Black Mirror season 3 REVIEW
The third season of Charlie Brooker’s TV series anthology, Black Mirror has arrived just in time for the cold winter months. The coldest season is a perfect time for this biting and darkly satirical show to make it back onto our screens.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure before, Black Mirror is a speculative fiction anthology that uses humanity’s relationship with technology as the basis for each story. Each tale is set either in the here and now or a sometime in the very near future. The previous seasons tended to focus human drama and how the tools of the modern age did nothing to improve the human condition. Quite the reverse, in fact, with technology merely amplifying less desirable human traits.
Fans will be pleased to learn that Black Mirror’s transition from British TV network Channel 4 to online video demand service Netflix has done nothing to take away the show’s bite and neophobia. Let’s take a closer look at the shows in detail, whilst studiously avoiding spoilers.
The series kicks off with “Nosedive”, perhaps the most obviously absurd and yet all too real episode in the new season. It’s the story of Lacie, played by actress Bryce Dallas Howard, who is no stranger to science fiction and fantasy. Lacie is a normal young woman who happens to live in a world in which social media ratings really, really matter. In this shocking dystopia, it seems that everyone is on the same social network, and every single interaction is rated on a scale of zero to five. Thanks to some nifty contact lenses, you can see a person’s rating with a simple glance.
And the ratings really matter. Those with a high rating have more privileges. Have a low rating and you become shunned and an outcast. Lacie is a solid 4.2, and she works hard to keep it up, documenting her life constantly with a series of saccharine messages and photos. Lacie wants what we all want; a nice place to live, a good partner, a solid job. But to get those things she has to be a 4.5. This means keeping up a constant façade of politeness and manners, never showing how she really feels. As the title suggests things to not go entirely to plan.
“Nosedive” is a delicate and beautiful tale, filled with moments of nerve-wrenching social awkwardness. It takes the themes of social media, social control and personal freedom and wraps it up in a bow made of anger and swearing. A strong start to the series.
One of the things that anthology dramas do really well are short and sweet creepy stories. Freed from the restrictions of a regular cast, everyone in an anthology series is disposable so you rarely know what to expect. “Playtest” is a fine example of this, an old school horror tale with modern twists.
22 Jump Street actor Wyatt Russell plays Cooper, an American tourist who is running away from family drama back home. The last leg on his journey is London, where he bumps into sassy tech-journalist Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen). After a spot of thrill-seeking, Cooper finds himself signing up to be the guinea pig in a video game playtest.
What begins as the happy tale of a young man trying to find himself swiftly descends into one of the oldest tropes in horror movies: the haunted house. Of course, this being a Black Mirror episode the haunting is a technological simulation.
Unlike the other episodes, “Playtest” is the least “on theme” story in this collection. There is none of the show’s trademark food for thought here; this is a scary rollercoaster that you’ll quickly forget about. Fans of immersive experiences such as Escape Rooms or Live Action Roleplay will absolutely love this story, however.
“Shut Up and Dance”
Black Mirror is, in the broadest possible terms, a British show. One of the things that defines the British experience is a sort of low-level grottiness and misery that can be found everywhere and is tolerated and ignored by pretty much everyone. “Shut Up And Dance” embraces this mundane desperation to create a tense and tightly packed tale of desperation and despair.
The hero of the moment is Kenny, played by actor Alex Lawther, who we last saw as a young Alan Turing in the movie The Imitation Game. Kenny is a teenager who has a rubbish job and a seemingly rubbish life. Unluckily for Kenny, owing to a family mishap, his laptop gets hacked, allowing hackers access to his webcam. They then use this to obtain leverage on him. His already miserable existence gets worse as he follows the cyber-criminals every whim.
“Shut Up And Dance” does the thing that Black Mirror does amazingly well; it takes an all-too-plausible idea and follows it to the logical extreme. Lawther turns in a superb performance of a lad who is seemingly clueless about everything and scared of the world. This episode also enjoys a solid turn from Jerome Flynn, who plays yet another stoic older man, and brings some much needed wit and pathos to the story.
Next up is perhaps the most remarkable story in the collection. “San Junipero” is a tale that begins as a mystery, turns into a love story and then becomes the rarest of things; a Black Mirror story that talks about how technology could transform the human experience for the better.
We meet Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis), a shy young woman living in 1987. Yorkie is new to town and seemingly new to almost everything else. She’s very much an enigma and doesn’t really seem that familiar with her surroundings or what she can or cannot do. She meets Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and after a difficult start, the two fall in love. All is not what it seems, however, and nothing is quite what it appears to be.
Both actresses turn in powerful, emotionally driven performances that really slam home each twist and turn of this story. This is a story about a perfectly rational fear of new things and the problems that we all face in letting go. Heart-warming, funny and clever, “San Junipero” is a technological love story that is hard to describe without spoiling, and well worth the short amount of time it will take to watch.
“Men Against Fire”
Speculative fiction and war stories tend to go hand-in-hand. War, after all, creates the most profound changes in any society and is commonly linked to technological innovation. “Men Against Fire” follows the story of rookie soldier Stripe, played by Malachi Kirby. (The actor is perhaps better known for his role as Kunta Kinte in the 2016 remake of Roots.)
It is the near future, and all soldiers are fitted with things called MASS implants; cybernetic devices that help the soldier shoot more accurately and pull up intel and profiles with ease. We quickly learn that the world has become infected with Roaches; vampire-like horrors that carry a genetic disease, passed on from generation to generation. It’s Stripe’s job to help wipe these monsters out, but Stripe’s first day on the job does not quite go to plan and he begins to doubt if he’s doing the right thing.
Much of the story is pretty obvious to anyone who’s ever read military science fiction; even the premise is pretty hackneyed. This is easily the weakest of all the stories. Though Kirby is a superb actor, there simply isn’t much for him to get his teeth into here. This is a yet another story about the horrors of war and man’s capacity for self-delusion. It fails to scare, excite or even you make care.
“Hated In The Nation”
The final tale in the collection feels like a collection of Charlie Brooker’s greatest hits. Set in a very near future in which the UK is ran by a very unpopular right wing government and all the bees have been replaced with tiny robots, this is a tale of murder and consequence.
The story opens with someone giving witness in a court room, a public enquiry of some sort. It then swiftly cuts to a tabloid columnist getting a large amount of public scorn. It seems that the writer’s recent work was critical of much loved a disabled activist’s suicide, which brought the writer a great deal of attention, mostly via a twitter hastag, #DeathTo. The following day, the columnist is found dead under mysterious circumstances and an investigation begins. As events unfold, it become obvious that this is a world in which it’s a bad idea to make one’s self unpopular on the internet.
This is essentially a police procedural drama with some really strong ideas. Fans of Brooker’s work will note some tongue-in-cheek references throughout. Fans of Brooker’s other show, A Touch Of Cloth, will be saddened to learn that “Hated In The Nation” plays the police drama element straight.
Though it isn’t the strongest story in the collection (that would be “San Junipero”) or the angriest (“Nosedive” wins that prize) it is the most complete. It’s a strong, satirical criticism of how we use technology to distance ourselves from other people.
Another victory for Brooker
Though it would be tempting to characterise Black Mirror season three as more of the same, it’s much more than that. Brooker’s show was always good, but it’s clear that Netflix has provided a solid budget and support for the show. Still relevant, still compulsive. Perfect night time viewing for those unafraid of the future, and a fantastic collection of thought provoking tales for the rest of us.
Review by Ed Fortune