Created by the brilliantly inventive polemicist Charlie Brooker, the anthology show Black Mirror has returned to Netflix for a fourth series. Retaining its theme of cautionary tales regarding the development of technology, the new batch of episodes includes some of the strongest in the history of the show, but is not without some unfortunate missteps.
Being familiar with Black Mirror has a significant influence on how this new series is watched. It is difficult to root for characters when the possibility of them being stuck in some existential limbo seems all too possible, because it has been well established as a likelihood due to previous series. Brooker uses this to his advantage, and the new episodes often force you to hold your breath until the last second, as the stakes are well-established by the show’s history of brutal, nightmarish conclusions. This is why the few episodes which have, arguably, happy endings can be so hard to believe. But it is also why they stand out amongst the rest, as San Junipero did in series three.
Series four does not isolate its positivity to just a single episode. Instead, it distinguishes itself from the other three series because it has many more moments of optimism. That is not to say that it rejects the previously established tone of the show; these moments are often bittersweet and there is plenty of bleakness to outweigh them. Rather, it is Brooker demonstrating that Black Mirror is not just a show of pure cynicism.
The first episode, “USS Callister”, provides a strong start to the series. A virtual reality videogame provides Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) a world of spaceships and aliens which he can preside over, but, when new recruit Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) is introduced, the heart-wrenching truth behind it becomes clear—this is Black Mirror at its best. What we get is a cinematic adventure full of horror and hope and a nail-biting finale. Plus, it is not without its share of adeptly integrated humour. One of the biggest strengths of the episode is that the story is personal but by no means small. The homage paid to Star Trek serves as a platform to project the stakes, illustrating the danger and drama in the explosive form of a space opera.
In true Black Mirror fashion, “USS Callister” provides a framework for the discussion of morals. Everyone has daydreams where they are all-powerful and completely exalted by those around them, but Brooker imagines an environment in which these fantasies can be played out as if they are reality. However, in a world with no repercussions for the Godlike person who controls everything, it quickly becomes a nightmare for everyone who is at his mercy and it is here that the episode is at its strongest. Free-will is restricted to only one character in the simulation and so one main goal for the protagonists is to take back their independence and liberty.
However, it is the addition of Milioti’s character Nanette who initiates the group’s retaliation against their oppressive and despotic captor, who represents a dictatorial, sexist, male hegemony. This struggle against a clearly immoral, perhaps even evil, character propels the story forward by reflecting a very real societal issue, lending the episode some serious gravitas.
It is a shame that not all of the series could live up to the episode. “Crocodile” and “Metalhead” stand out as weaker points. Their stories are not complete dross, but within the complete oeuvre of Black Mirror they are two of the worst. The examination of technology is minimal and not effectively used within the plotlines. In short, these episodes are not as didactic and thought-provoking as we know the show can be.
The end of the series treats us to more gems, including the finale, “Black Museum”, which incorporates a number of Easter Eggs that show how each episode exists in one universe. This creates some issues for the future of the show. It has received some criticism for reusing technologies and ideas seen before, perhaps a result of having more episodes per series since it moved to Netflix, but my biggest concern is that there is less manoeuvrability when it comes to writing new episodes. If each one was fully isolated then there would be a limitless potential for experimentation in the storytelling and exploration of technology. As it stands, we must trust the writers to continue creating compelling, original stories.