Some years back, I enjoyed Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror on Channel 4 – seven episodes exploring how advances in technology could lead us to dark and dystopian futures. It wasn’t easy viewing, but overall it was definitely worth the emotional investment. One might even argue that The Waldo Moment, in which a foul-mouthed CGI bear runs for political office, was a dire warning not to dismiss the Trump campaign.
Flash forward a couple of years, and Black Mirror returned, in the form of twelve episodes commissioned by Netflix. Even though the first six of them were released over a year ago, I’ve only just binged all twelve, and I felt like saying a little about each of them.
Warning: spoilers ahead!
Nosedive takes place in a pastel coloured anodyne world where every single interaction is rated on social media, and where social status is determined by an individual’s overall star rating. Our protagonist is Lacie, a respectable but not outstanding 4.2 who longs to reach 4.5 so that she can move into an exclusive apartment complex. What follows is a fairly predictable sequence of events, as Lacie’s attempts to improve her rating lead to a downward spiral in which things go from bad to worse.
As a commentary on our obsession with being liked on social media, Nosedive scores highly, but it’s more an interesting idea than an outright enjoyable episode. Lacie is so painfully desperate to be liked and rated highly that she’s hard to like, and although we do feel sorry for her when things start going wrong, I was expecting more from the climax, in which, after much hardship, she turns up in a stained and tattered dress to deliver a ranty speech at a friend’s wedding. I wanted this speech to be a lot sharper and more vitriolic, but instead it’s just one person’s breakdown.
Arguably, though, this isn’t the true conclusion of the episode, as we then see Lacie dragged off to a jail cell. With her access to social media ratings removed, and nothing further to lose, Lacie trades insults with the man in the opposite cell, finally able to release her anger after years of trying to be inoffensive and nice.
Note: how could Lacie get a social media score of zero when the lowest rating you can is one star? Possibly it was something to do with how the “double damage” modifier alters the calculation of your average score.
At the end of a year of travelling aboard, Cooper finds himself stuck in London after his bank account gets cleaned out. In desperate need of money, he agrees to playtest a new augmented reality horror game – but does he have any idea of what he’s getting into?
This episode has quite a slow set up before getting down to business, at which point it turns into a standard “is he still dreaming?” piece. That being said, the ending really delivers on a triple tragedy. In the first instance, we think that the AR implant has fixated on Cooper’s fear of inheriting early onset dementia from his father, and has subsequently erased all his memories. But then it’s all fine because Cooper wakes up with a renewed determination to go home and make up with his mother – except when he arrives, she has no memory of him. But wait, Cooper still hasn’t woken up yet, and in fact, he will never wake up at all, because interference from his phone fatally interfered with the implant.
Like the best of tragedies, this outcome could so easily have been avoided. If only Cooper hadn’t turned his phone back on after being told to hand over all his devices. If only he’d previously answered the phone to his mother, so that she wasn’t trying to call all the time. If only he’d called her for financial assistance instead of taking on this job in the first place.
Note: Sonja calls herself a ‘gamer’ despite having only about ten games on a shelf. Maybe she has lots more as digital downloads – ten is about the amount I’d expect to see in a casual gaming household, rather than the complete library of games and tech journalist.
Shut Up and Dance
Kenny is a quiet and kind nineteen year old who has the misfortune to install a dodgy anti-malware program on his laptop. An anonymous hacker group uses the program to record Kenny masturbating, and to blackmail him into carrying out an increasingly difficult and illegal series of events.
For much of the episode, we’re on Kenny’s side. We feel sorry for him, but also a little perplexed – sure, no one wants the world to see videos of them masturbating, but is it really bad enough to force him to, say, rob a bank? I spent the entire episode questioning the depth of Kenny’s motivation, but it’s only at the end that we understand – Kenny wasn’t just having a wank, he was getting off to kiddy porn.
In the end, it’s all meaningless for Kenny and the other blackmailed men, as their secret shames are released to friends and family regardless. For the viewer, however, we’re left with the uncomfortable feeling that we just spent an entire episode rooting for a paedophile. They didn’t have a creepy mien or a dodgy moustache; there were no clues in their appearance – we simply couldn’t tell. It’s a gloriously raised middle finger from Charlie Brooker.
San Junipero is definitely my favourite from season three. The episode begins with what appears to be a developing relationship between two young women on a resort holiday, but of course, there’s more to it than that. San Junipero is actually a virtual reality, and these two women are old and dying. After their deaths, there’s the possibility that both could upload their consciousnesses to the cloud and stay in San Junipero forever – but is that what they really want?
Not only is this a sweet story, but I’m absolutely delighted to see a relationship between two women that relies on something other than the usual “lesbian angst” plot – they even get something of a happy ending.
Men Against Fire
Stripe is a soldier tasked with hunting down “roaches” – hideously mutated humans who must be exterminated. Like everyone in his unit, Stripe has been augmented with a “MASS” implant, but when his MASS starts to malfunction, he begins to see the world as it really is.
This episode plays with an intriguing idea – that soldiers would be more effective if their senses were suppressed and if they were made to perceive the enemy as hideous creatures. But ultimately, it doesn’t really go anywhere. Stripe’s MASS malfunctions and he finds out the truth, but ultimately his only choice is to have it reset and reinstalled, and go back to how he was before the episode. It’s an episode that showcases a good idea, but doesn’t really make a story out of it.
Hated in the Nation
In a future where the bee population has dropped to dangerously low levels, a company named Granular has released a mechanical replacement – the ADI. But when a rogue ADI causes the death of a famous journalist, a pair of detectives must track down the culprit.
The season finale brings together all of our fears about the future into one bumper outing. The ADIs are essentially the ultimate evolution of the Internet of Things – ubiquitous smart bees that everyone assumes are perfectly secure, until one hacker proves them otherwise. Social media also plays a part here – at first, the victims are all people named by the #DeathTo tag – so whoever the hate figure of the day happens to be. But ultimately, the real targets are the people who used the hashtag – those who idly wished death to another person from the safety of their armchairs.
The framing device is a detective story which is both well crafted and well acted, making this a worthy season finale.
Come back soon for part two, covering the recently released season four.