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Media Review: February 2017

This month, we take a look at the original anthology series Black Mirror.

Black Mirror
created by Charlie Brooker
Zeppotron, 2011 – current
Streaming on Netflix.

The easiest way to begin a review of the brilliant British science fiction series Black Mirror (originally on Channel 4 in the UK, now streaming on Netflix) is to acknowledge its place in TV history as a descendant of other innovative genre anthology shows. After all, Black Mirror does for the Information Age what The Twilight Zone did for Cold War hysteria and nuclear paranoia, and it slots in comfortably with other creepy ancestors like The Outer Limits and Night Gallery. But a simpler, perhaps more appropriate parallel may also suffice as introduction: Each season of Black Mirror is like an issue of a great science fiction magazine, particularly one with a focus on near-future tales that examine the complex, usually dark aspects of technology.

Like The Twilight Zone, Black Mirror multitasks, mixing in cultural critique with its slick SFnal concepts, jaw-dropping reveals, and intriguing story structures. But whereas The Twilight Zone had a broad genre approach, Black Mirror’s is more specifically centered on futurism and information technology. The series title alludes to the ubiquitous screens of our modern, telecommunications-dominated world, and how they reflect on us as a species. Indeed, every episode—no matter how futuristic on the surface—directly addresses the issues of today, often by extrapolating a few years down the road from developing tech trends in classic “if-this-goes-on” fashion. While the tactics of the horror genre are often deployed, it’s ultimately core science fiction that could be sub-categorized as post-cyberpunk or Mundane SF.

To say that the show’s viewpoint is pessimistic would be putting it mildly. A line of dialogue from its first audacious episode, “The National Anthem,” sets the tone. “My God, this planet!” exclaims an exasperated newsman while strategizing his channel’s coverage of a royal kidnapping—for along with the abduction of a princess comes a vulgar ransom demand made to the prime minister (Rory Kinnear) that rivets the depraved attention of the nation. While this episode will be remembered most for its ghastly plot conceit, where it truly shines is in its insightful, multifaceted look into how technology plays a role in the complex affair: from the way the ransom demand is made, to how the story is covered in the press, to how the government attempts to deceive the kidnappers and rescue the princess, and how all those different interests connect. Best, though, is the way it shows how instant communication shapes our lives, and the collective psychological effect it has on us as a society. It’s an ugly watch, but the point is unforgettably made.

That episode establishes a trademark grimness, but the follow-up, “Fifteen Million Merits,” injects the series’ earliest hopeful flourishes, which periodically lend a certain dark beauty to the chilling parade of nightmares. The scenario is dystopian, depicting an underground society where the unfortunate masses ride stationary bikes endlessly to earn credits and power a crass, heartless new form of digital capitalism. But there are tiny little rays of light in this society, as its citizens seek personal connection and something genuine in their lives. Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) is just another disaffected drone until he falls for newcomer Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) and decides to bankroll her ascendancy to stardom on the show Hot Shots, a rare route out of obscurity to the wealthy elite. While this episode makes late missteps with on-the-nose messaging, it’s still the jewel of Black Mirror’s early seasons for its magical worldbuilding and piercing critique of Western consumerism and the systemic inequalities of capitalism.

If the remaining early episodes don’t quite match those heights, it’s not for want of trying. Black Mirror is a restless, inventive series, and even when it isn’t firing on all cylinders, it’s always going to different, interesting places, often in riveting fashion. Perhaps “The Entire History of You,” which explores the pitfalls of ubiquitous memory-recording tech, plays out in an expected fashion, but it’s compellingly executed. The same can be said for “Be Right Back,” in which a young artist (Hayley Atwell) copes with the death of her partner by compiling his online activity into a posthumous software companion. These episodes are immersive and the production quality, performances, and visual storytelling are consistently excellent. Even at its least sure-handed—season two’s erratic “The Waldo Effect,” in which a frustrated comedian reluctantly leverages an animated character against the banalities of politics—has an impressive grip on the artifice of the business and possesses an odd, sideways prescience about recent Western political chaos.

