The second episode of Black Mirror, you may be relieved to discover, contains no Prime Ministers whatsoever. No harrowing ordeals partly inspired by the popularity of the I’m a Celebrity… “bushtucker trial”. And no one so much as glances at a bacon sandwich.
The National Anthem was a thriller of sorts, but 15 Million Merits is a romance – kind of. It goes out on Channel 4 straight after the X Factor final finishes on ITV, which is fitting since it features Rupert Everett, Julia Davis and Ashley Thomas as talent show judges, while Daniel Kaluuya (The Fades) and Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey) star as Bing and Abi, the young pair who hope to impress them.
It’s a story that required striking visuals and, yes, a heart. But a heart surrounded by glass, because it’s set in a world in which almost every surface is an interactive screen, a source of distraction and entertainment. Anyone who’s found themselves gazing from a laptop, to a smartphone, to a TV set, and back again may recognise this aspect of the world, because it’s a sarcastic exaggeration of the one we’re already in.
The idea came about when my wife was watching me dumbly patting at an iPad while simultaneously checking Twitter on a phone, and remarked that I’d only be truly happy if every wall in the house functioned as some form of touchscreen. This led to a conversation about inflight entertainment: about how the addition of a small screen spooling films into your face makes the discomfort of a long-haul flight more bearable.
How much discomfort could you bear while being entertained? Taking that as a starting point, we sketched out an idea for a world in which permanent distraction was king, a world that steadily became more and more sinister the more details we added.
Incidentally, although the contest at the heart at the story may look familiar, the episode is not a “satire on talent shows”. It’s more about the tainted surrounding air Bing and Abi have no choice but to breathe: it’s about wanting something better than you currently have.
Doctor Who fans may be interested to hear this episode was directed by Euros Lyn of Doctor Who and Sherlock fame, while wider sci-fi fans in general may be pleased or perturbed to learn that while writing it, we watched Nigel Kneale’s superb 1968 BBC drama The Year of the Sex Olympics and the Twilight Zone episode Number Twelve Looks Just like You.
So if you like them, you’ll hopefully like this. And if you’ve never seen them, seek them out. But only after you’ve watched 15 Million Merits. Because hey, our show’s in colour and high-def and everything – perfect for the glinting black mirror in the corner of your living room.
Black Mirror: 15 Million Merits airs Sunday, 9:35pm, Channel 4