Tomorrow (December 29, 2017) marks the anticipated return of Black Mirror – one of Netflix’s most acclaimed, and disturbing, series. Heralded as The Twilight Zone of the 21st century, Black Mirror is a foreboding anthology series, with each episode showcasing a different aspect of current technology and suggesting the dark possibilities and extremes of said technology when taken to the next level. They’re more cautionary tales than nightmare-fuel, but the series excels at simultaneously chilling, entertaining, and warning viewers. It’s also just damn good television, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who doesn’t mind mild sci-fi, dark humour, and occasional goosebumps. Season 4 brings along six new stories from the mind of Charlie Brooker, with each looking distinct and nothing like the show’s previous instalments (as expected).
As an anthology series, it has the space for variety – and makes use of it. One episode can be a family drama, one a love story, one a crime thriller, one a semi-dystopian vignette, one a military shooter, and so on. It also means that viewers can watch it in whatever order, as each episode is self-contained, and – besides from occasional ‘easter eggs’ and references to previous episodes – one can even entirely skip seemingly unattractive episodes and not have one’s experience hampered. There are a multitude of other reasons why Black Mirror is brilliant, and below you’ll find a brief overview of some of my favourite themes explored and techniques utilised:
Note: There are mild spoilers and heavy (ish) reading below, so if you just want a preview to Season 4 and its episodes, scroll down a bit (a lot, actually) 😉
- It uses dramatic principles, and with effect: one of the reasons I respect the way stories are told in Black Mirror, is that the show-runners faithfully comply with Chekhov’s Gun – it’s a dramatic principle which states that “every element in a story must be necessary, and irrelevant elements should be removed”. In the eponymous example, Anton Checkov wrote that, “if you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off”. The idea is that specific mention must not be made to something if it won’t play a prominent role later on in the story. While some series may intentionally subvert the principle in order to create false expectations and keep viewers in the dark, Black Mirror never lets us down, and expects us to pay attention. In the episode Shut Up and Dance, we are only shown character Alex’s kind treatment of a young girl if later on it will have some relevance to the ignominious videos he’s been watching; in Be Right Back, specific mention of the sheer English cliffs where despondent lovers have met their end is only made if later on a member of our pair of lovers will share, or almost share, the same fate; in San Junipero, the fact that Yorkie recoils at the sight of a car-accident must have some relevance to her reasons for visiting the virtual party town – in all the examples, no false promises are made; otherwise, why include these moments at all?
- It’s strikingly resemblant of our society, and pessimistic enough to make a point, while hopeful enough to steer us in a better direction: the most consistent theme throughout the series is the power of the Black Mirrors (smartphone, television, and computer screens) we all wield and use to interact with each other and the world. It emphasises that while these screens hold tremendous opportunity, they can just as easily be used to manipulate us, worsen our experience, and further our descent into ‘sheeple’. These ideas borrow heavily from the thoughts and work of Guy Debord, who described The Society of the Spectacle. It looks at a world dominated by television and advertising, where “the spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” Debord laments the loss of our authenticity, and describes how we increasingly recognise our existence in terms of the spectacle, while concurrently we understand less of our own existence. However, Debord wrote this in the 1960s, and while his views extend to social media and smartphones, there are other technologies that have since come into existence, with very optimistic possibilities. As bleak as the series can sometimes be, it always hints at the idea that our technology is not inherently bad, but is vulnerable to misuse. The concepts introduced in each episode don’t showcase evil technology, but rather evil applications which the series can hopefully deter us from ever actually allowing. Thus, while episodes almost never have a happy ending, they urge us to reflect into our own Black Mirrors and question the direction society is heading; and sometimes episodes such as San Junipero even give us a utopian outlook on the future.
- It’s tragedy, but it’s entertaining tragedy: Like I just said, the stories in Black Mirror rarely have a happy ending – but surprisingly I’m okay with that, and so is everyone else. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who spoke of Apollonian and Dionysian. He looked at Athenian (ancient-greek) tragedy and remarked at how Greek spectators would gaze into the abyss of human suffering presented by these plays, and then paradoxically, passionately and joyously affirm life. In essence, these spectators who saw tragedy from a distance not only celebrated their lack of involvement in the tragedy, but also the lessons learned, and the entertainment value of the lesson. Shows like Black Mirror achieve this effect. We watch a well-produced and directed and acted episode, revel in the plot-twists and interesting ideas and colour schemes, and remark at how tragic the story was, vowing to never allow or repeat these mistakes; and then we watch the next episode. Nietzsche is known as the father of Nihilism, the controversial worldview concerning the futility of existence; but, he also commended Nihilism‘s arrival, and exclaimed that it forces self-reflection, and that those with enough strength can master the crisis, having gained artistic will and value from the experience. From the comfort of our Black Mirrors, we observe the tragedy in these episodes from a distance, and are better empowered to overcome nihilism.
