That Black Mirror is the smartest show on television is hardly in dispute. Its arresting first episode, directed beautifully by Otto Bathurst, describes a scenario in which the British prime minister is told that to save the life of a member of the Royal Family, he must have sex with a pig. If that isn’t a curtain-raiser, I don’t know what it is. So what can we expect from the new series, kicking off today (5th June) on Netflix.
What’s striking about the new series is that Brooker seems to have trained his critical eye on technology that already exists. ‘Striking Vipers’, the first of three new episodes, plays up the temptation of apps which promise easy sexual encounters and their propensity to leave otherwise happy relationships in tatters, while in ‘Smithereens’, starring the brilliant Andrew Scott, an Uber-style cab driver with an agenda takes someone hostage. And Brooker seems to be satirising fame and Alexa-style products in ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too’, which tells the story of a superstar with a manicured public profile, played by Miley Cyrus, who rolls out a range of interactive gadgets.
It’s a departure from the familiar formula of the first four seasons, in which, with eery prescience, Brooker looked ahead to the potential effects of near-future technology. Black Mirror was even prescient accidentally: who could forget that unfortunate David Hameron—excuse me, David Cameron—incident? Silliness aside, the dystopian, paranoid world of Charlie Brooker’s expansive imagination managed to capture, years before their time, contact lenses fitted with cameras, human batteries, even bee-sized drones. It’s worth pausing to consider that what was nightmarish several years ago are now, in some ways, realities of the modern world.
Perhaps that’s the reason for this departure: the nightmarish scenarios are already here. Or perhaps it’s because Black Mirror is not so much about technology as it is about the human condition. Face to face with the ‘black mirror’ of technology, we are shown to be what we are: at the mercy of our worst instincts and the instincts of others, puppets tangled up in their strings. Thus Black Mirror’s uncanny ability to foresee the flaws in technology is in fact an ability to see how, with technology, the worst qualities of humankind can be exploited, encouraged or otherwise made plain to see.
We confront these qualities in the episode ‘Nosedive’. Lacie tries to navigate a world in which everything she does is rated by those around her on a scale of one to five. This rating has a considerable impact on her socioeconomic status (to say nothing of her personal esteem) so when she has the chance to deliver a speech as the maid of honour at a lavish wedding, she takes it, hoping it might just nudge her rating above the vaulted 4.5. Needless to say it doesn’t go well.
It’s a particularly delicious take on radix malorum est cupiditas, the kind of thing that has fascinated writers from Chaucer to Steinbeck. Yet when China’s Social Credit System was rolled out, you could hear the delighted squeals from far away. While we stood, hands on hips, moralising about this system, we should have been turning our attentions to our own Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds, where we invite judgment and dish it out on a daily basis. Brooker was calling attention to our own capacity for narcissism, superficiality and greed.
In ‘The Waldo Moment’, the voice actor of a crass cartoon bear ridicules politicians with such panache that he becomes a political candidate in his own right. Its depiction of—to quote Brooker—an ‘anti-politics candidate who’s raucous and defensive’ anticipates not only the rise of any number of aggressively anti-establishment types around the world, but our vulnerability to their charisma and grand promises of change. (It’s also worth nothing that Apple recently rolled out an ’Animoji’ feature, which animates emojis to reflect the user’s facial movements. Perhaps we’ll one day see one of our own politicians broadcast from the side of a van in the form of an armadillo?)
What Black Mirror essentially portrays is the kind of deep philosophical horror rarely found outside the pages of authors like Thomas Ligotti. There are exceptions, of course, as in the gorgeously shot ‘San Junipero’, but for the most part the world of Black Mirror is unrelentingly bleak. In the coming season, we are brought closer still to the ‘mirror’ which reveals our darker selves: Brooker seems to suggest that even our daily interactions with technology carry the seeds of dystopia. But that said, there’s no need to be too lugubrious. At least we can enjoy the show while we contemplate our impending doom.