"If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side-effects?”
Charlie Brooker (Writer and creator of Black Mirror)
Yes, it’s back! We are finally treated to yet another season of Black Mirror – the show in which many philosophical themes such as reality, consciousness, and the ethical implications of such possible (or impossible) advancements in technology are played out in fictitious stories. Its audacious predictions of tomorrows world, along with the entertaining circumstances, leave many pondering as to whether such realities could ever become actualised. But as well as dazzling viewers with the possibility of ‘what if’, we are also asking the question ‘should we?’. Our conscience is certainly put to the test every episode, each packed with emotion and often great acting. And what’s convenient about Black Mirror is that each episode is stand alone, an individual story which can be watched without the requirement to watch any other (although there are some hidden Easter eggs which loosely tie a few of the episodes together).
So how does season five compare to the rest? Well, with so much hype and expectation around its release, I expected Charlie Brooker (the genius creator behind the UK/US show) to deliver something really special. But this is hardly Black Mirror at its best; my overall verdict is more of a thumbs down than a thumbs up. Nevertheless, I have provided some colourful commentary on the new episodes, discussed where they might have gone wrong, and saluted some of my favourite episodes from the past. So, without revealing too many spoilers, here goes…
Striking Vipers (season 5)
As a retro video game fan, it’s a treat to see Street Fighter (or, ahem, ‘Striking Vipers’) vividly come to life in this episode. The visual attempt to present complex fight scenes in the style of a video game certainly feels more successful than any film adaptation of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat from the 90’s.
However, as for the actual VR technology, I am dubious towards its overall plausibility. There is simply too much expectation placed on the audience to believe that technology capable of such highly advanced sensory experience would not be i) used more constructively, ii) extremely expensive and heavily advertised (the protagonist seems underwhelmed by the game when he receives it as a gift), or iii) impossible to achieve.
The plot takes an unexpected turn to say the least when the characters start to engage in more worldly activities within the game. Surely the makers of Striking Vipers would have prohibited such behaviours, right? Or at least make it a selling point! As one of the characters is actually married, the audience is expected to question his behaviour as ethical. The whole kerfuffle reminded me of a plot line in the Channel 4 series Humans in which the father of a family has intercourse with an extremely lifelike robot. We are left with an ethical dilemma - has he committed adultery?
Striking Vipers is undoubtedly jam-packed with an array of issues bubbling beneath the surface, and perhaps the episode is too short to conduct a fair analysis of such complex themes, including infidelity, sexual identity, and personal identity. However, I would still give this one a watch, simply for the colourful presentation of VR alongside the unexpected twist halfway into the episode.
Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too (season 5)
Having avoided Miley Cyrus for most of my life, I was pleasantly surprised by her performance in this quirky episode. The plot is centred around a fictional pop star named Ashley-O, played by Cyrus, who is unhappy with her musical career which is dictated by her evil manager/aunt. A young dedicated fan comes to her rescue in a full on teen-movie style extravaganza.
The story is a lot of fun and the whole episode certainly feels like a short movie. It perhaps pushes its boundaries when a tiny robot suddenly embodies a version of Ashley-O’s consciousness due to a technical glitch. The robotic replica is simply far too much a big deal to have it played out so easily in a B-line story. Does the robot live forever? And why is this not the robot’s main concern - its own bizarre existence in plastic casing. Identity conundrums in philosophy are prevalent - what is it that makes you you?
Am I now a converted Miley Cyrus fan? The answer is, no. But it did make me wonder whether the episode is semi-autobiographical. Cyrus did take a 180 degree turn in her own musical career when she famously went from Disney princess to twerking disaster. Wherever the inspiration came from, this episode certainly has its moments which will have you either laughing out loud or simply amazed at the special effects.
Smithereens (season 5)
Probably my least favourite of the three, Smithereens feels more like a BBC drama than a Black Mirror episode. This one is much more character focused, and the tension throughout seems to be the driving force behind the story - always wondering what the emotionally disturbed protagonist is going to do next.
Whilst not being your usual ‘glimpse into the future’ episode, the observation of social media will provoke much thought. Did you know the average person checks their phone at least 30 times a day?! Perhaps we have overlooked the addictive nature of technology and its attempt to prey on our innocent psychological disposition.
Production on this episode probably cost next to nothing, so don’t expect anything too glitzy. But the ending is frustratingly brilliant. Typical of Black Mirror, we are left with a cliff hanger as to what happens next which will almost certainly leave you shouting at your TV screen.
Some honourable mentions...
San Junipero (season 3)
This episode begins in a small beach town called San Junipero. Young people parade the streets ready for a night out; the place looks buzzing. But something feels off. We are intrigued by the neon lights and purple sky. We want to know more. This is most definitely the 80s. But why, how?
You can’t help but fall in love with the characters that emerge – the fun and beautiful Kelly alongside the shy and timid Yorkie. And as the story unfolds, the concept becomes clearer. The question is, would you pass over? I shall say no more.
This will always remain one of my favourites, simply because of its reflection on existence. And the homage to various decades is also a lot fun for those with a quirk for nostalgia. If you haven’t seen it, this one really is Black Mirror at its best in terms of imagination and creativity. And oh, it has a positive ending which, let’s face it, is quite rare for the series.
The Entire History of You (season 1)
Ever since watching this first episode, I was immediately hooked on Black Mirror. Imagine wearing contact lenses that video record everything. What would be the implications? The Entire History of You is pretty much just that, except an actual implant does the recording rather than contact lenses, and we have an advanced ability to access these recordings (or memories) immediately on a TV screen with the ability to forward, rewind, and save.
The seemingly natural use of the technology in the episode makes the concept plausible. Cameras are getting smaller, and the Facebook style setting is probably the road we’d head down too if such a gizmo was ever actualised.
But, just like the real Facebook, much drama can ensue. The episode tells a story of a broken couple whose relationship is damaged because of footage that one partner doesn’t particularly favour. Definitely an episode not to miss, and a great place to start your Black Mirror journey if you are newbie. Happy watching!