Seriously scary: Michael Gambon as the photographer Henry Tyson in Fortitude
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David Lynch with polar bears? New crime series Fortitude is so much more

The series killed off Christopher Eccleston to let Sofie Gråbøl and Stanley Tucci steal the show. Intriguing or batty? It's both.

Sky Atlantic

The Legacy
Sky Arts

It’s pretty obvious that Sky has spent a lot of money – £30m, to be precise – on its new Arctic Circle murder mystery series, Fortitude (29 January, 9pm). If you saw the first episode, you’ll already know that Christopher Eccleston, a moderately famous actor, died long before the credits rolled, the better to let Sofie Gråbøl and Stanley Tucci steal the show. But even if shouty old Chris hadn’t been despatched so very rapidly, the pound signs are there in every scene. It looks absolutely gorgeous: not only the endless skies and blue-tinged snow, but also the Hammershøi-like interiors. You’d say it was straight out of Hollywood, except that it is far too weird to have been commissioned by some weedy, greedy, risk-averse studio boss.

Before Fortitude began, there was talk of David Lynch: the line was that Simon Donald, its writer, had updated Twin Peaks and transported it to the extreme north. But this isn’t the case. Its weirdness is all its own. If Lynch is among Donald’s influences, so too are The KillingFargo, Lost, even Midsomer Murders and Poirot. Here are woolly mammoths (discovered in the ice and possibly having provided the motive for at least one murder); children with mysterious viruses (is it mumps or is it . . . the plague?); swingers (should you be feeling frisky, look for a house with wind chimes); and, perhaps most oddly of all, Dr Allerdyce, the nastiest GP in the world (Phoebe Nicholls playing even more than usually sour).

Then there are all the accents: various shades of Scandinavian, Spanish, Yorkshire. Stanley Tucci, who has flown to Fortitude, a Norwegian-governed island, as a representative of the Metropolitan Police, is not a cockney. He’s an American who used to work for the FBI. He has much in his favour, not least his dry wit, but he’s come with no suitable outdoor gear. On the snow, he slips and slides, a Prada-ish flat cap the only thing between his delicious pate and the blast of the Arctic wind.

Fortitude is an island, an expat bubble with its own rules and its own mores. It has a human population of 713, plus 3,000 polar bears. “In this place, things can come at you from nowhere,” said one character, early on. “Monsters . . . you won’t see them, hear them, until they’ve got you in their teeth.” As if these monsters were not terrifying enough, the hammy Michael Gambon is also resident, in the form of a gurning, grimacing alcoholic photographer. Woah! Now that is seriously scary. Gambon’s character, Henry Tyson, is dying of cancer of the liver and must soon depart Fortitude, for no one is allowed to die on the island; the ice preserves bodies just a little too well for burial to be a good idea. The island’s governor, Hildur Odegard (Gråbøl, with short hair and a parka) wants rid of him and pronto – though not perhaps so much as she wanted rid of Professor Stoddart (Eccleston), who worked at the Fortitude Arctic Research Centre and who, before his untimely death, was about to put a stop to the ice hotel she planned to build on the glacier.

The trailer for Sky Atlantic's Fortitude

Does this sound intriguing or batty? In truth, it’s both. Others have called it derivative but I like it for all the things it leaves unsaid, for its refusal to spell things out; and, Gambon apart, it really is stuffed with good performances (Tucci, in particular, is marvellously subtle and delicate). I have read that the murderer’s identity will be revealed early on and that the producers are determined there will be no series two – facts that instantly put me on its side, post-Broadchurch.

Regular readers will know that I don’t have Sky at home but I must admit that Fortitude (Sky Atlantic) and The Legacy (Sky Arts), which finally finished the other day, have caused me to waver. Perhaps I should sign up. The Legacy, which I reviewed here when it began before Christmas, was among the most satisfying series of 2014. It gave me a new heroine in the form of Gro Gronnegaard (Trine Dyrholm), and its attention to the particular misery that comes of a certain kind of bohemianism produced a novelistic richness that British television often lacks, preoccupied as it is with murdered children, paedophiles and corrupt, sex-crazed cops. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.