “cracked up” inside the virtual reality simulation, resembling that of “Men Against Fire” and “Playtest.”

The military officials declare the man’s test a success, despite his crack up:

“You see, we can feed the stomach with concentrates. We can supply microfilm for reading, recreation, even movies of a sort. We pump oxygen in and waste material out. But there is one thing we can’t simulate. That’s a very basic need: man’s hunger for companionship. The barrier of loneliness — that’s one thing we haven’t licked, yet.”

The would-be astronaut is gazing up at the moon and cosmic void in the conclusion to “Where is Everybody?”

Serling’s voice-over concludes the episode:

Up there, up there in the vastness of space, in the void that is sky, up there is an enemy known as isolation. It sits there in the stars waiting, waiting with the patience of eons, forever waiting in the Twilight Zone.

Like The Twilight Zone, Black Mirror has not been naïve about our future in space. The only ones who can save us are ourselves on planet Earth as we confront the existential conditions and dystopian futures of The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror.

Despite the optimistic cheerleading of Elon Musk, space is not a plausible Plan B for our ongoing failures on Earth. Aside from the issues of isolation and loneliness, no human is going to Mars anytime soon because NASA scientists have yet to figure out how to prevent radiation damage caused by long-term exposure to cosmic rays. Yet, as suggested by Black Mirror, and the advances in fields like virtual reality and gaming, we can venture into outer space with our headsets and powerful detailed maps of the cosmos. And once there we might find ourselves on-board the “USS Callister” with a demented wannabe Captain Kirk, creating a dystopian space future for those trapped on Earth, witnessing The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror unfold right before our eyes. The enemy will not be aliens. It will be us, staring at our solitary reflections in our black mirrors.

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Endnotes

[1] All episodes are listed by season and number, Internet Movie Database. Episodes dealing with themes of identity and authenticity included “Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” (1.4), “The Lonely” (1.7), “Mirror Image” (1.21), and “The After Hours” (1.34). Episodes about the power and magic radio and television included “Static” (2.20) and “What’s in the Box” (5.24).

[2] Suburban paranoia: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (1.22) and “The Shelter” (3.3). Totalitarianism: “Eye of the Beholder” (2.6) and “The Obsolete Man” (2.29). Conformity: “Eye of the Beholder” (2.6) and “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” (5.17).

[3] Episodes dealing with robots, cloning, and simulated humans included “The Lonely” (1.7), “The Lateness of the Hour” (2.8), “The Trade-Ins” (3.31), “I Sing the Body Electric” (3.35), “In His Image” (4.1), and “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” (5.17). Episodes dealing with simulated realities included “Elegy” (1.20), “A World of Difference” (1.23), and “Stopover in a Quiet Town” (5.30).

[4] Cultural acceleration and deceleration: “The Odyssey of Flight 33” (2.18) and “A Kind of Stopwatch” (5.4). Nuclear apocalypse: “Time Enough at Last” (1.8), “Third from the Sun” (1.14), “Two” (3.1), “The Midnight Sun” (3.10), and “The Old Man in the Cave” (5.7).

[5] Episodes dealing with Edens, villages, and small towns included “Walking Distance” (1.5), “A Stop at Willoughby” (1.30), “It’s a Good Life” (3.8), and “Probe 7, Over and Out” (5.9).

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Written for fans or college classrooms, this is the first collection of essays about Black Mirror. With authors from ten nations and three continents, this is a truly international collection that explores Black Mirror episodes from multiple perspectives.

Available in hardcover in Amazon or at Lexington Books website. Hopefully, the softcover will follow.