Happy new year folks! Given that I put Black Mirror – series creator Charlie Brooker’s digital-age answer to shows like The Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected – as my number one favourite TV show I saw last year, I thought it would be remiss of me not to write about the new season. There are spoilers aplenty! You have been warned.
In the first, and many would say best, episode of Season 4 – entitled USS Callister – the poor man’s Matt Damon Jesse Plemons (Fargo Season 2) plays Daly a CTO at a near-future computer games company. Daly is largely ignored by his co-workers and put upon by the other company co-founder, the smarmy and sociable CEO, played by Jimmi Simpson (Westworld).
At home, Daly escapes his less than perfect life by plugging into the game the company produces. He’s applied a mod so that the game appears like his favourite TV sci-fi show Space Fleet – essentially a PG-rated version of Star Trek. I’m not a huge fan of Star Trek but I could appreciate the effort that’s been put into the episode to get that authentic cheesy feel from the original Sixties show. Of course in this virtual world Daly is the captain of the ship and he gets to lord it over virtual replicas of his co-workers.
The excellent Cristin Milioti plays a new coder, Nanette Cole, hired I guess to help out with the forthcoming patch to the game that they’re trying to get out before Christmas. She initially likes Daly based on his coding expertise, but then is quickly warned off by her new colleagues. They say that he’s a bit creepy. By the way, at the top of the show, you’d be forgiven for expecting to see Kirsten Dunst (Plemon’s BFF from Fargo) play a major role as she does have a very blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as an office worker.
Daly is as creepy as they think. They don’t know it, but he’s using a clever DNA coding dohicky at home to build the virtual persona in his game – these are real AIs that can think for themselves and are essentially trapped within the confines of the game. Moreover, if they don’t do what the god-like captain says he tortures them or turns them into giant bugs. I’d like to think that among all the Trekkie in-jokes there’s a Star Wars reference in the fact that one of the crew members, recently turned into a bug, bangs her new head on the door frame as she’s led away to the brig.
Trapped in the game, the virtual version of Cole manages to figure out a way to end the crew’s waking nightmare by piloting the Callister into a black hole (which is the VR universe’s manifestation of the software patch). There’s some fun interplay between the VR Cole and the real Cole who is sent on a mission to Daly’s apartment to help the plan.
A by-product of the escape is the deletion of Daly’s consciousness – he’s left comatose in front of his PC at home. It’s a typically dark tale with some bits of humour (e.g. the sims have no genitalia because the mod is PG-rated). At the end of the episode the AI’s find themselves in the proper version of the computer game, free to do what they want to do without Daly controlling their lives, and Aaron Paul adds a bit of levity to the tale by making a brief voice appearance as ‘Gamer691’ – a human player who is the first to encounter the AIs experiencing their new freedom.
With a colourful and fun storyline and a wealth of TV stars, the episode sets a high standard for the rest of the season which is perhaps not attained by most of the episodes. Indeed, I go so far as to say that this season doesn’t compare well to previous seasons and there’s some repetition of technological concepts along the way.
This is notable in the second episode called Arkangel, directed by Jodie Foster, in which an overly protective mother (Rosemarie DeWitt) takes part in a free technological trial that allows her to keep track of her daughter (played by various actors as she gets older) via a brain implant and a clunky looking iPad gadget. As well as supporting a visual feed and a health monitor, the system also has a stress filter which can blur out damaging sights.
For example, when the daughter is watching footage of a soldier firing an automatic rifle (taken from Season 3’s episode ‘Men Against Fire’) the image is blurred out rather like a stained-glass artistic filter. This filtering concept has some similarities to Season 1’s ‘The Entire History Of You’.
This filter is the main problem with this well-intentioned but ultimately flawed system and leads to the unnatural development of the child. While the system can’t be removed the mother can just switch off the iPad and put it into storage. However in her teenage years the daughter goes astray and the mother resorts to using the device again, She sees her daughter having sex and taking drugs, and intervenes warning the potential (drug-dealer) boyfriend to stay away from her daughter.
The system also tells mom that her daughter is up the duff, so she grinds up a morning after pill into her breakfast smoothie. Prone to episodes of violence due her distorted formative years, the daughter reacts rather badly when she finds out that her mother is still spying on her and the small family unit is destroyed. It’s a rather blatant cautionary tale and I found it a little too heavy handed and too typical of Black Mirror tales gone by to rate it overly. Btw, I watched this season with Siggy and recall saying to her that this was a fairly typical episode (unlike Episode 1).
