by ETHAN PETERSON
creator Charlie Brooker
The third season of Black Mirror begins with Bryce Dallas Howard jogging down the street, furiously swiping right on her phone. It is the inevitable curse of any satire of the near future that it becomes the present more quickly than the people involved can imagine. Howard’s running is very compromised by the fact that she has to constantly rate all the social media posts she can in hopes of reciprocity. This desire to be liked is Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker’s deepest feeling.
Brooker has resisted the urge to farm out most of the writing of his near-future series to outsiders, preferring to develop most from his own concepts. When we last joined him, the Black Mirror Christmas Special featured a fantastic performance by Jon Hamm. While somewhat sexist at times during its consideration of an overly demanding woman, it was wacky enough to be serious fun. It was by far the best thing the show has done, but it was also a fitting dead end to Brooker’s visions.
This third series, available worldwide on Netflix, finds Brooker running out of ideas, and fast. Bryce Dallas Howard is truly a vision in the air, but she is given very little to do. She lives in a whorl where every human is a Yelp reviewer of every other, so that other people’s life status simply depends on how well they are succeeding in social settings and online. “Dangerous social media!” isn’t exactly a world view. It’s more like a bleat someone would post on Twitter, which will probably not exist in ten years given the current direction of the company.
“The dangers of technology” is the lamest form of futurism, since not only is it completely reductive, but technology has never really shown itself to be dangerous to anyone except those who don’t bother to take the minuscule time it requires to understand its function. Our main problem is that the people who could be conduits to explaining technology are themselves aging and becoming obsolete: the media.
In the season’s second episode, an American tourist in London is frightened by an overly visceral virtual reality simulation, while in the third episode the sublime Alex Lawther plays a teenager who is being blackmailed after he is recorded masturbating. The subtext of these jaunts is that it is not really the technology that is at fault – in fact even malevolent computer viruses serve the public good by apprehending criminals and torturing them. But this is just a way of complicating the basic point – we can’t handle these devices that surround us, even though they’re essentially just computers.
The season’s most popular episode, “San Junipero”, finds Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire) portraying a woman in a virtual world called San Junipero. There she meets Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who is such an astonishing performer that it takes about thirty minutes into this supposed tour-de-force to realize the whole thing is dull, rehashed garbage. Mbatha-Raw and Davis consummate their relationship in one night of hot sex – it is Davis’ first time, and then decide to spend the rest of their lives together. But oh no – both have a dark past. When “Heaven is a Place On Earth” pumps through the episode’s last scenes, you actually feel complicit in this bullshit, as if the phenomenon of feeling something for fictional characters was only a product of hearing a song you had heard before.
Black Mirror has fantastic production values and casting is genuinely great. Unfortunately it is about as intellectually inspired as the social media it so rigidly fears. The concept of sharing something publicly is not so complex and world-changing. When enough people are broadcasting, the result is simply noise: not variegated enough to have a distinct effect. I understand that when you are Charlie Brooker the fact that tons of people react to what you say on Twitter makes you feel powerful, but extending this emotion, properly known as megalomania, to the world at large is a stretch.
In the fifth episode of the series, Brooker takes on war, casting the amazing Malachi Kirby as a soldier sent out to kill human roaches. Kirby’s character has a brain implant so he thinks that the disease-carrying segment of the population – those with genes for cancer, M.S., multiple sclerosis, various syndromes – looks like unintelligible human-insect monsters. As his therapist, Michael Kelly (Doug Stamper on House of Cards) saves the entire episode. Brooker repeats the questionable statistic that 75 percent of soldiers in the second World War never fired or if they did, aimed above the enemy’s heads. I don’t know about the idea that killing other humans is so outside of our experience we need to be tricked into doing it, but I do know that it is coarse even for this fiction of absolutes.
The series finale is its most disappointing jaunt. A detective (Kelly Macdonald) is investigating the murders of people who said gross stuff on social media. At an unbelievably long 90 minutes, this should properly spell the end of a show that should have wrapped up with Jon Hamm’s death – just like Mad Men. It isn’t that Brooker never has good ideas – his dialogue can be quite moving when it isn’t trying too hard, and some of his concepts are genuinely inventive.
The problem with Black Mirror is its dreary, overlong format. In the 1950s and 1960s, a group of writers essentially formed a concept of the science fiction short story and it has really not changed much to today, except for how many less people read them. Any invented universe depends on the graciousness of its audience, and in order to earn that attention, it must never outstay its welcome. Some of the worlds Brooker imagines are so wonderfully constructed we feel like we leave too soon – the best short stories accomplish exactly this, and succeed because they do not have to fill a predetermined running time. Mostly, Brooker is confined to a fixed length even when his subject matter is only good for a solid ten minutes.
What is the future of futurism? When the technological age began, it was not difficult to see the promise that larger hard drives and faster processing speeds would eventually bring. Although we are in stagnate period for that, some development will no doubt fuel the engines again. The creation of another world other than our own is the only possible result of this move forward, since our fear of artificial intelligence is largely due to James Cameron. Once we have this other place besides Earth, it will be hard to write convincing satire about it, given that its moral content will be only what we make it.
Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.