Fair dealing justification under sections 29 and 30 of the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Will be removed on request – please email firstname.lastname@example.org . Appears in ‘Black Mirror’ series 4 episode 4 – ‘Black Museum’
If all of ‘Black Mirror’ happens in the same universe, at first glance ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ seems to be an exception. You could just abandon the whole idea that it does or settle for the stories all taking place in the same psychological universe, as Brooker once stated. He only gradually came around to the idea that they are all connected as closely as later becomes apparent, so the place where you are most likely to “see the join” is the second episode. Pilots are often different from the rest of a series, so ‘The National Anthem’ can easily be expected to be different and there’s also Early Installment Weirdness to be considered, where early episodes of a series are unlike the others, like ‘Doctor Who’ originally being an educational programme with alternating historical and scientific episodes.
The really startling thing to me is that ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ (hereinafter known as 15MM) is co-written by a ‘Blue Peter’ presenter, Konnie Huq, who’s married to Charlie Brooker. Somehow I don’t associate ‘Blue Peter’ with dystopian science fiction, and in particular not ‘Blue Peter’ presenters since the programme itself has done things like show viewers how to make ‘Blakes Seven’ teleport bracelets and done a lot of stuff about ‘Doctor Who’. Then again, I haven’t watched it regularly since about 1980. It would be interesting to try to discern elements of ‘Blue Peter’ in 15MM, but although I haven’t tried to do this I’m also vaguely aware that Huq has herself presented a talent show, so she is writing about what she knows. Probably the oddness is more to do with the fact that I know very little about her and only see her public media persona. Nonetheless I do find it strange.
15MM seems to show a world where almost everyone lives in a room wallpapered with screens. They earn “merits” by pedalling fixed bikes to generate energy, and spend them mainly on virtual items on-screen. They also watch the screens all day while working. They all wear grey uniforms and have practically no material personal possessions. Their only escape they appear to have from this grey drudgery is to enter ‘Hot Shots’, a talent show on one of the channels. Failure to achieve their work quota, even due to illness, relegates them to despised janitors. One show they watch involves fat-shaming. I’ll come back to this later as I think it’s crucial to explaining how this all fits in. They are not allowed to stop watching the screens.
Abi and Bing are two such workers in this jail-like setting. Bing clearly has a thing for Abi and wants to help her escape from their predicament. He’s inherited money from his brother and uses it to buy her a ticket for Hot Shots, which costs fifteen million merits, equivalent to six months’ pedalling. She appears on the show, having been made to drink the drug Cuppliance, and sings ‘Anyone Who Knows What Love Is’, the song’s first appearance in the series. Whereas she is judged a good singer, her beauty is considered more marketable and she is enrolled in a porn channel, where she is drugged so as not to feel ashamed. Bing is understandably a bit peeved by this result, and knuckles down to diligent work on the bike to earn another fifteen million merits and buy his ticket. Since viewers have to pay to avoid watching porn, he is forced to watch his beloved participate in degrading and humiliating acts on an enormous screen in his bedroom for months on end. He manages to appear on the programme by presenting a dance routine and carries a shard of glass with him, faking that he’s taken the Cuppliance. After a few seconds of dancing, he stops, holds the shard to his throat and gives the following speech:
I haven’t got a speech, I didn’t plan words, I didn’t even try to. I just knew that I had to get here, to stand here and I knew I wanted you to listen; to really listen, not just pull a face like you’re listening, like you do the rest of the time. A face like you’re feeling instead of processing. You pull a face and poke it towards the stage and la-di-da we sing and dance and tumble around and all you see up here, it’s not people, you don’t see people up here, it’s all fodder. And the faker the fodder is the more you love it because fake fodder’s the only thing that works anymore, fake fodder is all that we can stomach — actually not quite all. Real pain, real viciousness, that we can take. Yeah, stick a fat man up a pole and we’ll laugh ourselves feral cause we’ve earned the right, we’ve done cell time and he’s slacking the scum so ha ha ha at him.Cause we’re so out of our minds with desperation we don’t know any better. All we know is fake fodder and buying shit. That’s how we speak to each other, how we express ourselves is buying shit. I have a dream? The peak of our dreams is a new hat for our doppel, a hat that doesn’t exist. It’s not even there, we buy shit that’s not even there. Show us something real and free and beautiful, you couldn’t. It’d break us, we’re too numb for it, our minds would choke. There’s only so much wonder we can bear, that’s why when you find any wonder whatsoever you dole it out in meager portions, and only then til it’s augmented and packaged and pumped through ten thousand pre-assigned filters, til it’s nothing more than a meaningless series of lights, while we ride day-in, day-out — going where? Powering what? All tiny cells in tiny screens and bigger cells in bigger screens and fuck you. Fuck you, that’s what it boils down to is fuck you. Fuck you for sitting there and slowly knitting things worse. Fuck you and your spotlight and your sanctimonious faces and fuck you all, for taking the one thing I ever came close to anything real about anything. For oozing around it and crushing it into a bone, into a joke, one more ugly joke in a kingdom of millions and then fuck you. Fuck you for happening. Fuck you for me, for us, for everyone, fuck you.
