In Charlie Brooker’s dystopian world “Beyond the Sea,” people seem to live lesser lives than robots.
Set in 1969, the episode features two astronauts, David and Cliff, on a six-year unspecified mission in space. Brooker shows us an alternative history and visualizes astronauts who can visit their families on Earth as they please by beaming their consciousness back down to our planet, creating unique mechanical replicas of themselves.
Now, before we start hiding the bodies of all the characters Brooker killed during the episode, let’s take a closer look at the replicas.
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The real David and Cliff, trapped on a spaceship, don’t have much going on. They meet every Friday for a “physical,” maintain the vessel, and get plenty of sleep so their consciousnesses can head back to their replicas on Earth.
Now, as long as they can actually go back, everything is fine. But once David’s replica is destroyed – how close are we to saying “killed” about robots – we get a different picture. Cliff continues to go back to his wife and son, while David is now left stranded in space, with only his drawings and Ray Bradburry’s The Illustrated Man to keep him company.
But misery seeps into Cliff's life as well, with his wife Lana becoming a source of discontent. It was Cliff's decision to relocate to the isolated countryside, where Lana is denied the human experiences she craves, including simple gestures of affection and parties for “the local folks.”
Cliff is depicted as an emotionally distant husband and a rigid father. One begins to question if his family truly needs him back on Earth at all. How is it that his mechanical replica lives a more fulfilling life than Cliff himself and his own family?
David confronts Cliff about not cherishing what he’s got, and rightfully so. But why does Cliff get so angry? Seemingly a religious person, maybe he believes that a sexual interaction between his replica and Lana would be an abomination?
Another aspect that prompts contemplation about machines living better lives than humans is the portrayal of intimate scenes. Whether it's David with his wife at the episode's outset or David within Cliff's replica sharing a moment with Lana, we witness an intriguing juxtaposition.
How is it possible for these replicas to experience such intense physical sensations? Emotional closeness is one thing, but foreplay is a very physical experience, isn’t it?
Essentially, these mechanical beings engage in sexual encounters while real humans remain confined in space. Without pleasing your body, how can one please the brain? We know that chocolate and sex are some of the best sources of serotonin, the so-called hormone of happiness.
At around the middle of the episode, there’s a scene where David, using Cliff’s replica, asks Lana:
– Do you like sci-fi?
– I can’t say I tried it.
While their conversation centers around books, it feels somewhat paradoxical. Lana, yearning for intimacy with her husband's mechanical replica, appears to be living within a sci-fi realm. Especially taking into account the plot is set in 1969.
Think about the early 70s, the hippie era, without sex. Now, that’s a dystopia. Violent hippies are also something out of the ordinary.
“Defying nature must have a cost, or what will become of us all,” they asked before slaying David’s family and destroying his replica.
One way to read this hippie violence is to look at it as a metaphor for technophobia. There’s so much hype around AI, and everyone keeps fueling the fear of robots replacing us. The less information you have, the more it feeds your fear, but is destroying technology the ultimate answer? I’m sure it works great as a survival mechanism, but are we animals?
Charlie Brooker's pledge of a bleak season is certainly fulfilled in Beyond the Sea. In my view, this episode stands as one of the most haunting and intense, not only due to the high body count but also because it shatters the romanticized notion of space.
As the story concludes, we find ourselves confronted with two solitary men trapped amidst the vastness of space. Their return to Earth holds no promise of joy or freedom but rather the bleak prospect of imprisonment.
Beyond the Sea is actually a reference to an English version of La Mer, a song by the French composer Charles Trenet, which we hear a few times throughout the episode.
While La Mer is an ode to the sea, Beyond The Sea, an English version of the song written by Jack Lawrence, is more of a classical love song about hope and longing.
Somewhere beyond the sea
Somewhere waiting for me
My lover stands on golden sands
And watches the ships that go sailing.
Only no one’s waiting anymore. Maybe just the sea.
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