Originally written for TV Pixie
Instead, we were drawn into a surprisingly uncomfortable, haunting and claustrophobic world heavily influenced by the dystopian visions of Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Cowell’s dark and terrifying masterpiece: The X Factor.
Cunningly scheduled to pick up exactly where ITV’s live final left off, 15 Million Merits gradually revealed a world where humans were reduced to cell-dwelling drones, forced to power the screens that entertain them by riding exercise bikes for hours every day: earning ‘merits’ based on how hard they pedal.
Their main source of amusement- and aspiration- is a reality TV show called Hot Shot, although the drones are also fed a steady drip feed of porn (‘Wraithbabes’), violent video games and abusive game shows to keep them docile. Denied physical possessions, the Cycling Classes are only allowed to spend their merits on disposable items: mainly vending machine food, apps and accessories for virtual, Wii-like avatars.
It’s bread and circuses for the 4G generation and so close to home as to be almost physically uncomfortable. Replace ‘cycling for 7 hours a day’ with ‘working in Greggs’ and 15 Million Merits suddenly seems chillingly realistic.
As in Orwell’s 1984, it’s that hard-to-kill human instinct to love that catapults the protagonist, Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) out of his day-to-day existence. He encounters the truly lovely Abi (played by Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay) singing in the toilet and very quickly decides to gift her the 15 million merits she needs to enter Hot Shot.
Initially awkward and unsocialised, Bing transitions from emotionless silence to stumbling, practical sentences about food, to articulating to Abi that he wants to use his merits to make something ‘real’ happen, eventually becoming someone capable of screaming out a sweat-soaked, articulate and passionate tirade against his prole-powered world live on national TV.
The catalyst for Bing’s transformation: the programme’s treatment of the innocent, beautiful Abi, is the pitch black heart at the centre of what could otherwise have been- if not exactly light-hearted- an accessible, interesting but easily discarded vision of the future. The friendly videogame graphics, gym-like set up and placid nature of Bing certainly didn’t hint at the horrible fate Brooker and Huq were planning for ‘Our Jessica’.
Never mind depicting the Prime Minister doing it with a pig…the Downton Abbey cast are above the Queen when it comes to untouchable national treasures. Lady Sybil on a porn channel? What’s next, Charlie: Dame Maggie Smith coupling with the Blue Peter dog while Judi Dench films it? It’s Not On.
The haunting beauty of Abi’s Hot Shot performance was like the blast of opera that Andy Dufresne played over loudspeakers to the other grey-clad prisoners in The Shawshank Redemption. That music silenced them, transported them to another world and gave them their freedom- just for a few minutes.
Here, Abi’s beauty does silence the judges…but only long enough for them to calculate how much her innocence would be worth on the Wraithbabes channel.
Horrible, hideous and twisted, yes, but a fair comparison. The sad truth is, X Factor winners do whore themselves out for a tightly controlled record deal. It’s equally true that physical appearance plays a fairly large part in that success, Susan Boyle notwithstanding…although at the end of the day she’s a fairly typical-looking British person. From the negative press she gets, you’d think someone had taught that albino seal pup to sing ‘Biology’ by Girls Aloud.
We’re offered potential redemption when Bing goes postal, earning another 15 million in a crazed and exhausting burst of Lance Armstrong-like cycling prowess before using his ticket to fame to hold a shard of broken television screen to his neck live on prime-time TV.
Will he kill himself? Will he rid the world of those stunningly unpleasant judges? It seems like it’ll be one or the other…until he’s applauded and offered his own twice-weekly series.
Yes, in echoes of Charlie Brooker’s own transition from cynical telly critic to bloke-who-produces-thought-provoking-and-high-budget-three-part-channel-four-dramas-criticising-the-world-we-inhabit, Bing is told he’s the best thing to appear on Hot Shot since the series began, and offered his own ‘live stream’.
And- despite what they did to Abi- he accepts.
It’s a bleak but fitting ending to a powerful, weighty piece of drama: albeit one that owes a lot to the great dystopias of the past. The vision of Bing beating himself senseless to avoid watching Abi’s Wraithbabes debut is a powerful and lingering one, resembling as it does most sane people’s reaction to that awful seasonal Littlewoods advert.
15 Million Merits held a black mirror up to everyone watching, achieving a huge amount in just over an hour. It changed our gadgets, games and other ‘friendly’ things into sharp-fanged, unfamiliar terrors. It’ll be hard to add a new hat to our Wii avatars, play Modern Warfare or watch chav-baitingBritain’s Got Talent auditions after watching Brooker’s unsettling vision of the future.
Well, for a few hours at least.