At the heart of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is the idea that technology, contrary to what marketing tells us, actually builds barriers between people, not breaks them. Being connected no longer implies intimacy and friendship, it is a word describing a virtual relationship.
Martha (Hayley Atwell) in Black Mirror
In the first episode of the second series, Be Right Back, a woman, Martha, loses her boyfriend Ash, in a car crash and as a way of coping with grief she uses a piece of software that constructs Ash out of his digital remains.
She can talk to him because this software has learnt his voice through synthesising his Facebook posts and emails. Martha can’t stop listening to this disembodied voice. In a particularly chilling moment, she plays the heartbeat of her unborn baby to the virtual version of Ash.
As in the earlier episodes of Black Mirror, Brooker does an exceptional job of inventing future technology. The believability of the gadgets his characters use adds to the sinister quality of his programme because they are desirable and not inconceivable objects.
During this episode, one of my housemates actually said, “I wish I lived there, their gadgets are so cool.” Yeah, cool but terrifying because we come to rely so completely upon them.
The story develops when Martha orders what looks like a clothes shop mannequin from the mysterious company that developed the software. The voice of Ash on the phone explains to her how to create the dummy version of Ash by placing him in the bath tub and leaving him to brew in a solution of nutrient jelly and electrolytes. Once the process is complete, a younger version of Ash, devoid of finger prints emerges and, understandably, Martha does not immediately throw her arms around this strange body. They steadily get used to each other, inevitably ending up in bed.
Hayley Atwell (Captain America, The Duchess) features in the role of Martha, and Domhnall Gleeson (Bill Weasley of Harry Potter fame) plays Ash, and the two are almost the only actors of this hour-long programme which is mostly set in their isolated cottage.
Martha steadily disconnects herself from any real human contact and becomes reliant on the simulacrum of her dead boyfriend. This reliance on technology results in an intriguing ending that suggested to me that digital remains make it harder to grieve.
After this episode of Black Mirror I was left wondering about my own digital remains. If I use Facebook for the rest of my life, I will leave a huge amount of personal information behind me, I’m not sure what to make of this information but I’m sure I wouldn’t want anyone else making something of it either.
We’re reviewing each episode of season two shortly after it airs.