Over the last two decades, the exponential rise in technological advancement - regularly termed the digital revolution - remains unparalleled. As citizens of the 21st century, we've seen the birth of social media, fuelled the dominance of self-clicked portraits (aka selfies) in digital photography, witnessed the power of the Web in sparking political change, advocated for a technology that isolates us from reality (hint: virtual), and regularly spend more time pondering, scrutinising, and prioritising the launch of another generation of a bar-shaped consumer device more than the candidate in a general election.
And even after all this, the next breakthrough always feels right around the corner – be it the adoption of gigabit-speed Internet, miniaturisation of electronics, or fully-automated autonomous vehicles. In Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror – an anthology series that showcases the potential negative effects of new technologies – though, the future is already here. And it’s never good.
The show isn’t new to the scene. Black Mirror started in 2011 on Channel 4 in the UK, and has aired a total of seven episodes over two series and one Christmas special. Its third series, releasing October 21 in its entirety on Netflix, is a big step then what with an order of six new episodes. As before, every single episode inhabits a world of its own, with its own cynical and satirical take on a new technology.
That isn’t always the case. One of the reasons Black Mirror feels uneasy to digest as a viewer has to do with how probable and logical its events can seem, even outside its fictional reality. Take its first-ever episode “The National Anthem” back in 2011, where the British Prime Minister is forced into an embarrassing situation post the kidnapping of a royal family member. Or the third episode of series two, “The Waldo Moment”, which had an animated blue bear run in an election as a joke – something that now serves as an eerie allegory to Donald Trump’s run for the US presidency.
This time around, that episode – the one that could theoretically happen in the world we know – is the third in “Shut Up and Dance”. Directed by James Watkins, and written by William Bridges and Brooker himself, it stars Alex Lawther as 19-year-old Kenny and Jerome Flynn (Game of Thrones’ Bronn) as Hector. The two strangers are paired together at the behest of unseen individuals giving them commands over the phone, after both are hacked in comprising situations.
To keep hold of their secrets, Kenny and Hector are forced to do task after task, which tests their patience, strength, resolve, and the lengths they are willing to stretch themselves to keep the slate clean. And as with thriller shows of this nature – Black Mirror has oft been called The Twilight Zone for the Internet age – there is a great character reveal in the closing minutes that casts new light on the events you had already witnessed.
At the other end of the reality spectrum is episode two “Playtest”, which finds Wyatt Rusell (22 Jump Street, Everybody Wants Some!!) playing a slightly dim-witted American named Cooper Redfield who sets off on a world trip to get away from trouble at home. While in London, Redfield signs up to help test out an in-development survival horror video game, which plays out in real world conditions while drawing from your memories. Based on that premise, director Dan Trachtenberg – who seems to have a knack for creating pulsating horror dramas, see this year’s gripping 10 Cloverfield Lane – goes wild with the concept and story provided by Brooker.
It helps that Trachtenberg is adept at building up the tension, and the writing’s twists and turns are capable of ferrying you through the episode, albeit while relying on some well-worn genre tropes that can come off as a cheap trick. If there’s one problem with how Playtest unfolds, it’s that in its tendency to outsmart the viewer, it goes too far with the capabilities of the technology on show.
This is a much bigger problem in the series' fifth episode, "Men Against Fire", directed by Jakob Verbruggen, who also worked on the two final episodes in House of Cards’ fourth season. In a post-war world, Stripes (Malachi Kirby) and Raiman (Madeline Brewer) are part of a new breed of soldiers who are tasked with protecting a nearby band of villagers from a subset known as the Roaches. The latter are portrayed as “feral mutants” with diseases, whose hitting of food rations renders them useless for use to anyone. On Stripes' first mission in the field, he gets two kills and is heralded as a hero by his peers. But an incident during the mission at the farmhouse causes him to have lapses in concentration and problems with memory.
Men Against Fire is the weakest of the lot here, and much of that is down to how its central mechanic feels like an overstretched gimmick at times, and not a logical extension of certain events. It's tough to talk about a Black Mirror episode without spoiling its central mystery, but even the themes here - the theory of evolution, advanced ideological warfare, and voluntarily self-delusion - have been discussed better in the past, if only not all in one place. Even with the likes of Michael Kelly (House of Cards' phenomenal Doug Stamper) playing the powers that-be, too much of the episode relies on exposition and less on visual storytelling.
In that regard, the episode prior – “San Junipero” – starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis is an absolute delight, and a strong contender for the ‘Season 3 Favourite’ for many, given the emotional chords it tugs at. It begins in 1987, with a poster of horror-comedy cult classic The Lost Boys hanging above a neon-lit night club, and Belinda Carlisle’s all-time pop hit Heaven Is a Place on Earth blaring off car speakers.
When Davis’ Yorkie first walks on screen, she seems uneasy and out of her comfort zone, unable to mill with the mid-20s crowd that populates the place. It’s only when Mbatha-Raw’s Kelly uses her to get out of a sticky situation with a guy and takes a liking to her that Yorkie begins to open up, though she’s quick to recede after sticking out like a sore thumb on the dance floor.
