San Junipero

December 10, 2017

San Junipero made me cry. It made me cry because it’s a story about a pair of lovers dealing with trauma, loss, and pain. Tears constitute an involuntary emotional response to presented stimuli — stimuli that usually exceeds a certain emotional threshold. We cry with joy, relief, pain, hurt, etc. Working with that assumption, we also know that crying can be caused, and by extension, manufactured. San Junipero, and the rest of Black Mirror, manufactures its audiences’ response to the series to produce an illusion of edification. It plays its audience with sleights of hand that convinces them that the story presented to them (1) is relegated to fiction, and (2) safely self-contained. I will outline how these two points are problems below.

(1) Fiction

That San Junipero is fiction may seem a bit obtuse to propose, as the Black Mirror universe is ostensibly a fictional world. The problem lies in that the issues presented within Black Mirror are not merely fictional issues — they are clearly issues that contemporary society is faced with and in the midst of untangling: surveillance, prejudice, and the nature of humanity.

We should first consider the purpose of fiction in general: the simplest definition of fiction that we can work with is that fiction is a story told around an idea. It must contain (a) a narrative, and (b) an idea (this would be similar to but not analogous to the fabula and sujet of film writing). The “idea” is a conclusion, proposal, question (etc) that the fiction puts forward. In a story like “Three Little Pigs”, a few among the several ideas that it puts forward are “work ethic”, “stranger danger”, “self-preservation”. The “narrative” is the means through which the story is told: the shape of the text, film, or whichever media the idea is housed in. How the story is told.

Following this analogy, idea is then the driver of the story and the narrative its vehicle. Narrative usually shapes distribution and reception of the story: its reach, audience, what media carry it etc., of which this post has no quarrel with.

My problem with San Junipero’s, and Black Mirror’s, ideas is that they are never examined or explored, just presented as is. Science fiction has a long explorative tradition, where the narrative structure of scifi has served to carry ideas of exploration — looking beyond. If we delve deeper, such ideas of exploration are also found in fiction that seeks to dissect and examine social and philosophical issues. Works like Stranger Things and films that deal with the supernatural or the extra-terrestrial are films that obliquely deal with fears of the unknown, otherness, and more subtly, immigration and catastrophic change. As we consume these works, we work through these fears — sometimes understanding these fears of ours a little more, sometimes magnifying them. The point is that no matter your starting point, whether you were aware of this fear or this need for fear or not, you’re changed after being subject to the experience. Then there is fiction like Black Mirror, that presents an idea as is, and never moves beyond it.

Black Mirror (and therefore San Junipero) uses the narrative vehicle that is fiction to present an idea, but doesn’t do anything with the idea. It possibly reboots the idea, updates it, but never develops it. San Junipero touches on issues of forbidden love, loss, fears of living and of dying, but never explores any of the issues. The motivations of each character are never probed, short of a few weak reveals: that Kelly is an old widower waiting to die, and Yorkie is a closeted lesbian who has been paralysed for 80% of her life. Neither of these character descriptions are consequential — you could change their characters entirely with no effect on the plot whatsoever. Kelly could be an aging war veteran who lost her first love and never decided to marry, Yorkie could be a young lady in a highly traditional family that subjected her to genital mutilation. No difference.

This is one of the reasons that makes me so angry with Black Mirror in general: that the stories are written in such a wasteful manner. There is so much story to be told from either of their backgrounds, but instead the backgrounds are utilized for (ineffective) shock value when the episode decides to reveal that Kelly and Yorkie are both old women at the end of their lives. If you pull back from the story and the tears, Black Mirror is clearly manufacturing its emotional cues. This is not what fiction is for.

The danger here is that Black Mirror is in this sense presenting contemporary issues under the guise of fiction. Fiction is for revealing truths or perspectives of reality in ways that non-fiction cannot, by through its literary license. It’s for illuminating our present world with extraordinary connections, helping us understand it better and uncover previously undiscovered perspectives for it. Black Mirror, and San Junipero, fails to make such headway. This failure is also related to its containerized format — the way that it closes each episode with a mere vague sense of menace, a foreboding about technology, but nothing that is clearly or productively articulated — which we will deal with next.

