Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror continues with Fifteen Million Merits, a satire written by Brooker and his wife, former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq. Wait, what? That’s right, Charlie Brooker is indeed married to a former Blue Peter presenter, and they’ve teamed up to write the second episode of Black Mirror, which takes place in world where normal people are required to spend the day on bike machines, which power their surroundings and rewards them with merits that they can spend on television, upgrades for their avatars, and food.
The story focuses on Bing (Daniel Kaluuya, recognisable from Skins and Psychoville, where he played Tealeaf), one of many drone-like people who use the bikes on a daily basis. The episode feels very much like a 70s sci-fi movie, with not much dialogue and a lot of lingering shots to establish the mundane world that the workers find themselves stuck in. It’s not until Bing meets Abi, a new girl replacing a ‘finished’ worker, that there’s much interaction between characters.
After hearing Abi singing, Bing tries to convince her that she should audition for an X-Factor style show called Hot Shot. Entry costs 15 million merits (the unit the workers are paid in), and Bing, having inherited that amount when his brother died, offers to buy her a ticket. Hot Shot has three judges. There’s Judge Hope (Rupert Everett, looking like Faith-era George Michael with Simon Cowell’s persona), Judge Charity (Julia Davis) and Judge Wraith (Ashley Thomas aka grime artist Bashy). The live audience for the show is made up of the avatars of the workers, who watch from their hi-tech rooms, the walls of which are floor-to-ceiling television screens. The winners on the show have their lives transformed, never having to use the bikes again. Although the judges are impressed by Abi’s performance, their decision about her future leaves her with a difficult choice to make, one that will lead Bing to be forced to make his own difficult choice.
Black Mirror’s first episode, The National Anthem, was a clever, albeit very dark, swipe at modern culture and the way social networking has changed everyday life. Fifteen Million Merits has similar intentions, but deconstructing the false hopes that talent shows in the modern age bring to the millions of people who watch and enter them already seems clichéd.
Kaluuya gives a credible performance as Bing, but most of the plot points in Fifteen Million Merits have been seen before, in science fiction or even just dramatic movies or television. If you look closely enough, you’ll see moments that remind of you films like 2001 and THX 1138, and part of Clint Mansell’s score from Moon is also used to soundtrack some of the big moments in the episode.
The National Anthem was a very strong first episode for Black Mirror. Fifteen Million Merits is a much less successful episode, and leaves you wondering if The National Anthem may have been better off being shown as a one-off drama. Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show and The Thick Of It) is the writer of the final episode of the series, The History Of You, the strength of that will ultimately decide how good Black Mirror is as a whole, but so far it’s a 50/50 split.