During its opening quarter, San Junipero seems completely unlike a quintessential Black Mirror episode – which all seem to involve a futuristic technology. There is one here as well, and even though the episode starts to give away itself only 20 minutes in, it's a joy to watch the mystery and story unfold over the rest of the hour. A lot of that is down to great acting from the duo of Mbatha-Raw and Davis, whose raw power and contained youthfulness respectively, are wonderful to behold.
San Junipero is also the only episode in the new series that sees a returning director – Owen Harris also helmed season two’s opener, “Be Right Back”, which recreated an individual’s personality using his social media communication after his death.
Social media as an entity, and the power it wields, forms an essential part of the two final Black Mirror episodes in the third series: the first episode “Nosedive”, and the sixth and final “Hated in the Nation”. The former comes from the minds of Parks and Recreation duo, co-creator Michael Schur and actress Rashida Jones, along with Brooker – with directing duties being handled by Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice). Brooker is the sole writer on the latter, with James Hawes (Penny Dreadful) as director.
Talking thematically, they represent the two sides of the same coin as both explore social media and how it can change our society for the worse. In Nosedive, society has moved to a stage where it’s become completely acceptable to rate people on a star-rating system after every interaction. While a similar concept – Yelp for people called Peeple failed massively in our world – it’s taken off in Nosedive, and is central to workplace talk, eating out and even where you’re allowed to live. Hence, in a bid to keep up their rating, everyone behaves as a goody two-shoes with each other.
Hated in the Nation is much more familiar, a world where people say whatever they like hiding behind their screens. Anonymity allows individuals to be their worst selves, the episode notes, and it not only deals with the wrath of online harassment, but how the ones perpetuating it claim innocence since it’s impersonal.
Both episodes focus on entirely different scenarios. Nosedive is a personal story, with Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World) as Lacie, present in almost every frame. She’s living with her brother who craves real conversations, but she is completely focused on raising her profile, especially after she sets her sights on a beautiful house that needs you to be a minimum 4.5. Lacie is a 4.2.
While the exact mechanics of how a person’s rating is calculated are never made clear, the episode does enough to give you a gist. Lacie must covet highly-likeable “Prime” users – ones that are a 4.7 and above – in order to afford the house. As she struggles to make inroads, a terrific opportunity lands at her doorstep – her childhood friend Naomi is getting married, and she wants Lacie to be her maid of honour. Thrilled at the prospect, Howard’s character prepares an emotional speech that would help her whip 5-star votes from the guests.
But things are never so straightforward in Black Mirror, which loves revelling in dark and cynical satire. Nosedive’s mollycoddled world – despite being rosy and sunny on the surface – is a terrifying prospect, which turns the old adage of “be nice to everyone” on its head, and pushes it to the extreme. As much as we try our best to be polite, everyone has an off day. At some point in our lives, we’ve shared a terrible moment with a stranger whom we will never see again.
In Nosedive, that embarrassment stays with you forever, courtesy of the rating system. So midway through the episode when Lacie – rushing to get to the airport – runs into a stranger and spills coffee on the person, she gets handed a one-star rating. No apologies possible, and no “it’s okay” extended – just a cold, mathematical demeanour. It really makes you think twice about judging your Uber driver next time, seeing how the rating affects their livelihood as a result.
Social status has achieved the same level of prominence in Nosedive, effectively placing a blockade on actual conversations, and instead just present to service each other’s agenda. Saying whatever you feel like is probably the worst idea you can possibly have.
Thankfully, there are no such concerns for the people in Hated in the Nation. An online-hatred-fuelled social media experiment has ties to mysterious deaths, which ropes in Kelly MacDonald (No Country for Old Men, Boardwalk Empire) as a worn-out police detective Karin Parke and Faye Marsay (Game of Thrones’ the Waif) as her new-blood tech-savvy partner Chloe 'Blue' Perrine.
With the series finale, Brooker explores the problems with online bullying, the limitless greed for government surveillance, and – a very Black Mirror trope – the wide-reaching effects of a technological creation. The episode, running at an hour and 29 minutes, is pretty much a feature film in length. It’s also a strong contender for the third season’s best episode, with MacDonald and Marsay’s performance chops alongside Hawes’ steady direction, contributing to a taut thriller with one hell of a final punch.
Brooker’s writing ensures that the two strong female leads are never seen through the lens of their gender, even if – in other places – the episode does omit the explanation of a minor but crucial point that enables much of the disaster. Like other Black Mirror episodes, Hated in the Nation represents a vehemently cynical and dystopian viewpoint of what our future could be, 10 minutes from now. The only glimmer of hope it offers is with its open ending, which is bound to leave fans (us included) clamouring for more of Parke and Blue’s adventures.
Overall, this new crop of Black Mirror – which all but doubles the show’s total count before this – is better than ever. The six independent episodes touch upon dozens of themes, and while some misfire, most are relevant (and timely) for the world we inhabit. The show has long lived under the radar – in Netflix, Charlie Brooker has found a platform that can provide not just bigger production values, but a much wider reach. That, along with the quality of the third season might just help it breakout.
Black Mirror’s third series of six episodes will be available via Netflix on October 21.