The judges, recognising the marketability of his attitude, give him a regular slot on one of their channels where Bing is able to make such speeches regularly, holding the shard to his throat, and he escapes from the bikes into a large apartment with an apparent view of a forest in the outside world. In the meantime the peddlers watch and nod along to his sentiments, do nothing and are able to buy virtual shards for their avatars.
It largely amounts to an illustration of recuperation in the Situationist sense. Capitalism is very good at taking radical gestures, including political ones, and defusing and commodifying them. Bing has provided society with a vivid spectacle, whose value is clear to the judges and audience, and can be bought off and used by them. There is a limited liberation from his proletarian existence, but he still doesn’t “get the girl” and his freedom is only relative. Moreover, his revolutionary act is utterly defused and ends up making money for the system and being used to keep the masses in line. An essay could be written on this but not here.
The problem with 15MM I’ve chosen to focus on instead, perhaps problematically in itself, is how it fits into the rest of the series universe. If the whole thing is supposed to hang together, what are we actually seeing here? In particular, how does it fit into the timeline? Why isn’t the rest of the series set in the same drab, grey setting with endless treadmills propelling people nowhere? Well, possibly because that would be extremely tedious, but that’s not an answer from within the setting and in fact I wouldn’t put it past the writers to get something interesting even out of that. It would be like a cross between Samuel Beckett, ‘Steptoe And Son’ and ‘Porridge’, and it could be done, I’m sure. Nonetheless we don’t see this. Why?
Is 15MM further in the future than most other episodes? Are we seeing the final decay of society brought on by the social effects of technology shown elsewhere? ‘Metalhead’ could be in its future, but this is the penultimate story. There are, however, problems with this. There are practically no virtual situations beyond the crude CGI seen on-screen such as the audience and the farmyard scene at the start. The only technology we lacked when the episode first aired in 2011 is Cuppliance, and even there it’s likely that something could’ve been cobbled together quite easily. There has in fact been a gallery installation of 15MM somewhere and I’ve heard it’s very close to what’s seen on the programme itself. Assuming technology becomes more sophisticated, it’s unlikely that this is a chronologically late episode. Regression does occur, but not to the mild extent implied by what’s portrayed here.
Another possibility is that the very primitivity of the technology implies that what we see is actually a simulation in itself. This would, for example, account for the crude computer graphics. Even today it’s possible to simulate microcomputers in virtual worlds. There used to be a program called VACE which simulated not only the 1982 microcomputer the Jupiter Ace but also an environment in which it could be used complete with television set and case, but it’s notable that in order to do that, rather than simply emulate an old computer, fairly high spec hardware was needed for the time. Hence we might see more primitive CGI in a world which is itself a simulation. Are the protagonists in 15MM in fact cookies?
One way this appeals, in a bleak, cynical way, is that it could mean all that pedalling is to no avail. It doesn’t actually do anything at all and is just there to keep them busy. The degree of futility this involves is inspired, making it quite hard for me to tear myself away from this idea. A related idea some have suggested is that they are in fact mining cryptocurrency rather than pedalling, but this doesn’t make sense because optimising code is important in cryptocurrency mining in order that it be done as fast as possible and also simulating a rather monotonous but nonetheless sophisticated virtual world would place it at a disadvantage. It makes a little more sense that this could be a factory for talent in various ways, a little like ‘Hang The DJ’, so the creme de la creme only end up appearing to the viewing public on ‘Hot Shots’. However, there is one tiny clue in another episode which makes this unlikely.
