Black Mirror made its return on October 21st, with a new series double the length of its predecessors and big, shiny Netflix budget to fund it. For the uninitiated, it’s the brainchild of satirist, malcontent and silver fox Charlie Brooker, and explores a future not too removed or dissimilar to our own: one where technology, and our reliance on it, has made everything that little bit darker. It’s science fiction, but not so outlandish that it feels unimaginable. It has an almost prophetic feel to it, and that’s where its danger has always been. Who would’ve thought that, some years after its debut episode, the Prime Minister would be accused of getting his jollies from a dead pig?
Sure, there have been a couple of dud episodes. Personally I found Fifteen Million Merits and The Waldo Moment were weaker links in the series, but they don’t have much impact on the overall anthology. In any case the stand outs more than make up for this. Series two’s White Bear could’ve been its only outing and still been a resounding success, and the Christmas special is so delightfully dark that it’s almost grotesque. There’s been a lot of controversy and mixed opinion over series three, but I figure it’s always better to make up your own mind. Whether it’d yield a new classic or muddle along over a bloated running time would only be determined by watching it myself. As it turns out, it’s a mixed bag- but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For now here’s a spoiler-free run down of the first three. Put your phone down and turn off your laptop. They might be watching.
(FYI, they don’t need to be watched in any particular order- we just watched them as they ran on Netflix)
Episode 1: Nosedive
Admittedly, when I saw the trailers for this episode, it didn’t appeal. It had the feel of an American remake and I was worried that the tone wouldn’t really translate. I had a quick nosey at its credentials and was still undecided. It was written by Parks And Recreation co-creator Michael Schur and one of its stars, Rashida Jones. Charlie Brooker was listed as having a ‘story by’ credit. However, Jones is a writer/producer in her own right and the episode was directed by Joe Wright who’s made very worthy British things like Atonement and the Pride and Prejudice remake. I haven’t seen either of these because, for some reason, I find Keira Knightley really annoying. I’ve been informed that they’re pretty decent though so I decided I’d make my decision after watching.
As for the actual episode? It couldn’t quite shake off the ‘American remake’ feel. It was far more saccharine than previous efforts, albeit still from a skewed perspective. Its basic premise was simple enough: Bryce Dallas Howard’s Lacie lives in a world where our reputations are based on our interactions and the ratings these are given by others. In order to get a discount on a flashy new apartment, she needs to upgrade, and manipulates her old school friend, the highly-rated Naomi (Alice Eve) to do so. Neither of these people are especially likeable, although I suppose… that’s the point? The episode does go in a loop of making the same point, and it gets much more fun as Lacie’s veneer begins to crack. If you’d never seen an episode of Black Mirror before it’d be a good in. Alas, the story itself has already been done more succinctly- and to greater comedic effect- in the Meow Meow Beenz episode of Community. I’d go with that instead.
Episode 2: Playtest
Brooker returns as sole writer for this outing and it shows. While it still has the feel of appealing to a broader audience, it’s less sugary. While in London, American tourist Cooper (Wyatt Russell) has a Tinder hook-up with local girl Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen). When his funds inexplicably freeze, Sonja puts him in touch with a job testing a new, hyper-real video game for a mysterious corporation and things quickly become a little too real. Cooper is one of those loud, brash American tourists that you’d roll your eyes at if you overheard him in a bar, but when the game teases out what’s beneath his surface, he gets somewhat interesting. It’s just a shame it takes its time to do so. The episode builds upon themes explored in the first instalment, namely that of technology being a gateway to uncovering our most human frailties. For that, it’s an improvement. Plus it’s directed by 10 Cloverfield Lane’s Dan Tratchenberg, so it’s definitely a firm step in the ‘horror’ direction.
Episode 3: Shut Up And Dance
From the start, this felt the most akin to the first two series. It had less of the sheen of the previous two episodes and its unseen assailant lent it a greater sense of foreboding. Again, it’s technology that sets up our questionable heroes for a fall. The difference here is that, while the first two seem like something that could happen in the future, this one could very easily happen now. There are no ratings apps, or plug-in video games. All our protagonist has is a PC and a mobile phone. Kenny (Alex Lawther) feels like he’s stumbled into the episode in the same way that he shuffles through life. He’s withdrawn, squirmy and might as well have ‘victim’ on his forehead. He gets drawn in by said unseen assailants who warn him that if he doesn’t comply with their demands, they’ll release webcam footage of him having a rare old one-handed perty on the internet. The plot unravels as Kenny gets embroiled with Hector (Jerome Flynn), who’s over a barrel thanks to a proposed extramarital affair with a younger escort. It only gets darker from there, although the final twist is still a gut-buster. It’s by far the bleakest of the first three, but all the more memorable for it.