Note: This is a (mostly) spoiler-free review of Black Mirror season 4. The plot points discussed are those that occur within the first 10 minutes of most of the episodes.
Surprisingly enough, for a series predicated on the terrifying effects of technology — where the gadgets and systems we’ve designed have in turn created a dystopian future for us — none of the gizmos themselves featured in Black Mirror season 4 are truly scary.
Except for a Terminator-type mechanical bloodhound in the episode called ‘Metalhead’, that is. ‘Metalhead’ is one of the only episodes to be set in an obviously dystopian world — by ‘obviously’ I mean a sort of post-Apocalyptic landscape where civilisation as we know it has ended, and the few survivors there are, are eking out some kind of hidden, hardscrabble existence. ‘Metalhead’ doesn’t articulate this world — we’re left to infer it from the barren landscape, empty animal pens, corpses decaying in abandoned homes, the scruffiness of our protagonists out on a mission.
The story too is perhaps the simplest of this season: we start off with three people, on their way to a warehouse to collect a package for someone in the family. The package has something that would ease the last days of this relative (we gather). At the warehouse, however, there’s a nasty surprise waiting — the aforementioned Terminator-type bloodhound, which chases after the trio. The doggedness of the robot versus the desperate scramble for survival by the humans is thrilling of course, but what’s also interesting is this battle of wits between artificial and human intelligence.
‘Metalhead’ is also one of the only episodes of Black Mirror 4 where humans are shown to be morally superior to machines. Over the remaining five episodes (or stories) of this season, there are no such distinctions. Technology isn’t shown to be sentient, or intrinsically good or bad — it’s the uses that humans put it to that makes it so. It is what we choose to make of the tools at our disposal that creates frightening outcomes.
We see this in ‘Arkangel’ — the episode directed by Jodie Foster. A (single) mother loses her daughter on the playground. When the girl is returned to her, the mother opts for an experimental new technique that allows her to track her daughter’s movements on a tablet device, see what she is seeing, control what she is seeing (by blurring out potentially harmful sights and sounds) — all this through a small implant in the child’s brain. Hmm. What could possibly go wrong?
The device is most helpful during the daughter’s initial years, but her lack of exposure to disturbing experiences (or at least the blunting of her emotional response to them) has strange and unintended consequences.
Or take the case of ‘Crocodile’, which begins with a hit-and-run. A couple — high on drugs and alcohol (the man at least) — hit a cyclist on a lonely road. Against the woman’s pleas to contact the authorities, the man convinces her to help him get rid of the body. Fifteen years later, the woman is happily married (to another man), working as a noted architect, and mother to a nine-year-old boy. Her old companion returns, wanting to make amends to the family of the cyclist they killed. The woman sees her carefully built-up life shattering; she takes one extreme step, then another, and another — to what end?
The technology bit in ‘Crocodile’ comes in in the form of a recalling device: a disc that attaches to the side of your head and as you go over your memories of a particular event, recreates a movie of it on a small screen. We see it being used by an insurance claims investigator with the witnesses of an accident — and you know that it is going to be used against the woman as well, leading to a recalling of crimes she’d rather forget. (The song Jessica Brown Findlay’s character sings in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ — ‘Anyone Who Knows What Love Is?‘ — from season 1 of Black Mirror, makes for an eerie soundtrack throughout this story.)
Amid such doom and gloom comes ‘Hang the DJ’. I’m not entirely sold on the ending, but it’s a charming interlude in this Black Mirror season. It starts off with a typical date scenario: awkward-funny guy meets vivacious-lovely girl, the two hit it off until their time together is cut short by their ‘coach’. The ‘coach’ is a compact device they must carry at all times, which pairs them up with potential partners until they find ‘the one’. What happens when you feel you’ve already found the one on that very first meeting — but the system needs you to be with a whole lot of other people so it can collect more data to refine itself to make ever-more-accurate matches? That may sound ludicrous, but it neatly encapsulates the human dilemmas we sometimes face in ‘settling’ on a partner. The goofy chemistry between the lead actors in ‘Hang the DJ’ has you rooting for them to overcome the system; at the same time it’s also interesting that even years into the future, we’ll be as clueless about love as we are now.
That brings us to the two major set-pieces of Black Mirror 4: ‘USS Callister’ and ‘Black Museum’. Each clocks in at one-hour plus, each is among the better episodes of this season. ‘USS Callister’ has as one of its primary characters, a tech geek who’s created a multi-player VR game called Infinity. Inspired by a vintage TV show called Space Fleet (read: Star Trek) he loved as a child, Infinity has led to a thriving tech company. At work however, our genius — painfully socially inept — is ignored by his employees in favour of his more dashing, personable business partner. Until…a lovely young woman joins the company and appreciates the beauty of our tech genius’ code.
Before we sympathise too much with the overlooked genius, we find out that he spends his spare hours playing a private version of Infinity — embarking on his own Space Fleet-style odyssey even as he lords it over a crew comprising (digital) clones of the people who’ve irked him at the workplace (and that lovely young woman). It’s part-kitschy space adventure, part-moral musing that highlights one of the major themes running through this season of Black Mirror: consent.