“Talent show 15 Million Merits launches next week”.
This is from the most technologically primitive story of the lot: ‘Shut Up And Dance’, although in fact the events depicted in that occur a year after those of ‘The National Anthem’. Consequently it’s evident that they’re not cookies and the theory is refuted.
This same headline, though, also indicates that it’s a talent show, which seems to make sense when applied to ‘Hot Shots’ but not 15MM. How can 15MM be a talent show? It seems more like a prison camp and the only mention we get of the outside world is Abi telling Bing that she had a choice between places and chose to go there at twenty-one, so it sounds like they’re in it for life. There is another puzzling aspect to all this.
In ‘Black Museum’, 15MM turns up as a graphic novel! This is initially the most confusing thing of the lot. A possible solution is to see some of the stories as fictional in the world of other stories, to the extent that they could even be nested like Russian dolls. Maybe every episode is fictional in another episode and it goes on through the whole series. Whereas this is appealing, it doesn’t work because ‘Black Museum’ shows a large number of episodes to be factual incidents, including ‘White Bear’, ‘Crocodile’, ‘The National Anthem’ and ‘San Junipero’, and in fact probably most of them with the exception of ‘Metalhead’, which most presume to be post-apocalyptic. In fact the presence of the graphic novel is less an indication of the fictionality of 15MM in ‘Black Museum’ than a suggestion of something more sinister, which links this and 15MM to, of all things, ‘Men Against Fire’, in my mind anyway.
In ‘Men Against Fire’ soldiers appear to be killing zombie-like monsters but on having their neural implants cracked, it emerges that they are actually killing ordinary people whose genetic profiles have been deemed inferior, one twist being that they are not of a particular ethnicity. This to my mind is what links it to 15MM via, of all things, the fat-shaming.
15MM shows us a talent show which people don’t seem to realise they’re participating in. Two aspects of their situation are fat-shaming and merits for exercise. Incidentally, I might as well mention this here because it doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere else: the value of a merit is tiny. It only takes six months to earn 15 million of them, and assuming minimum wage forty hours a week for twenty-six weeks, that makes a merit worth a tw0 hundredth of a penny. This can be taken as an estimation of these people’s worth in the eyes of the system, and this fits into the scenario I want to suggest.
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=240084
The one in ‘Black Museum’ reminded me of this real world graphic novel, which covers the Holocaust and is, evidently, based on real world events. The mere fact that there’s a comic book of something doesn’t make it fiction, sadly in this case. And it’s the Holocaust which is a clue to my mind of what’s going on here: nothing less than another holocaust.
My take on this is that 15MM is a 21st century media-oriented concentration camp. People with a genetic propensity to obesity and probably a number of other disorders are blamed for getting ill and seen as a drain on society, so they’re expected to exercise to prevent obesity and be socially useful. This is the talent show, and that’s why there’s fat-shaming, although it’s probably one of many other issues such as a tendency towards addictive behaviour. The situation then develops into genocide in ‘Men Against Fire’, and notably in that episode, there is a border over which people can escape, suggesting to me that it isn’t a global issue. Finally, the holocaust ends, either because there’s nobody left or due to a more accepting attitude (but this is Black Mirror so I doubt it), and a graphic novel is published which covers the events of one incident of resistance in the early part of that phase in history, namely ‘Fifteen Million Merits’.
This allows a rudimentary timeline to be constructed, thus:
- The National Anthem.
- Shut Up And Dance: 15MM is announced.
- Fifteen Million Merits: the concentration camp.
- Men Against Fire: the genocide.
- The middle segment of Black Museum.
Finally, although I don’t agree with the cookie explanation, something similar does seem to happen in ‘Hang The DJ’, which I’ll be discussing next.
2 thoughts on “Here’s One She Prepared Earlier”
Thanks. Very smoothly written.