Simulation Fatigue in Black Mirror

Black Mirror needs to reinvent itself. The sooner, the better.

Don’t get me wrong. The fourth season has cleverly written, beautifully directed episodes throughout, as usual. It’s still the prime science-fiction anthology, and one of the most relevant TV series, even if contemporary science-fiction writers and futurologists already explored most of its ideas. The problem is, the new season didn’t have any new ideas, at all.

At this point, most episodes of Black Mirror boil down to the same two premises:

  • Invasive technology will destroy our privacy
  • Our digital copies will live in existential nightmare

Five out of six episodes are variations of these themes, and both have been done before, with more subtlety. In this regard, I’m quite disappointed.

I wouldn’t say Black Mirror was always ahead of its time in its previous seasons, but it was strangely relevant when it first aired. And even in its expanded third season we saw episodes like Nosedive that addressed new problems. I was hoping to see new themes this season, such as warfare economy, cryptocurrency, augmented reality (everyday uses), politics, migration, climate change, prosthetics, even space travel… I could go on, but my point is: enough with neural implants and simulated realities! We get it.

Yet, these episodes are good pieces of film-making. Great, even. Black Mirror can still be considered as must-see TV. I was entertained, my mind was racing with each episode. But at the same time, the series didn’t quite progress in a way I expected it to.

That said, a short review of each episode:

USS Callister is more interested in its set pieces than a coherent narrative, but it’s fine. I guess. It does the White Christmas-thing with its protagonists, the simulated reality is now a Star Trek-esque adventure controlled by a tyrannical gamer, with unlimited power over the trapped digital personalities. It’s fun and nightmarish at the same time, it vaguely comments on toxic fandom, but nothing exactly poignant. It uses clever narrative tricks, but overall I found this episode quite dumb. If you examine it closely, you’ll find that the plot falls apart really quick, and most of its moments are really-really far fetched and unscientific, including the DNA-machine and the video game itself (they don’t work like this, and never will).

Arkangel is a more traditional Black Mirror episode about a device that lets parents track their children, essentially seeing what they see. As a father, I found the implications here really horrific, but objectively, this idea is nothing new, even in the context of the series (the device operates almost exactly like the one in The Entire History of You). Fortunately, it does have new things to say about control, parenting, the consequences of growing up in a digital bubble-wrap, so it’s one of the better episodes. Side note: nice to see Jodie Foster directing an episode.

Crocodile is a cold, elegant crime thriller (with all the trademarks of director John Hillcoat), and it might be the most cinematic episode in the entire series. It’s an intricate tale about accidents and murders, and a device that extracts memories from the mind of witnesses. The final solution is kind of awkward, but it’s an effective and chilling tale of compulsive violence – where scenes of implied violence are more powerful than what is actually shown.

Hang the DJ explores relationships curated by machines and dating apps, it’s an adorable romantic story, and that’s all it is, really. All aspects of a relationship are on display here, the story is told in a playful tone, and the protagonists are likable enough. Its twist and resolution is less interesting, but it works as an allegorical tale as well, in a way.

Metalhead is a competent survival horror short film with hints of Terminator and Treed Murray (I know), featuring a military-purpose robotic animal straight out of Metal Gear Solid 4. The direction is solid, intimate and tense (I wonder why movies like Alien: Covenant forget this tone and pacing, this  approach would be perfect for them), but its story isn’t about technology, nor about society, and kind of misses the point of why we watch Black Mirror. Its world building and its technology implies a broader narrative, sure, but the script isn’t rich or complex enough to give a better sense of what’s happening. If there’s such a thing as filler episode in an anthology series, this might be it, however well made.

Black Museum might be my favorite episode in this season. It’s nothing new, although it uses refreshing techniques, such as an anthology-in-an-anthology format, more black comedy, more body horror, more existential dread, turned up to eleven. As if the show suddenly realized how far fetched its ideas can be (can seem?), giving us a sleazy entertainer to hover over our experience, commenting on it every step. It’s delightful, and the framing narrative has a good arc as well. It juggles lots of styles and genres, the first segment is something out of a Clive Barker novel, where a doctor starts gaining pleasure from inflicting pain, the second is a sort of tragicomedy where the consciousness of a wife gets transplanted into the head of the husband (the shenanigans!), and finally a gruesome tale of eternal digital punishment. Again, nothing revolutionary, but this might be the first self-aware episode in the whole run with its over the top theatrics. Also, it now implies that all of Black Mirror’s episodes are set in the same universe, which can be problematic from several reasons, but for now it’s a cute reference, and kind of deflects criticism against recurring gadgets.

To conclude, the fourth season is far from bad, but the audience will definitely feel fatigue from its neural implants and simulated realities. There’s so much more to explore about today’s and tomorrow’s society and technology, it’s  a bit embarrassing how safe and familiar these episodes were. I think Charlie Brooker needs to let more writers contribute to the anthology – that’s actually the point of an anthology. With Netflix, more episodes were produced in a smaller time frame, and it’s never a good thing when approaching diverse topics like these.

Changing Black Mirror seems inevitable if it wants to stay relevant and true to itself. The question is, how will it evolve? Black Museum certainly seems to wrap up everything that came before, but is it the last episode of Black Mirror, or is it the last episode of Black Mirror as we know it?  I certainly hope that we’ll see more episodes, but I also hope that next time they will be wild, new, different, powerful, just like the first few episodes, once upon a time.

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