(2) Safety

There is a misplaced sense of safety in each episode. This sense of safety is produced by virtue of the format of the episodes. Each episode of Black Mirror has to finish dealing with the ideas exposed within its run time, and cannot carry over to the next. As such, the format of the episodes demand resolution, or at least mitigation of the issue to the point where there is a deducible trajectory for the ideas presented. (Annoyingly, this is also where Black Mirror gleefully employs the postmodern trope of vague dystopic endings, a trope that has already run its course in storytelling.) This is the equivalent of throwing your hands up and saying, “Welp, nothing we can do here.” This would be okay if the issues could be considered fictional hyperbole. But as discussed above, Black Mirror knowingly imports contemporary issues into its episodes and plops them into its science fiction narrative vehicles with no regard to how the ideas should be explored. But apart from a failure of exploration, it puts up a dangerous mirage of safety. It brings up important issues, and dismisses any serious engagement with them.

To make this point, we need to examine San Junipero a bit more closely.

San Junipero at its core is about physical death and eternal life. At one level, we are presented with this idea that it is possible for the flesh body to not matter — that a digital simulation of existence can sufficiently replace physical existence.

First: how sufficient this digital simulation of physical existence is waved away. Yorkie, throughout the episode, makes sure that the audience knows how “real” San Junipero is, but skips through obvious gaps in representation. For example, what is the “pain” slider like? What is its purpose, if the point of San Junipero is that you enjoy an interminable digital, and by extension, painless existence (the implied answer is that pain is necessary for certain human experiences, and emotional processes)? If there is a pain slider, then are there other “sliders” as well? Are there sliders for joy, anger (given that we know that these can be products of chemical production in the brain) etc? How are these sliders controlled, and who has access? What if a system administrator has access to these sliders?

Second: what does a purely digital existence mean? The whole episode is spent developing a digital world that is ultimately of no significance. Digital bodies means no disease, no consequence to excessive physical behaviour, sexual or otherwise. By extension, there is also no consequence for death or dismemberment, because there is no corresponding physical analogue to the digital body — you just “reload”. This points to a huge gap — what form does law and society take in such a place? This issue is clearly underdeveloped, because the society presented in San Junipero blindly mimics the physical world. It assumes that pre-San Junipero societal structures will hold when transposed wholesale into a digital space. We know this is never true, because it does not happen with our current digital spaces, i.e. Twitter, Facebook, WoW etc. This is simply lazy writing. It also fails to expand on what eternity means in such a world, failing to deal with the Ship of Theseus problem (the question of what constitutes a “soul”, given that the flesh is merly a vehicle for it) sufficiently. Instead of attempting to clarify the connection (or lack of connection) between flesh body and digital body, it skips the issue entirely, taking for granted that mind can be taken as separate from body. This is a huge problem, given that we know that our mental models of the world and our place within it is very much shaped by the shape of our physical existence in this world. That is to say, if you spent your life colour blind, how can a full-coloured world be communicated to your digital self? If you spent most of your life paralysed, how would you know what to do with your limbs? These questions can have interesting answers, but San Junipero has chosen to answer none of them. This is why I say that the story does not do justice to these characters, instead treating them as mere plot devices.

Third: it totally ignores the elephant in the room — euthanasia and its ethics. Disclosure: I believe in the ability to exercise choice over your own life, which includes how and when you want it to end. That being said, San Junipero treats euthanasia flippantly. It is treated, like all the other issues in the story, as mere plot device, forcing Kelly to choose between dying alone or spending digital eternity (whatever that means) with Yorkie. What it does not do is address an obvious question: why are there not more people agreeing to kill themselves to become permanent residents in San Junipero? What are the ethical issues surrounding this, and how is the society (in the Black Mirror universe) dealing with it? Again, these issues are glossed over conveniently.

All these issues could have been addressed. If not adequately, then at least acknowledged within the episode. What is shown instead is a complete ignorance, intentional or unintentional, of the wider implications of the world being constructed. The consequence of this is that Black Mirror is telling its audience that these issues are safe to ignore, to not worry because the events occur in a fictional universe, and the peripheral issues surrounding the core idea that we are presenting do not need to be dealt with at length. This is completely untrue. Any exploration of the idea of an artificially maintained form of “eternal life” needs to deal with the three questions I’ve presented above. What San Junipero reduces them to is the “love wins” trope, which is lazy and dangerous. It chooses the safest resolution to the issues that it brings up, and in the process de-claws several important issues that it brings up, then throws away.

