Alice Wyllie reviews the week’s TV
Channel 4, Monday, 10pm
Keeping Britain On Track
BBC2, Tuesday, 9pm
Penguins: Spy In The Huddle
BBC1, Monday, 9pm
I CHECK my phone during the first ad break for Charlie Brooker’s latest instalment of Black Mirror. I look at my emails, scroll through Facebook, click on a link I see on my Twitter feed. I’m aware of the irony. I’m plugged in, logged on, checked out.
In Black Mirror the screens are bigger, the phones thinner and the sat nav actually knows where to take you. It’s some time in the not too distant future and Ash is never far from his smartphone. He updates his Twitter feed, he uploads a picture of himself as a child, thinking people might find it “funny”.
Only it’s not very funny. He explains the sad story behind it to his partner, Martha, if not to his Twitter followers. The next day he goes out to run an errand and doesn’t come back. He’s been killed in a car crash.
While grieving, an acquaintance introduces Martha to pioneering software which takes all the information he’s ever shared online and builds a virtual version of his personality with whom she can exchange messages. But that’s just stage one.
Before long she’s talking with “him” over the phone after uploading videos of him speaking so his voice can be mimicked.
Next, she’s having a crate of flesh delivered along with a packet of electrolytes so she can grow a fake Ash in the bath. The result – which uses photos Ash has uploaded of himself to Facebook – is impressive. He looks like Ash on a good day, says Martha. “The photos we keep tend to be flattering,” says Ashbot.
It’s a dark dig at the edited versions of ourselves we project to online audiences; the photographs which showcase our best angles, the boastful status updates. It’s funny, but uncomfortably so because it feels almost possible. Not the crate of flesh part, perhaps, but the idea that software could be used to dredge the internet for information about each one of us and manufacture a sort of parallel personality based on it. It’s good stuff; eerie, witty, observant and freakishly plausible.
Ashbot spots the same picture of himself as a child that real Ash uploaded to Twitter. “Funny,” he says to Martha. Things are getting creepy. He might have been great in the sack (the crate of flesh comes pre-programmed that way) but he’s not Ash. Not least because Ash was no good in the sack.
There’s something painful about watching someone tap their credit card nervously on the plastic counter of a customer service desk in a train station or an airport, eyes filling with tears. We’ve all been there. Tickets left at home, wrong dates booked.
In the first instalment of The Railway: Keeping Britain On Track, a behind-the-scenes look at Britain’s railways, we learn that the customer service agents in King’s Cross station wear clip-on ties so that they pop right off if an angry customer grabs hold of them.
Poor sods. It’s not their fault. But one surely can’t be held entirely responsible for one’s behaviour when told that a last-minute return ticket from London to Newcastle is £310. One customer thinks he’s being ripped off to the tune of £99 so tries to take payment in the form of a computer monitor.
After hours, Veronica has been cleaning trains for 21 years. She hates it. “If you want to find a dirty book; first class,” she says. They read them inside their newspapers, apparently. “Knickers under the seats” too. David Cameron gets on one of the trains, sits in first class and starts reading a copy of the Daily Telegraph. I wonder what he’s got inside it.
Penguins are so 2009. Our television sets have been saturated with them and their funny walks for too long and this week they finally jumped the sea lion. Knowing that they’re a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, and clearly looking for a new take on the genre, the BBC scrabbled for one and settled on Penguins: Spy In The Huddle.
The programme makers use “penguin cams” to get closer to the action, placing cameras inside plastic penguins. There’s also “rock cam”, which is the least covert rock possible since it chases after the penguins on wheels. We see more filming of the cuddly penguin cams than we see from the penguin cams.
What seems odd about this approach is that penguins are actually so easy to film. When it comes to nearby camera crews, they are at best curious, at worst disinterested. No infiltration is required. And so, we see some great footage of penguins leaping from the water, clearly filmed by a crew, then similar grainy footage filmed from penguin cam. At best, we’re offered a slightly different angle.
The dippy, jaunty music and cutesy narration from David Tennant tells us this is not a nature programme to be taken seriously. It’s just another opportunity for us to squee and aww and laugh at their silly gait. It reeks of gimmickry and guano.