My personal favorite from season two is the brutal “White Bear,” another episode penned by series creator Charlie Brooker, which returns to one of his recurring themes: the cruel way modern communications are leveraged as a vicious court of public opinion. An amnesiac (Lenora Crichlow) awakens in a perplexing world to find herself the target of masked sociopaths, while silent spectators stand by to watch her run for her life. She finds an ally (Tuppence Middleton) who helps her survive the scenario and gradually recovers her memory—which, of course, only makes things worse. Characterized by kinetic, violent action, “White Bear” is one of the show’s darkest, most scathing commentaries about mob mentality on the internet, and in our culture. It contains some truly surprising twists, and like “Fifteen Million Merits,” displays Brooker’s strength for science fictional metaphor.

The final Channel 4 episode is “White Christmas,” a one-off holiday special. It’s a cleverly layered contraption about two men working together in a remote cabin, and after several years working together, one of them (a perfectly cast Jon Hamm) finally tries to get to know his colleague (Rafe Spall). The stories-within-stories format is deftly constructed and Hamm’s gregarious salesmanship lends an appalling kind of humor to its sick ideas. As it weaves together tales of social media abuse, artificial intelligence, and a horrifying Internet of Things, it builds a deep sense of existential dread.

Had it ended there, Black Mirror would have stood as a triumph of SF TV. But Netflix stepped in to revive it, rescuing another critical darling for a turn in the streaming spotlight. The show’s third season debuted this past October, just in time for reality to catch up with its disturbing, finger-on-the-pulse sensibility. It opens weakly, alas, with the strident “Nosedive,” which envisions a future in which social media interaction has evolved into a ruthless reputation-economy caste system. It’s attractively produced, but once the rules are set, it never manages to deviate from an unsurprising trajectory. “Playtest” steps it up a notch: Wyatt Russell delivers an energetic performance as a stranded overseas traveler who lands a gig playtesting augmented reality games. Seasoned SF fans will probably see where this one is going, too, but the journey is considerably more satisfying. Incremental improvement continues with the third episode, “Shut Up and Dance,” a nasty, kinetic adventure in which an awkward teenager (Alex Lawther) is victimized in a sinister ransomware attack. The subsequent demands placed on him by an anonymous hacker send him down a treacherous, life-shattering path. This one is a triumph of gripping execution, but unfortunately its compelling build-up doesn’t add up to a satisfying payoff.

Fortunately, season three more than makes up for its slow start in the second half of its six-episode run. The harrowing “Men Against Fire” follows a digitally augmented military unit in what appears to be a zombie apocalypse future, but there’s another, chilling layer to the scenario that speaks rather frankly to the dehumanizing nature of warfare and the twisted motives that sometimes fuel it. “Hated in the Nation,” meanwhile, is a feature-length mystery starring Kelly McDonald and Faye Marsay as a pair of London homicide cops who land a serial murder case involving hackers, hashtags, and mechanical insects. It’s a superbly crafted future procedural that I could see making the leap to a regular series, and it redeems the show’s pessimistic tendencies with a determined, hopeful denouement.

Speaking of hope, my favorite episode of the new season is “San Junipero,” which capitalizes on the series’ relentless darkness by wielding optimism like a weapon. In a California beach town in the 1980s, a nerdy young woman named Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) has a night out, and finds unexpected friendship with hip, outgoing Kelly (the luminous Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Yes, it’s a meet-cute, but because this is Black Mirror, things aren’t quite what they seem. The usual focus on dark subject matter doesn’t exactly go away in “San Junipero,” but its upbeat style and message is still a breath of fresh air. Perhaps technology has its uses, after all?

This show won’t be for everybody, and even those who love it may find it too intense to consume all in one go. Humanity is a deeply flawed species, yes; the degree to which Black Mirror insightfully tortures its characters to remind us of this can occasionally feel excessive. That said, in a Hollywood where science fiction is often twenty years or more behind the literature, Black Mirror is way ahead of the curve. It’s doing the difficult, important work of science fiction, and no other show on TV does it with such scope and ambition. Collectively, its episodes form an impressive artistic achievement, and for me, if it never filmed another hour, it would still rank easily among the best science fiction shows of all time.

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Christopher East

Christopher East

Christopher East is a writer, editor, reviewer, and avid consumer of science fiction, fantasy, and spy fiction. His stories have been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Cosmos, Interzone, Talebones, The Third Alternative, and a number of other speculative fiction publications. He’s attended the Clarion and Taos Toolbox writing workshops, and served for several years as the fiction editor for the futurism, science, and technology blog Futurismic. He blogs extensively about writing, fiction, film, television, music, comics, and more at www.christopher-east.com. Currently he lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works for an occupational and environmental health and safety consultancy.