Monday, 19 December 2011

Black Mirror: The Entire History of You

“Not everything that isn’t true is a lie, Liam.”

This is so, so clever. It takes a central conceit (what if you could play back your memories at any time via a “grain”, either in your head or on a screen to others?), and then turns it around and examines it from every conceivable angle. And some of the consequences are huge.

In some ways, Liam and Fi live in a very recognisable middle-class world of appraisals and dinner parties, but their world is subtly different, with very little concept of privacy or civil liberties. You can’t get on a plane without having your memories scanned. You can’t even report a serious crime to the police without providing identification. Children can retrospectively sue their parents for disadvantaging them through a poor upbringing. These people don’t live in anything vaguely resembling a free society; the “grain” makes that impossible.

The crucial exposition, which underlines the way the “grain” works, is the big dinner party scene, and this is underlined, of course, by the fact that Liam plays back parts of it so many times. The character of Helen, who chooses to go without a “grain”, is more or less the control in this experiment, and the voice of the viewer, generally speaking. The reasons behind her abstinence are, of course, horrifying; to be “gouged” (interesting word!), and to have the chip containing a perfect record of all your memories stolen, brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “identity theft”, and is about as terrifying a thing I can imagine. But Helen’s philosophical perspective is interesting, and is a microcosm of the play’s theme; perhaps it’s a good thing that our memories should be fuzzy and unreliable, as this allows us to cope with life.

This whole theme is illustrated by a simple tale of sexual jealousy. Because he can “re-do” this dinner party conversation as many times as he likes, Liam comes to suspect (correctly) that Jonas, a somewhat crude character whom he dislikes, is his wife’s ex. He’s able to indulge his increasing obsession by analysing every little thing and discover truths that should have remained unburied. Things spiral to the point where he drinks and drives, starts sounding much more Northern, commits a serious violent assault, crashes his car, comes to doubt that his daughter is his own, and has a massive row with his wife. Eventually he’s driven to remove his “grain” in way seems a rather painful way. All of this is relatively straightforward and even, as far as the conclusion is concerned, even a little underwhelming and lacking in impact.

But none of that is the reason why this is such a brilliant play. It’s the little things that underpin it all. Sex, for example, is completely stripped of meaning. We see what seems to be a sex scene with Fi riding Liam, but it’s then revealed that they’re both reliving the memory together, and finish by having very real orgasms. The line between sex and masturbation has become blurred. This being the case, when Jonas replays the memories of sex with Fi, it feels to Liam as though the other man really is sleeping with his wife. Sex may be devalued (as made clear by Liam’s big speech at the dinner party), but sexual jealousy is magnified hugely.

No one has any privacy; Liam is almost forced to play out the scene of his appraisal at the party. Life is much more stressful, as there is no much more opportunity to obsess over slights. The play is a warning, I suppose, of the need for civil liberties to keep up with technology. There are reasons to be very fearful that they won’t.

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