In episode three Crocodile a successful architect played superbly by Andrea Riseborough (Mindhorn) is haunted by an incident from her past and crosses paths with an insurance investigator (the excellent Kiran Sonia Sawar). The investigator is looking into a claim made against an automated pizza delivery vehicle (yes it’s the same company as in episode one) that ran into a pedestrian in a snowy street overlooked by the hotel in which the architect is staying. The locations were all very Norwegian looking to me, and it turns out the episode was filmed partly in Iceland – the locations add a cold edge to an already very dark tale.
The investigator is piecing together what happened with the help of a memory machine which is again similar to the technology in ‘The Entire History Of You’ and also a bit of a nod to the original Bladerunner film imo. Because Riseborough can see no escape from this technology uncovering the murder she committed in the hotel, she basically has to go around bumping off anyone who might have witnessed her escalating violence. This as it happens includes a baby (I told you it was dark).
What’s supposed to be funny at the end is that the baby is actually blind so she needn’t have bothered and should have paid more attention to the pet guinea pig that’s seen her face. Although I liked the acting and the locations and the idea of someone’s life spiralling out of control in this episode, the ending fell a bit flat for me. I also couldn’t figure out why it was called ‘Crocodile’ – answers on a postcard to the usual address please.
In episode four Hang the DJ a new dating app allows matched couples to see how long their relationships will last. In fact it sound transpires we’re looking at some kind of enclosed dystopian society where the couples are potentially forced to part after their time is up. There’s a big wall around the area in which the couples get together in luxury lodges, automated transports and armed guards. I spent most of the episode trying to figure out why a society might need this system in place.
It seemed obvious that the fated couple – played by Georgina Campbell (Broadchurch) and Joe Cole (Peaky Blinders) – would eventually end up together. There were shades of George Lucas’s THX 1138 for me, and sure enough, when they get the chance to meet up again, they decide to escape together.
The cute twist in the tale, which explains all the nonsense set up, is that the characters are once again AI sims in a VR world (like episode one and Season 3’s fantastic San Junipero) which is part of a phone based dating app the characters are using IRL in a club that happens to be playing the titular song by The Smiths.
The fifth and shortest episode Metalhead presented in black and white – perhaps because of the amount of gore but also to give it a gritty edge – is the story of a woman (Maxine Peake) attempting to survive in a post-apocalyptical land full of robotic soldier-dogs. It’s also one of my favourites – simply because I’m a sucker for this kind of dark dystopian ’empty world’ stuff.
There’s little attempt to explain what has led to the scenario Peake’s character finds herself in. We just know that they wanted to get something out of a seemingly deserted warehouse and they disturbed what initially seems to be an overly violent robotic guard dog. Her two companions get killed early on and she is left being chased down relentlessly in a Terminator-style by the RoboDog. It also transpires that even though she manages to overcome one of the blighters there’s plenty more out there who are responding to the tracker lodged in her neck.
This episode has both the most nerdy ‘easter egg’ in the whole season and the corniest of endings when it is revealed that the scavengers risked their lives to get a kid a teddy bear. Shit. I wouldn’t have bothered, would you? The easter egg is in the scene where one of the ill-fated scavengers tries to boot up a car’s control system. Text on the screen includes Black Mirror episode titles and a line reading: “WHY. did. you. bother. PAUSING. this. you. freak”. I didn’t, I just did a bit of reading as preparation for this post.
This season’s final episode is Black Museum and runs a bit like a Christmas special since it is made up of a few smaller cautionary tales and has the most obvious callback to previous episodes by virtue of the exhibits in the museum. Daly’s DNA dohicky from episode one is there along with other notable props.
Douglas Hodge (Penny Dreadful) is brilliant as museum’s curator Rolo Haynes (cool name!) the and the up-and-coming Letitia Wright (Humans) is also very good as the museums one and only visitor, Nish.
The smaller tales which go to make up a satisfying whole concern a doctor addicted to a pain-transferring neurological implant who starts murdering people (based on story ‘Pain Addict’ by Pen Jilette and supposedly predicted by Karl Pilkington in a podcast years ago along with the next storyline); a comatose woman transplanted into her lover’s head who constantly nags him (featuring a cute call back to Season 1’s ‘Fifteen Million Merits’) and gets transferred into her androgynous looking kid’s toy; and a death row inmate who has his consciousness trapped in a hologram in the Black Museum.
It is this final story which brings us back into the reason why Rolo and Nish have met. Visitors to the museum pay to electrocute the inmate and he has to relive his death-throws over and over again. They get a little keychain keepsake containing a recording of his death as a creepy memento. It turns out that Nish is the inmate’s daughter who has come to the museum to put an end to his torment and exact a suitably ironic revenge on Haynes. It’s a good closing episode to a mixed bag of goodies.
Image – David Clode on Unsplash.com