Tears

I still cried at the end of San Junipero. I knew ten minutes into the episode that I would cry at the end, because I could already see how the episode was being set up. That’s not my gripe. I don’t care if it hits these emotional triggers intentionally or not; all media worth its salt is designed to have a calculated effect on its audience, so no harm done if television marks out a few spots in which it decides to get under my skin.

What gets to me is the utter wastefulness of how Black Mirror chooses to tell its stories. The world of San Junipero is so unforgivably flat given such a potentially rich premise. You get to upload your brain to a server when you die, where you live out the rest of eternity as your young, unblemished self, wherever and whenever you want to be. After getting past the question of “why the hell would you want to be your human self in a virtual world where everything is constructed out of bytes or whatever futuristic equivalent they have in their world”, and pushing past the question of in what world would such an unimaginative alternative to the end-of-life question be acceptable, I still want to ask: How is it that a virtual world populated by people, albeit dead, with nothing to do at all, are portrayed as only desiring and capable of seeking decadent pleasure? How is it that, in a super advanced world, where people are mostly dying of old age bar force majeure, are acting like such utter teenagers? Given that they are actually “living” in the world, where are the crafstmen? Where are the shopkeeps? Where are the explorers? The completionists (think Westworld’s William) and the trolls?

Where are all these people? Yorkie asks Kelly how many of San Junipero’s inhabitants she thinks are dead, and she says, “80%”, but 99% of on-screen behaviour shows them all behaving like NPCS: acting out little loops of habit, homing in on the same source of pleasure again, and again, and again when we are supposed to believe that San Junipero is a legitimate place to go when you die. But it doesn’t seem like anyone is truly alive in there.

It feels like the writers are trying to convince me that this is a living world by telling me over and over again — yes, this world is alive; here are a few throwaway recurring characters who will appear twice but have no impact on the story whatsoever. All the other characters introduced and whom I will never the remember the names of have no impact on the story whatsoever; they were thrown in to give the world a semblence of depth when they barely suffice as plot devices, giving scant rationale for Yorkie’s pinballing around San Junipero looking for Kelly. You could as much have Yorkie turn the corner and unexpectedly find Kelly and have equal effect with much less confusion. But there I was watching the episode wondering if one of these characters was hiding a key revelation, or perhaps one say something that would unlock character growth. But no, because the story must be in itself an uncontrollable converging force to bring its two protagonists together, all other things are unimportant. I am upset because Yorkie’s and Kelly’s story is so beautiful by itself, but is unceremoniously shoved in such a shittily constructed world. It is a world without consequence for its characters, and more damningly, its writers and audience.

I want to believe in what is explicitly a positive ending in San Junipero, that Yorkie and Kelly are alive somehow in byte land, as two glowing orbs on a server farm that is probably serving as a CPU lake somewhere. But I don’t. Not because at the end of the episode, Black Mirror just needs to remind us that it’s Black Mirror and all is fine and dandy only if you’ve joined the Machine Overlord team. I still do see that as hopeful, that I genuinely believe that bytes are the digital equivalent of organic material, and if configured correctly can quite possibly be like neural tissue.

But the world built around Yorkie and Kelly doesn’t make me believe that that’s possible. Heaven is not a place on Earth, if it is a mere reduction of what we already have on the mortal plane. Heaven is not a place on earth if all I can do is go to the same two shitty bars down the street across all space and time. Heaven is not a place on earth if everybody behaves like they have nothing to live for in eternity. Heaven is not a place on earth if nothing I do matters.

San Junipero tells me nothing useful about the world its showing me, nor about my world through its lens. It shows me the world as is — one that is slowly marching towards a total digitization, and hence total surveillance, of the person — and gives me neither hope, indignation, anger, nor reprieve for it. It gives me nothing except what I already know about the world. Like San Junipero the digital place, San Junipero and the rest of the Black Mirror universe holds no substance under its shiny facade.

PS: I googled the name San Junipero, and the two closest connections I could find were Friar Juniper (renowned jester of the Lord) and Junípero Serra, known for his role in the Inquisition. It seems even the name of this paradise — and the name of the episode — is hollow.