Black Mirror: season 5

Following the early release of the interactive episode Bandersnatch, three more episodes of Black Mirror were uploaded to Netflix this month. Does the darkly prescient series still have its edge, or is it finally running out of steam?

Don’t read on if you haven’t watched the episodes yet and want to avoid spoilers.

Striking Vipers

Danny used to enjoy playing the beat-em-up Striking Vipers with his best friend Karl, but now that he’s got a wife and child, the pair have drifted apart somewhat. All that changes, however, when Karl buys Danny the newest VR-enabled game in the Striking Vipers series. Now the two friends can play in virtual reality, but to their surprise, they find an addictive enjoyment in making their avatars have sex. And as the couple get more into their virtual sex life, Danny’s wife becomes suspicious that something is amiss.

A return to the Black Mirror staples of video games and virtual reality, Striking Vipers is a strong opener for the series. What we get is an episode that explores how virtual reality – and the ability to step into the body of any avatar- could allow for explorations of gender identity.

In real life, neither Danny nor Karl are attracted to other men, or even to each other. In the virtual world, Karl uses a female avatar and seems to prefer the sensation of having sex as a woman, but it’s never implied that he would want to transition in real life. Without the option of VR, these two would doubtless live their lives as straight men, but something about the unique combination of their personalities, their avatars and the charged tension of the fighting arena really turns them on.

This kind of immersive virtual reality certainly offers a lot of possibilities. For a trans person, the chance to easily step into an avatar that feels more comfortable could feel amazing – if a bit of a wrench when the experience ends. For someone genderfluid, it might offer a quick way to switch from one gender expression to another. Anyone at all who is even mildly curious can easily find out what it feels like to experience life in a different body. And this doesn’t have to be restricted to gender – you can alter any of your physical attributes, or even go beyond the human experience. Why not see what it’s like to have wings, or a prehensile tail? Live life as bird for a while, or a cat? With the VR headset and the right software, all of this is suddenly within the grasp of the average consumer.

We can also imagine how these new possibilities might affect our relationships. In the episode, we see how VR enables a sexual relationship that didn’t exist before. Karl also mentions how he tried to get the same thrill from virtual sex with strangers, but that it just wasn’t the same. But beyond this, how would VR enhance and complement existing real life relationships? If the physical attraction between two people was waning, would they turn to sexy new avatars to spice things up again? If someone felt uncomfortable with being intimate in their own body for whatever reason, but still wanted to experience sex, would VR be the answer? Feeling ugly or unattractive? No worries, just choose a good looking avatar! Don’t want to invite them back to your place? Just set up a VR world, secure in the knowledge that you can log out any time you like.

Of course, the other question the episode raises is “at what point does it become cheating?”. In all honesty, this is now such a well trodden theme that it’s not even that interesting to talk about it here. In the end, technological advancements may well blur the line between what is and isn’t cheating, but exactly where that line falls is something for each person in a relationship to establish with their own partner -or indeed partners. Still, just for fun, here’s a list.

Is it cheating?

Masturbating, using hands, basic sex toys, maybe porn pictures or videos

☐ Masturbating using realistic dildo or fleshlight

☐ Masturbating using realistic dildo or fleshlight linked to a video of a virtual sex partner who responds to your movements

☐ Masturbating using a remote controlled sex toy, with the remote in the hands of someone other than your partner

☐ Intercourse with a sex robot

☐ Intercourse with a sentient sex robot

☐ Intercourse on the holodeck, with a fictional character

☐ Intercourse on the holodeck, with a holographic representation of your partner

☐ Intercourse on the holodeck, with a holographic version of a real person that you aren’t in a relationship with

☐ Intercourse between virtual avatars, at least one of whom is not controlled by someone you are in a committed relationship with

Smithereens

When Chris uses his job as a ridehare driver to abduct an employee from the social media company Smithereen, he make a rather unusual demand. He doesn’t want money, he just wants to talk to Billy Bauer, the Smithereen CEO. Between them, the police and the Smithereen seniors discover that Chris lost his fiancée in a road traffic accident, but what does this have to do with his current actions?

According to Charlie Brooker, Smithereens is meant to poke fun at Black Mirror’s image as a set of cautionary tales designed to get us to look up from our screens once in a while. However, what it comes across as is an episode written by a grumpy old git who wants people to look up from their screens once in a while.