Consent also plays a role in ‘Black Museum’, easily the most memorable episode of this entire season. It employs a story-within-a-story format, turning a House of Horrors-type tale into something more. A young woman stops to charge her car at a lonely way station. The station is closed for business so she sets up her solar battery back-up — but has three hours to kill until it’s done. She looks around — close by is a little building with a signboard proclaiming it to be the ‘Black Museum’. She enters, and is taken on a guided tour by its creepy proprietor. This museum is a place where collectibles of a dubious sort are housed: here, a hairnet of electrodes that a doctor used to feel the sensations his patients felt, in order to reach more accurate diagnoses. (‘But?’ the girl prompts, knowing that this too-good-to-be-true tale must have a sordid twist. She finds out soon enough what his newfound abilities led the doctor to do.) There, a tiny implant used to ‘upload’ someone’s consciousness out of their body (there’s a call-out to ‘San Junipero’ from Black Mirror season 3 at this point) and into a loved one’s head, so the former could continue to have a form of life even after death or substantial brain damage. (‘But?’ the girl prompts once again, knowing this tale too will not have a happy ending. It doesn’t.)
The proprietor finally leads her to a room in the back that contains his most spectacular exhibit — the digital clone of a convict sentenced to death for the murder of a TV personality. For a small price, visitors can crank a lever that administers a jolt of electricity to the convict, recreating his execution scene — again, and again, and again. The convict had signed away his digital ‘afterlife’ in return for financial support for his wife and daughter, the proprietor informs the woman. And visitors who do pull the lever get a small souvenir as well: a keychain with the grimacing, screaming visage of the convict, caught eternally in his death throes.
As for how the proprietor got access to all his other memorabilia, we find that he used to work in a major hospital, where his job was to convince hapless patients or their relatives (preferably those who didn’t have insurance coverage) and the more malleable doctors to submit to new technologies the R&D wing is trying out. This technology has not really been tested, so those who ‘consent’ to it are in effect, human guinea pigs. (And at this point, it’s our turn to prompt: ‘But?’)
Throughout Black Mirror season 4, we see the issue of consent cropping up: from the mother in ‘Arkangel’ who controls her daughter’s experiences, to the tech geek in ‘USS Callister’ who traps others in a world not of their choosing (he also takes their DNA without their knowledge), to the people in ‘Black Museum’ whose decisions certainly aren’t based on informed consent as we understand it. At a time when we’re talking about sexual harassment, this is an interesting theme to examine — what we do to other people without seeking their permission. Closely allied to this theme is the penchant humans have, in Black Mirror season 4, for playing God: to take away choice from someone, to dictate their life (or even their digital life) events, to control, domineer, to inflict pain and withhold pleasure, to shape the world and rearrange consequences to our liking (even if we rarely succeed). The season also — in a less successful way than Westworld — examines what cruelty means, especially when perpetrated on a non-human, if sentient, being: does torturing someone’s digital avatar make you evil?
What made Black Mirror so compelling in previous seasons was how it used things that were already happening to depict the dark places in which we might end up — given enough lack of foresight or thought (or even the best intentions). The world it presented didn’t seem outre. Season four also builds on this: the world of the future (except in ‘Hang The DJ’) looks very similar to the world of now — our clothing, cars, homes, ways of life, occupations — except for the odd gadget or two. Some of the gadgets also have a deliberately retro look — the memory recording device in ‘Crocodile’ for instance, looks like an old, mini PC — maybe a way to minimise the anxieties of a new age by harking back to something familiar? A sense of déjà vu, however, is hard to shake off: ‘What have you got for me now that you didn’t in previous seasons?’ you may think. This latest season’s impressive enough, but does it soar to the heights that Black Mirror 3 did? The answer is, no.
As mentioned at the start of this piece, the technology on Black Mirror 4 is rarely ‘bad’ — it’s the uses we put it to that makes it so. So human beings — and not technology itself — occupy centre-stage this season. It’s a little troubling then, that their motivations and conflicts don’t always seem convincing. ‘Did that scenario really deserve that extreme a reaction?’ you’ll find yourself wondering on more than one occasion. (The answer again, is no.)
Psychology, one may argue, isn’t Black Mirror‘s strong suit. For instance, in an episode from season 3 — Men Against Fire — we saw soldiers of the future being implanted with a chip that made them perceive a certain section of the populace as vampire-like mutants, called ‘roaches’; this helped the soldiers carry out the ethnic cleansing they’d been commissioned to, without any pangs of conscience. The episode tied in with what experts have long thought about why human beings are capable of perpetrating gross injustices against other humans — perhaps it all just boils down to a lack of empathy, the way in which we ‘other’ certain groups, think of them as a lesser breed than us. A recent New Yorker article — titled ‘The Root of All Cruelty‘ — reports that new research may establish otherwise: that we do (consciously or otherwise) know and understand that the ‘others’ too are people just like us, fully capable of feeling pain and humiliation — and that’s precisely why we degrade them to begin with. So really, it turns out that we’re far worse than we thought.
And wielding the power of technology is unlikely to make us any better in the future.
All six episodes of Black Mirror season 4 will be available for viewing on Netflix on 29 December 2017. Here’s a trailer for the full season: