Wednesday, 31 January 2018

REVIEW: Black Mirror Season Four

That least festive of series, Black Mirror, returned over the New Year, and I have made gradual progress working through it. This is a series that I cannot, without powerful willpower, watch all in one go. Too bleak, too thought-provoking. I'm pleased to see the variety of styles and themes that made season three so interesting continues, with the expanded run allowing Brooker and his co-creators more scope to try different things. I decided to watch the episodes in the suggested order this time, primarily because the first episode was the one I was most looking forward to watching.


I've written at more length about this episode, and its antecedents in Star Trek and The Orville, here, but in terms of a quick review, I have to call this one an absolute winner. It's true that you'll get more out of this episode if you're a Trek fan, but there's much, much more to it than just being a bleakly comedic riff on the old franchise. This is about as far as Black Mirror has gone into the fantastical side of science fiction, primarily because of the Trek-like virtual world, but also because of the unlikely technological developments it shows. (Being able to duplicate someone, right down to their complete memories and personality, in a digital world from a DNA sample, is ludicrous pseudoscience in the finest Trek tradition.) Huge plaudits to the entire cast, but especially Jesse Plemons as the sadistic Daly, convincingly sympathetic until the moment he reveals himself to be a monster. Cristin Milioti and Jimmi Simpson are also brilliant. This is a strong story of the abuse of power, combining horror and humour to tell a stonking sci-fi tale. There's even a pretty uplifting finale, which is nice, considering the harrowing stuff that is to follow.


Milder on first glance, this is, to me, far more disturbing than the opening episode. It's the episodes that tread closer to real life, that you can actually believe might someday happen, that disquiet me most. It's entirely believable that not only would a concerned parent microchip her child (something that's actually been talked about by pet-chipper developers), but that they would willingly extend that to watching everything they see and do, even censoring their experiences. This is a much more predictable episode than most, but that's not to its detriment, with events taking us down a horribly inevitable path. Rosemarie DeWitt excels as the overly protective mother Marie, making her sympathetic even as she bulldozers down her daughter's boundaries and acts with utter stupidity. By the end of it, you feel incredibly sorry for her, in spite of her bringing on absolutely everything that happens here herself. Brenna Harding is also brilliant as her daughter Sara, although it's pretty much impossible to believe she's a fifteen-year-old girl. It's a powerful reminder that young people need to experience the world in their own way if they are to become functional adults, and is a generally uncomfortable experience of a life with a complete lack of privacy and respect. Jodie Foster was a great choice for director, and gives the episode an indie-ish feel that contrasts strongly with the season opener.


Bloody hell, this one's grim. They like to keep the nasty ones for the middle of the season, don't they? Something of a companion piece to "Arkangel," once again exploring how invading people's own experiences and memories crosses a very important line. The difference here is that the people who have their memories explored accept the process, and it's done in order to help solve crimes and assign responsibility for incidents. Andrea Riseborough is brilliant in this, but then, she's brilliant in everything, and becomes pretty terrifying here as her character Mia becomes ever more desperate in her need to cover up her role in a manslaughter. It's a slightly frustrating episode, with Mia being spectacularly stupid, agreeing to the memory viewer even when given the opportunity to back out (no one reads the T's and C's, do they?) Of course, you could view it differently, as her willingly delve further into murder and allowing herself to be compromised so as to give herself an excuse to kill, but Riseborough doesn't play it like that. No, she just digs herself further into her own grave. Kiran Sonia Sawar is also hugely impressive as the unfortunate Shazia. It's nice to have a cast of Scots and Northern English after two America-based episodes, although this was filmed in Iceland rather than the initially proposed Scotland. The overall feel of the episode is more like one of those Nordic crime dramas than anything else: cold, bitter and snowy. The ending works well, though.


As with series three, an unremittingly bleak episode is followed by a lighter, romantic episode. This is the "San Junipero" slot, so it's forever going to be compared to that episode. To begin with, I wasn't particularly keen on this one. The idea of a dating app that pairs you up with people for pre-decided periods is a great idea for an allegory on modern dating, but the situation is so artificial it's hard to accept that anyone would stand for it. People will stay with someone they hate for a year out of some obligation to their family, or because they're trying to recapture something they once had. No one would ever do that because an app told them to. The episode gets better as it goes on, though, as the true nature of the environment is revealed. Frank even guesses the entire truth when he's chatting with Amy, but it's thrown out in such a glib way that it's only as more clues become apparent that the truth of the simulation becomes clear. It's all signposted quite clearly, and the similarity to previous VR-based episodes makes it feel kind of inevitable,  but it's played out in a very satisfying way. It helps that the two leads, Joe Cole and Georgina Campbell, are so likable and have such easy chemistry, right up to that final scene. Still, it's no "San Junipero."