Anyway, back to Season 4!
Below is the trailer for the season, and I’ve attached the official descriptions (as well as my own slight thoughts) for each episode:
Episode 1 – USS Callister: “A woman wakes up on a Star Trek-esque ship where the crew praise their all knowing and fearless captain“. While not much is revealed, it looks like some form of digital alternate-reality, with actress Cristin Milioti (How I Met Your Mother) awakening on board the USS Callister, and going on a whimsical space adventure. The colour palette and music are very old-school sci-fi, which I dig, and the episode is sure to have a darker turn somewhere down the line. I predict that the biggest question will be how Milioti’s character ended up in this world, and if she can ever get out…
Episode 2 – ArkAngel: “After nearly losing her daughter, a mother invests in a new technology that allows her to keep track of her kid“. This episode looks to play on the idea of parental paranoia. Every parent wishes to keep their child safe, yet children’s lack of understanding regarding the dangers of the world make them vulnerable. Current technology like ‘Track My iPhone’ allows us to keep things from being lost, but could such technology really apply to a young child? The teaser for the episode states “the key to good parenting is control”, but I wonder what the lasting effects of the technology used to maintain this control will be on the presented mother or child. After all, children by their nature are curious, and any technology that dampens that curiosity must have side-effects.
Episode 3 – Crocodile: “A woman interviews various people using a device that allows her to access their memories“. This seems like a fairly standard technological application we would love to have. Our recollections of events are usually imperfect or subjective, so being able to tap into someone’s true memories could be of great use to us. Then again, a perfect playback of an event might reveal more than what is needed by someone like an investigator, and how would such a device draw the line between personal and private? Moreover, what if our states of mind alter the way we see something when it happens, and what if that spills into the memories such a device retrieves? I don’t know if any of the questions will come into play or be answered, but the technology of this episode is interesting – and the episode itself seems to focus on interviewing people thought to be witnesses or involved in an accident.
Episode 4 – Hang the DJ: “A new dating app hits the scene, where the matched couples are told how long their relationships will last“. This episode has obviously been inspired by apps such as Tinder, which have apparently changed the dating landscape. The teaser shows a young couple and their interactions with the app. At first glance this seems like a useful tool, but one wonders how accurate the app really is, and by what criteria it makes its judgement. Moreover, surely the information given by the app can change a couple’s expectations and actions? For example, in the teaser the couple are told they will last 12 hours, but perhaps that news might make their relationship end even sooner, or it might push them to try and beat the system. I’m not sure, and perhaps the app’s predictions will change dynamically. Regardless, this looks to be an entertaining and less sci-fi intensive episode, which focusses on a very prominent type of present-day technology.
Episode 5 – Metalhead: “A black-and-white film about a woman attempting to survive a dangerous land full of ‘dogs’.” A stark contrast to the vibrant colours of the episode Nosedive (and now USS Callister), Metalhead looks to be an action-heavy episode set in a post-apocalyptic environment. The teaser implies that the metal-heads are mechanical dogs, yet that is still to be seen, and I’m sure the episode will explain their existence and why the main characters are being hunted. This episode looks to be the most distinct from other entries in the series, as a post-apocalyptic setting has never been explored, and the black-and-white style is entirely new. I’m excited.
Episode 6 – Black Museum: “An anthology of its own, a woman enters the Black Museum where the proprietor tells her stories relating to the artifacts.” This episode immediately throws me back to White Christmas, the Christmas special and de facto fourth episode of Season 2. Black Museum is another episode exploring a number of related-stories, all of which are told through artifacts taken from crimes committed in the past (one of which is a sneaky reference to the episode White Bear, as shown in the teaser). The episode questions the sustainability of happiness, and suggests that it might just be an ephemeral state between never-ending suffering. It looks to be the most manic, violent, and perhaps cynical episode of the season.
And that’s it! Hopefully I’ve gotten you interested in the series, or if you’re already a fan, given you a decent glimpse of what’s to come. Owing to the fact that these episodes are relatively long and meaty (an hour, on average), I’ll be posting reviews every two days; starting Dec 30. Stay updated and be sure to share your thoughts in the comments section! Don’t forget to take a good hard look into all your Black Mirrors once you’re done…
Oh, and before I forget – there’s this song that pops up every now and then in the show (since it’s debut in Fifteen Million Merits). I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear it somewhere in Season 4, as it’s become a recurring motif, and it’s actually quite pleasant; although the series might ruin that for you. I’ve attached the series’s rendition and the original below (the second one is the original):