The crux of the protagonist’s anguish is that his car was hit by a drunk driver, and ever since the accident, he went along with the narrative that it was the other driver’s fault. In fact, Chris was equally at fault, for whilst at the wheel he’d glanced down at his phone and not been paying attention to the road. This confession – and only this – was the message he was so desperate to impart to Bauer, a tech-bro fusion of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey.

Everyone agrees that Chris’s situation is very sad, but ultimately it changes nothing. Bauer continues his ten day silent retreat in Arizona, and everyone else goes back to obsessively checking their phones and updating their social media feeds. No lessons are learnt, and life goes on.

The trouble is, we’re bombarded from all sides with messages about how technology and ‘screens’ are bad for us, how they’re making us isolated and lonely and maladjusted and worse human beings than previous generations. Even if this episode is meant to be a pastiche of that attitude, it comes across as being sincere. And that’s something of a shame, for it’s not the technology in itself that’s inherently good or bad – just as a spoon isn’t inherently bad just because it makes it easier for us to scoff an entire tub of ice cream.

Just for balance, it would be nice to have a counter-narrative about the positive effects technology has had – about how video chat and instant messenger helps families and friends stay in contact even when they are geographically distant from each other, or how it can help introverted or isolated people to find welcoming communities

Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too

As they struggle to come to terms with the loss of their mother, Rachel and Jack Griggins both find an escape in music. For Jack, this means playing guitar and listening to the rock bands her mum loved. Rachel turns instead to pop idol Ashley O (Miley Cyrus), whose bouncy songs about positivity and believing in oneself are the exact messages she needs to hear.

But even as Rachel gets an “Ashley Too” smart doll for her birthday, the real Ashley is struggling. She longs to write darker, angsty material, but is stymied both by her controlling aunt, and by the medication supplied by her physician. Can Ashley escape her restrictive life?

According to interviews, this episode is meant to be more of an “upbeat romp” than the usual Black Mirror fare. As with the creator interviews for all three episodes, it feels like what I got from the episode was not quite as intended.

First, I’d like to touch on the aspects that I really enjoyed. The relationship between the two sisters is really well written. Like many big sisters, Jack is dismissive of her sister’s tastes, and the pair frequently end up arguing. Yet, even though she’d be embarrassed to admit it out loud, time after time we see Jack looking out for her little sister. She reminds their dad when it’s Rachel’s birthday, and hides the Ashley Too doll when she gets worried it’s having a negative effect on her sister. Jack is even the one to watch Rachel’s performance at the talent contest while their oblivious father is arguing about mousetraps with a janitor.

Also worth the price of the admission is the Ashley Too doll. At first she’s just the peppy and sparkly representation of everything Ashley O is meant to be, but later in the episode a limiter is removed which allows her access to Ashley’s complete personality – warts and all. This new Ashley Too is foul-mouthed, direct, and a lot more fun than her anodyne, sanitised self.

When it comes to what felt like the message of the episode, however, here I was less impressed. The story seemed to veering towards what it might be like to create the perfect pop idol, and how convenient it would be not to have to have a real human being behind the manufactured image. But this is something that already exists – just take one look at the like of Hatsune Miku and her fellow Vocaloids. The concept of having a pop star who isn’t a real person has been around for years.

There are two interesting directions that the episode could have explored. One is the sense of ownership and even fetishization directed towards pop idols – for example, fans who construct an image of their beloved idols as ‘pure maidens’, and become angry and aggressive towards them when they get married, have children or simply turn out to be sexually active human beings. The disparity between the real Ashley O and her on-stage persona would have provided a good way to explore this.

Elsewhere, Jack’s disdain for Rachel’s mainstream interests could tie into an exploration of another cultural phenomenon – the societal devaluation of anything primarily loved by teenage girls. I’m not entirely sure how Black Mirror would go about weaving this into its narrative, but it struck me as a more interesting route to take than what we actually saw in the episode. But then again, perhaps Charlie Brooker isn’t the right person to write this story.

Final Thoughts

Black Mirror season five may have sparked some interesting thoughts, but it seems that even these weren’t the ones that the creators intended. Season five is always a weak point in the life on any show, and indeed these three episodes just don’t quite live up to the heights reached in seasons three and four.

Addendum: in past Black Mirror reviews I’ve tried to point out some of the many hidden references to earlier episodes. This time around, I’m just going to link to this Radio Times article, which has already uncovered far more Easter eggs than I noticed.

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