The idea of Black Mirror, the twisted British dystopian series, having a Christmas special might seem odd. But while White Christmas does give us a dark near future that's not all tinsel and lights, its trio of tales is really all about a truly Christmassy message of compassion and empathy. Spoilers ahead...
White Christmas' dystopia takes a leaf from present day concerns about Google Glass (and shares some familiarity with the 'always streaming, always watching' concept of a previous Black Mirror story, White Bear) with the technology of 'Z-Eyes' - an ocular implant that lets people control what they see in the real world, and share it with other viewers. It's through Z-Eyes that we meet Matt (Jon Hamm) in the first story, who's second job involves offering real-time romantic advice to people through their implant... as well as streaming the footage recorded by his clients to sexual deviants online on the side. When Matt's wife finds out about his work after a particular advice sessions takes a turn for the worse, we're introduced to Z-Eye's other, horrific feature - a user's ability to 'block' people, reducing them to a pixelated, unrecognisable and inaudible silhouette to the blocker, and rendering them likewise unseeable to the blocked person. It's a simple twist on our own world taken to a logical, yet horrifying conclusion - but through it, and through the three protagonists we meet, it's used to ask us all about whether the disposability of a social media 'block' is really the way we should be treating other people, whether it's in White Christmas' near-future, or online in our own world.
But whether it's through Matt's blocking, or through the other two tales in this anthology - the admittedly weak middle chapter revolving around spoilt woman, Greta (Oona Chaplain) uploading a copy of her conciousness into an Amazon Echo-esque home controlling device, and the questions about the nature of identity that such a thing would entail, or the much more compelling third revolving around Potter's (Rafe Spall) former girlfriend permanently blocking him as she becomes pregnant with another man's child - all of the stories are about what technology (technology that we're beginning to see in our lives right now) can do to us, or the consequences it can have on human relationships. Greta's callousness in torturing a copy of herself into being a personal assistant, Matt's punishment for his illicit activities with Z-Eyes, or Potter's psychological break when his girlfriend and who he believes to be his daughter are completely cut out of his life - the underlying thread might be the technology that allows all these terrible things to happen to these people, but White Christmas is ultimately a human story. The horrific nature of the technology is just to serve the human drama that plays out in front of us.
I won't discuss the ultimate twist in the tale, what brings Potter and Matt together through the framing device that tells the story - the two of them trapped in an Arctic base on Christmas Day - but it threads all three stories together in such a clever way that the reveal feels less like an 'a-ha, gotcha' moment and more like a morbid, natural conclusion of everything Brooker has told us about up to the point. It's an imaginative ending, but it also serves to punctuate the sheer lonliness of our three characters. It shows us the fear and sadness that an idle use of technology can bring - Black Mirror's raison d'etre, just played out over the snowflakes and pageantry of Christmas (you'll never hear Wizzard's I Wish It Could Be Christmas the same way ever again).
Yet oddly enough, for all its dark, cutting commentary, White Christmas might just be the one Christmas Special you watch this year that's actually about the real spirit of Christmas: about having compassion for other people. Brooker offers us a cautionary set of tales about the way we treat people online today, with no chance for redemption or discourse before they're blocked out of our lives for good, with a story about how that behaviour could transition into the real world as well. It's an extreme extrapolation, of course, but still one born of our own reality - and an extrapolation that asks us consider the way we treat each other in our connected world. To try and understand, to empathise with each other a little more before we reach for the block button. A surprisingly Christmassy message for a special Brooker himself didn't think was really all that much about Christmas.
Black Mirror: White Christmas aired last night on Channel 4 in the UK. It will air on DirecTV's Audience Network on Christmas Day in the US.
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