"The National Anthem"
Let’s get the disclaimer bit out of the way first. We know this first instalment of Charlie Brooker’s new anthology show isn’t technically science fiction, but we thought it was still worthy of a review because: a) the next two stories in the three-part series are definitely sci-fi territory; b) the way it applies a frightening “what if” idea to the world of social networking is at the very least speculative fiction; and c) it’s thought-provoking enough to warrant us giving it the benefit of the doubt.
Proving his zombies versus Big Brother drama Dead Set was no flash in the pan, Brooker’s first standalone Black Mirror tale reveals a writer who can entertain while going to some very dark places. As Rory Kinnear’s prime minister is called out of bed to a Downing Street briefing where it’s revealed that a royal has been kidnapped, a potentially 24 -ish scenario soon takes a trip into farce territory when the ransom demands are put on the table. That the PM might have to do something untoward with a pig on live TV seems so ridiculous that it's initially funny. But as zero-hour approaches – and you realise he might actually have to go through with it – amusement soon gives way to revulsion and pity.
Brooker keeps you guessing right until the final moment, but refuses to let the audience off the hook. Those scenes of Kinnear’s face during the act, intercut with shots of TV viewers whose initial baying for maximum political embarrassment gradually turns into a realisation that they’re part of something very, very wrong, are really powerful stuff. "The National Anthem" is not an easy watch at times, but the questions it asks – and the way it manipulates your emotions – make for compelling stuff.
But the prime minister and his plight aren’t really the main attraction here. Brooker’s main aim is satire, his targets rolling news, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – and the way that nobody has any control of the spread of information any more. When every move and every development can be leaked (and judged) by a punter with a mobile phone, politicians are no longer making decisions based on their own judgement, but on the way the story is trending on Twitter. That part of it's scarily believable – even if the kidnapper’s demands are so ridiculous as to be implausible. It’s just a shame that you don’t ever feel the episode’s saying anything we didn’t already know about Twitter and the like – or that the episode has any real opinion about social networking either way.
Brooker has the last laugh, though, with a coda that makes the episode. The big reveal that the perpetrator was a performance artist, and that the princess was released before the PM went live on national TV, rendering the whole act ultimately pointless – while leaving the prime minister’s personal life in tatters – leaves you with an incredibly awkward feeling in your stomach. It's TV that lingers in your mind long after it's finished, and surely getting you thinking is what good drama should do.