Is Black Mirror Losing its Technical Touch?
Since its pilot in 2011, Charlie Brooker’s technological dystopian anthology series, Black Mirror, has progressed from a few stand-alone episodes highlighting the dangers of technology on Channel Four, into a Netflix show with a cult following.
The series has even delved into cinema, with 2018's Bandersnatch – an interactive film that allows Netflix viewers to make the character’s decisions for him, meaning that, depending on how sadistic the audience is feeling, the film can last anywhere from 40 minutes to 1.5 hours. Despite its quick progression, Black Mirror has maintained its fundamental characteristics. Viewers may not know exactly how they’re going to be entertained, as each episode differs in tone, but they know it will contain the following: everyday people of the future, sinister twists and turns, and technology.
Until now, that is. With season five airing for the first time on Netflix on the 5th June, the public has wasted no time in expressing their somewhat disappointing opinions. Season five contains just three episodes, 'Striking Vipers', 'Smithereens', and 'Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too'. Whilst this difference was enough to disappoint viewers, who had expected the same amount of content as season four, there were other, subtler differences, which have contributed to the latest season only claiming a 67% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to last season’s 85% rating.
Firstly, it appears that Brooker has veered away from the everyday characters of previous seasons, and has taken advantage of the show’s ever-growing popularity (and, budget, I assume), to cast very well-known actors in their place. Anthony Mackie (Marvel Cinematic Universe, 8 Mile), Andrew Scott (Sherlock, Fleabag), and, although most famous for her music, Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana, ‘The Last Song’) star in each episode respectively. These famous faces, on top of the success of last year’s season, left viewers with very high expectations of each episode. Yet in amping up the celebrity appearances, season five has lost one of Black Mirror’s core ingredients – the idea that the events of the show could happen to anyone of us.
The entire premise of the show is a playful, dark warning and exploration into how human psychology and technological advances entwine, and the impact of this on the everyday person. It’s designed to be simultaneously distant and futuristic, yet also a bit too close to home. Thus, having extremely well-known actors play parts that could just as easily have been filled with an unknown face takes away some of the relatability and, ultimately, the fear factor for which viewers tune in.
In addition to this, season five tends to swing more in favour of exploring human interactions and emotions than it does technology. 'Striking Vipers' was the only episode that contained even a hint of the extraordinary technological creations that the show has earned such a reputation for inventing, with the virtual reality buttons that stick to the side of the characters’ head transporting them into a computer game. However, this exciting concept seemed to fall a little flat when it came to its execution, as the episode almost pushed the technology aside and focused on the protagonist’s failing marriage, and his exploration of sexuality using the VR button. Whilst this was indeed still fascinating television, it could easily have happened without the technology at all – which seems somewhat amiss in the Black Mirror universe.
'Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too' again had a brilliant premise, with a robotic doll containing popstar Ashley O’s personality, being sold worldwide to lonely teenagers. One such teenager, Rachel, becomes obsessed with the doll, beginning to picture her as a real friend and person. This obsession becomes sinister as we become increasingly aware of how much the doll can see and hear, yet the episode then switches tone, and becomes more concerned with the real Ashley O’s exploitation by her manager, than about the doll and its dangers. Stuart Heritage points out in his review of the episode for the Guardian: ‘Its big point – that young creatives are at the mercy of their morally bankrupt handlers – has already been done to absolute death’.
Despite the use of celebrities in ~ everyday ~ roles, and technology taking a back seat this season, it’s important not to underestimate the genius of Brooker and his writing. If technology is blending more seamlessly into the episodes, allowing more screen time for the characters' humanity –there is a reason behind this. Perhaps, for example, Brooker is trying to illustrate how such technology is no longer futuristic, Ashley O’s doll is, after all, not much more far-fetched than an Alexa or Google Home device, and virtual reality games already exist, although not quite such immersive ones.
This series illustrates how the future is closer to us than we'd like to think, particularly with 'Smithereens', set in 2018, in which an intern at a social media company is abducted by a vengeful widower, whose wife died in a car crash caused by his own inability to look away from his phone. The technology here at first seems irrelevant, and the abductor’s blaming of his phone for the accident is a tired narrative. Painting social media and mobile phones as the root of all evil seems rather low-hanging fruit for Brooker. Yet, on closer inspection, the irony of the characters relying on technology and mobile phones to communicate with the abductor and the hostage and ease the situation for a majority of the episode becomes clear.
Therefore, whilst viewers were unhappy with the lack of inventive technology and dystopian, futuristic setting this season, it could be argued that there is no longer a need for Brooker to create such a tech-reliant, dark world for us, as we may already be living in one.
All seasons of Black Mirror are available on Netflix now.