Christmastime ghost stories gained popularity in the Victorian period, their appeal often attributed to the rise of the periodical press. Perhaps the most famous of these, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, was published in 1843, and Charlie Brooker follows in the tradition with his signature black humor and bleak outlook in the U.K. series Black Mirror’s Christmas special, “A White Christmas.” The episode successfully satirizes not only our technology-driven present, but the whole notion of yuletide storytelling: of subjectivity, of consciousness, of reliable narration.
Two men, Matt (Jon Hamm) and Joe (Rafe Spall), reside in a house together, performing a mysterious job, though they haven’t talked to one another, really, in what appears to be five years. With Christmas day as an excuse for conversation, Matt asks Joe to summarize his history. Joe isn’t much interested in the proposal, so Matt recites his own downfall, sharing two separate tragedies—one about a hobby, the other about his profession. The first details Matt’s use of the ubiquitous “Z-Eyes,” a more advanced form of Google Glass, to help a young man, Harry (Rasmus Hardiker), pick up a woman; the second follows his work for a patient, Greta (Oona Chaplin), at Smartintelligence. The company specializes in “cookies,” a type of data storage that’s inserted and then extracted from the human brain to form backup personalities, and Matt’s duty is convincing these digital clones that they aren’t “real.” He persuades them by running a time simulation, making it seem as if years go by when really only minutes pass: They break down when they realize they have nothing to do but help the person of whom they were based with simple tasks (putting up the blinds, setting off the alarm clock, starting the coffee pot).
Matt’s plotlines overlap (one fun evening playing with Z-Eyes leads to a police investigation and the loss of his job), and his account relates, and leads, into Joe’s: Both men, via a feature from Z-Eyes, have both been “blocked” by women they love, leading them, it appears, to take refuge in this cabin. The block renders the users, and the ones being blocked, essentially invisible: They all transform into blurs, their words heard solely as a droning noises.
These aren’t typical ghost stories, but the broken couples do, in a way, transform into “ghosts.” Rather than standard spirits of the dead, however, they become haunting reminders not so much of a past, but of a future these characters will never have. Brooker has stated his interest in the side effect of technology’s drug-induced hold over us, our misuse of it, and the subsequent consequences, and Black Mirror is a piece of science fiction that explores what happens when our inventions reduce us to hollow shells. Each of the seven episodes in the series follows characters as they become near-dead, something not-so-human: when a man’s cartoonish creation, “Waldo,” becomes bigger than him (it eventually runs for high office), he struggles to hold onto a new romance; when a woman’s boyfriend dies, she purchases new software that claims to recreate the deceased through their social-media accounts; and when a woman awakes with amnesia, and a band of lunatics chase her, everyone is seemingly too preoccupied recording the deadly pursuit to come to her rescue.
Even the pilot, “The National Anthem,” hinges on the loss of genuine interaction: After someone kidnaps a member of the Royal Family, the captor’s lone request, in a video demand that goes viral, is for the Prime Minister (Rory Kinnear) to have sex with a pig on live television. The episode is a critique about the sensationalist leanings of broadcast news and today’s rapid dissemination of information, but Brooker isn’t concerned with merely presenting an overblown view of the future. As advisers try to pin down the location of the criminal, and the country anticipates the act of bestiality, the PM worries most about his wife leaving him. Despite the absurd premise of a government official sodomizing a farm animal on TV, the series never loses sight of the overarching theme: how technology has the potential to splinter human relationships.
Black Mirror has already been compared to The Twilight Zone: As an anthology series, each episode exists in a different reality, and each reality, despite being different from one another, isn’t too dissimilar from the present. But where The Twilight Zone was often bogged down with Cold War fears and Rod Serling’s moral imposition, Black Mirror forgoes overt metaphors of dystopia. Instead, Brooker smartly opts for ambiguity, and that might be the most frightening thing of all. We become the judges not of societies centuries into the future, but of those not too far from our own—a slight reach away, a spectral hand sliding through a black cloak.