Television, Lockdown, and other Dystopias

In the midst of a pandemic, led by a government which is, by turns, illiberal, inept, mendacious and incomprehensibly crass, Britons can be forgiven for craving a little escapism. In such times it is only natural to turn to Nigella and the soothing balm of culinary montage. We may not be able to solve the climate crisis or make peace in the Middle East, but with the right kind of anchovies we can achieve a moment of domestic bliss.  More surprising is the appetite for dystopia. Snowpiercer, Raised by Wolves, Dark, The Platform, The Handmaid’s Tale, Black Mirror, Altered Carbon, and Westworld, during lockdown television has been full of unsettling visions of possible futures. Escapism has never been so bleak.

NBCUniversal’s Brave New World, available on Sky One and NOW TV, is one of the real gems available in Lockdown 2.0. Featuring stellar performances from the likes of Jessica Brown Findlay, Kylie Bunbury, Alden Ehrenreich and Harry Lloyd, Brave New World is a compelling re-imagining of Aldous Huxley’s classic novel. Stylish and funny, including some great music by Goldfrapp and Car Seat Head Rest, the show has many virtues. It may even pass the Clit Test. Dramatizing Brave New World is a bold choice. For years Huxley’s novel has been eclipsed by Nineteen Eighty-Four. While there have been numerous adaptations of Orwell’s dystopia, Brave New World has received relatively little attention. The great virtue of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that, with a few judicious edits to remove Orwell’s troubling critique of capitalism and colonialism, it could be turned into a straight forward anti-Communist parable. It was harder for Cold Warriors to conscript Brave New World. Published in 1932, Huxley’s dystopia was written before the emergence of Stalinism. More worrying still, the Deity worshiped in Brave New World was arch capitalist Henry Ford, rather than Marx or Lenin.

The TV show quickly diverges from the book. Despite this, the new adaptation remains true to Huxley’s essential themes, presenting a series of dystopias. At first, New London, where much of the action takes place, looks utopic. The production design echoes the most optimistic architecture of mid-century Britain, recalling pavilions created for the 1951 Festival of Britain, as well as the brutalism of Denys Lasdun. The costumes and sets also emphasise the luxury and material plenty enjoyed by citizens of the World State. The price for this body utopia, however, is conformity, rigid social stratification, and lives which, freed from pain and heartbreak, have no potential for intimacy or meaning.

The ‘savage reservation’ is a dystopia of a different kind. Outside the World State, ‘savage’ life is plagued by disease, violence, drudgery and debt. The show’s creators have reimagined ‘the Savage Lands’ as a parody of rural America. The religious rituals detailed in Huxley’s novel are dropped in favour of Black Friday, a vicious fight for bargains. All that is left of the American republic in ‘the Savage Lands’ is a fierce commitment to gun ownership.

The show makers have updated Huxley’s novel in a variety of ways. The citizens of New London are all equipped with smart technology, relationships in the ‘social body’ are no longer heteronormative, and the Arch-Community-Songster, who is presented in the book as a secular bishop, is recast as a superstar DJ. The dystopia is updated too. Beneath the World State lies the remains of a third dystopia, the world of war, rising sea levels and ecological collapse which swept away the old world and led to the creation of the new.

The TV show captures the fact that Brave New World contains only a choice of evils. Huxley lamented this reflecting on the book in the 1950s. Even in the original novel World Controller Mustapha Mond is clear about the impossibility of a modern utopia. Modern industry, Mond explains, requires large sections of the population to engage in work which requires neither thought nor creativity. The proportion of the population who can live genuinely fulfilling lives is necessarily small. Socialism is the attempt to humanise the modern industrial world. But the creators of the world state took a different approach: humans were genetically re-engineered to meet the requirements of industrial production. Under capitalism, inadequate education, malnutrition, squalid living conditions, and toil went someway to reducing workers to servants of the machine, but at the expense of widespread misery. Cloning, genetic engineering and conditioning were the technocratic solution to the problem of industrial society, which fitted humans to production more efficiently and more humanely than had been achieved in the twentieth century. As Nina Sosanya, who plays Mond in the new show, explains, the goal was not to create a perfect world, just to escape the horrors of the world as it once was.

STXfilms’ Songbird, also available on Sky, is a less complex piece. Set in Los Angeles in 2024, it’s the timeless story of boy meets girl; boy gets separated from girl by global pandemic; boy and girl fight to be together in spite of restrictions imposed by the Department of Sanitation. The context is bleak. COVID-23 is airborne and kills in less than 48 hours. Consequently a total curfew has been imposed, backed by martial law. Sara, played by Sofia Carson is locked down with an elderly relative. Her love interest, Nico, played by KJ Apa, is a law student turned courier, one of the few with natural immunity. The most interesting aspect of the show is the depiction of the intersection between class and disease. The rich live in self-contained, fortified villas in the Hollywood Hills, while the poor are packed together in apartment blocks where infection is rife. As in Brave New World, Songbird’s architecture is a way in to the show’s politics. The rich family’s villa is surrounded by a concrete wall. This recreates, in miniature, Trump’s proposed border wall, protecting the white family and their property from the more diverse downtown population. Marie, the family maid played by Carol Abney, is the only person of colour permitted in the villa. Marie is clearly not treated as an equal, she is allowed in the villa as long as she plays a subordinate role. The film implies that she is not permitted to leave, and that she is taking care of the rich family while her own family suffers downtown. In that sense, Songbird examines the differential impact of lockdown on racial inequality as well as on class.

Sadly, Songbird’s plot relies on a number of magical elements. Armed vigilantes appear in the nick of time, one of the central characters discovers they had immunity all along, soldiers with the power to shoot on sight inexplicably hold fire, and one of the characters performs an inexplicable act of kindness. Songbird’s account of politics is also fairly superficial. The worst aspects of the lockdown are explained, not by systemic failings or the inherent problems of martial law, but by the corruption of a single official. And at the end of the film, it turns out that there was a functioning legal system all along. Nonetheless, Songbird like all good dystopia shines a light on worrying contemporary trends. The fortified villas of the Hollywood Hills are reminiscent of the white only gated communities which are a growing feature of American life. Moreover, as Paul Walter Hauser’s character comments, for many Americas suffering from the stigma of disability social isolation was a fact of life long before lockdown. For all its flaws, Songbird is still a good bit of tele, with memorable performances by Craig Robinson, Carson and Alexandra Daddario.

Brave New World and Songbird have this in common: neither offers a political solution to the problems of the modern world. In common with the protagonists of any number of recent dystopias, Songbird’s Nico and Sara seek personal happiness in a doomed world. Any liberation that they achieve is purely private and does not change the fundamental nature of the world they inhabit. Much the same can be said of the central characters in Brave New World. By comparison, perhaps Mustapha Mond’s attempt to find technocratic solutions to social and political problems is nobler than it seems. Nonetheless, the modern taste for dystopias maybe is a positive trend. After all, dystopias allow audiences to engage imaginatively with the problems of the world, and in so doing better understand the challenges we face. In that sense their purpose is to highlight the problems. Seeking political solutions falls to us.

Robin Bunce is a historian based at Homerton College, University of Cambridge, who specialises in the politics of science fiction. He is editor of Blade Runner 2049 and Philosophy.  He tweets @RenegadesRobin.

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