I consider myself something of a luddite. Technology just scares me. So it's comforting to know that the anxiety which modernity instils in me is shared by the rest of the populace. There’s an interesting (if heavy handed) piece of dialogue in ‘Playtest’, the second episode of the new series of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror which sums up this fear. ‘Singularity; it’s when computers outsmart man like women did years ago’. So the tone is set.
Like The Twilight Zone or Tales of the Unexpected, Black Mirror is an anthology show. This new Netflix series contains six vignettes connected only by their subject matter; technology and communication. ‘Nosedive’ predicts a world where the ratings system of social media defines one’s social presence. ‘Playtest’ imagines a VR horror video game which learns how to scare you. ‘Shut Up and Dance’ shows us a vulnerable young boy who becomes a puppet when his most intimate secrets are stolen. The synthesis of state-of-the-art technology and the military is the theme of ‘Men against Fire’, while ‘San Junipero’ tells an optimistic tale of endless love in 1980’s California. Finally ‘Hated in the Nation’, the feature length finale, is a tale of social media, crowd culture and (bizarrely) the extinction of bees.
It’s difficult to discuss Black Mirror because often Charlie Brooker relies on shock reveals and twists to cement his narrative. In this sense, many episodes are formulaic. Our protagonists are often blank slates: a vulnerable teenager, a soldier new to the field, a rookie detective. They learn of the intricacies of Brooker’s projected dystopic utopias with the audience. I found myself repeating out loud every time an episode introduced its central character, "I wonder how this person’s life is going to fall apart." But monotony is avoided thanks to the show’s frightening creativity. ‘Nosedive’s future is masterfully realised; social infrastructure centring on what is essentially Facebook creates a world populated by a tense lack of genuine humanity. ‘Shut Up and Dance’ kidney-punched me with its harrowing final scene and prompted me to put blu-tac over my webcam. ‘Hated in the Nation’ was far too long for what its story had to offer, but any piece of television which remains believable despite the presence of a swarm of robot bees deserves commendation in my opinion.
‘Playtest’ had a cheap ending and nothing to say about the legitimately interesting topic of virtual reality. ‘Men against Fire’ was rushed, cold and you could see the twist coming a mile away. But a bad episode of Black Mirror does not equate to a bad piece of television. The standards set for these episodes are so high that they disappoint simply by underperforming – this says a lot in the show’s defence. The standout of the series is ‘San Junipero’, where Brooker breaks all his own rules. The piece is character based, a love story, it is set in 1980’s California and it has an optimistic ending. One hour of joy out of a six and a half hour panic attack.
Brooker seems very concerned about the near future. Black Mirror’s strength is conveying this worrisome feeling. Every episode made me realise how vulnerable we are to our digital shackles – shackles which we often consent to wearing. You can imagine my anxiety when I realised after finishing the season that I had sat in the same position for six hours consensually staring at a distorted reflection of a worst-case-scenario view of the all too near future. Black Mirror is quite brilliant, but worrying in how close to the bone it cuts.