Exceptionally good - one of the best episodes of Black Mirror yet. Brooker continues to try different styles and genres for the series and this is entirely unlike any of the episodes we've had so far. It's a much more straightforward story than we usually get, a very simple tale of technology gone bad. Wisely, Brooker keeps the history of this post-apocalyptic Britain mysterious; we don't know if the dogs have caused the collapse of society or if they have simply taken advantage of it. The dog is modestly terrifying; they could have designed it to look mean, bristling with weapons, but instead its unassuming until it activates and is completely impassive even when hunting Bella down. It's all the more frightening for it. The fact that it the dog is based on the very real BigDog system developed by robotics firm Boston Dynamics, which was apparently turned down by the US military purely because it was too noisy.

An episode like this wouldn't work at all if it wasn't realised well, and this is almost perfect. Maxine Peake, one of our best actresses, carries almost all of the episode on her own, with long stretches free of dialogue, and is absolutely enthralling throughout. Combined with stunning direction by David Slade and a powerful and effective score, this is a remarkable piece of television. The ending is devastating.


Although Black Mirror episodes can be watched in any order, this time the final episode in the set actually feels like a finale, or at least, a straight line under the series so far. If this does turn out to be the end of the series altogether, it would stand well as a final episode, but equally if we do get the hoped for fifth season, it would work perfectly well just as another installment. There are supposed to be Easter eggs for every episode so far in "Black Museum," and while I'm not well-versed enough in the first two seasons to spot everything (I urgently need to go back for a re-watch) there were plenty of little nods that I spotted. Does this mean that, as some viewers have concluded, all of Black Mirror actually takes place in the same fictional universe? I find it hard to square up some of the versions of the world we've seen so far, but seeing that most episodes are quite self-contained (or entirely virtual), it's not impossible. ("Metalhead" would, naturally, have to take place after everything else, or at least everything set in the British Isles.)

This episode definitely takes place in the same universe as "San Junipero," giving us three short stories that together chart the progress of the one-day miraculous technology that will allow true life after death in an immersive virtual environment. It's a nice change to have an anthology episode - only "White Christmas" has done this before - and it keeps everything pacy and interesting. It's a shame, though, that we couldn't have "San Junipero" as a single happy story. All technological and social developments exist on the back of exploitation and callous experimentation, and it turns out that San Junipero's development from the early day's at St. Juniper's hospital is no different. (Also on the subject of comparing the two stories, the use of Sandy Shaw's "Always Something There to Remind Me" is a stroke of genius that beats even the use of "Heaven is a Place on Earth.")

The three quite different stories are cleverly used to chart separate events in the incremental evolution of the mind-copying technology. The first part, based on the unpublished short story "Pain Addict" by Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller fame), is the most viscerally unpleasant, but also the least horrifying in its implication. Addiction we can understand, even if it is an addiction to something as extreme as severe pain. I found the actual graphic mutilation scenes, although far tamer than what appears on cinema screens, very difficult to watch, while my lady Suz, an unrepentant chilli fiend, loved the analogy of wanting hotter and hotter chillies to get the same hit. At least with the damaged Dr. Lawson (an excellent turn from Daniel Lepaine), there is initially a good reason for his poor decision. The other stories just make you scream, "Why would you do that?!"

The middle third was the most unsettling for me. It's perfectly understandable why someone would want to continue their existence, even in a very limited form, vicariously through their partner, if the alternative was a vegetative state, but it's also inevitably going to turn into some kind of personal hell for both of them. But the idea of downloading someone's mind into a toy, unable to move, barely able to communicate, is absolutely horrifying. Carrie (Alexandra Roach) is left with an even worse existence than her post-car crash coma. The revelation that she's still "alive," trapped in legal limbo as an exhibit in the museum, is just chilling.

The final part brings everything to a climax. The first two stories have blackly comical moments, but this is purely a dissection of human cruelty. It's no coincidence, I'm certain, that it's the Black Museum. Clayton Leigh (a good performance on limited material by Babs Olusanmokun) is a black man, (probably) innocent of the murder he was executed for. The idea that a holographic copy of someone should be kept in a cage and repeatedly tortured is appalling, but also very believable. People can be spectacularly cruel, and it takes very little to dehumanise someone to the point where their suffering can be viewed as nothing more than entertainment. Of course he had to be black. It's a non-too-subtle allegory on the treatment of black people in America still today.

Holding everything together are our museum owner and his lone customer. These could have been thankless roles, but they are absolutely crucial and pull this episode together into a powerful revenge tale. Letitia Wright - Gyanese-British playing American playing British - is the only likeable presence in the entire episode, right up to her hard-as-nails turn at the end. English actor Douglas Hodge also portrays a realistic American, with his Rolo Haynes being a sort of sci-fi snake oil salesman, utterly amoral and completely without conscience. It's unusual for Black Mirror episodes to feature proper villains; most of the time, even the worst characters are misaligned protagonists. Even Captain Daly in "USS Callister" was sympathetic in a sad, warped kind of way. Rolo, however, is utterly reprehensible, making Nish's final act of vengeance all the more satisfying. Rolo is left screaming, trapped in electronic amber for her amusement, and we cheer his comeuppance. I guess we all have some of that cruelty within us.

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