Reviews of Black Mirror (2011) and related work

Black Mirror (2011) IMDb

Caught up as of season 5 (2019).

“I didn’t expect to find myself living in the future but here I fucking well am.”

SF/horror anthology. To get a sense of show runner and frequent writer Charlie Brooker’s mindset, watch his 2001 episode of Brass Eye. He usually tries to be equally vicious and insulting here, but less funny.

References here: The Break (2018).

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“The National Anthem” (2011) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

The British PM is instructed to have sex with a pig to rescue a popular princess.

Though it’s unusually dense, this is a very low form of social commentary. The framing suggests that the writers think they’re being incisive, as if the debasement of David Cameron were truly challenging, but it’s just a spectacle that needs a boring supervillain to seem plausible.

References here: “The Waldo Moment” (2013).

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Fifteen Million Merits (2011) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

Exercise bikes power the world and video stars rule it. Everybody’s got a Mii, the fat are vilified and reality TV is reality.

Network (1976) for Youtubers, or The X Factor (2004) as dystopia. It’s internally consistent and reasonably elegant in its premises, but it’s a Juvenalian satire, preoccupied with its own grotesquerie and low on insight.

References here: Nosedive (2016), “Hang the DJ” (2017).

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“The Entire History of You” (2011) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

This is one case where the single-premise extrapolation doesn’t quite make sense as society has neither adapted to the one change nor extracted comparable technologies from prerequisites for the “grain”. More importantly, the upper-middle-class setting is remarkably sterile and, surprisingly, it turns out there is no point to that choice.

References here: White Christmas (2014).

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“Be Right Back” (2013) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

Promising start, no conclusion.

References here: White Christmas (2014).

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“White Bear” (2013) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

An unwatchable attempt to underpin bad horror tropes with bad LARP tropes.

References here: White Christmas (2014), Black Museum (2017).

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“The Waldo Moment” (2013) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

More of “The National Anthem” (2011): Ostensibly an analytical piece on hypocrisy in liberal democracies, but there’s nothing to it.

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White Christmas (2014) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

The only good idea in here is that of teaching a digital assistant about a customer’s preferences by secretly copying the customer into a simulation. There are major weaknesses to the implementation of this idea: It is so labour-intensive that it requires multiple surgeries and a professional torturer’s time on site. Given that the copy and the original work closely and intimately in their “smart home”, the implementation leaves no explanation for why the copy does not communicate or give up on her evidently meaningless life or go mad even in the absence of further torture.

If the reason why she does not go mad is some feature of the product—akin to the removal of eating and sleeping—then the process should also be capable of stripping away the parts of the mind that make the product a legal liability and will similarly threaten its function, aside from being so repugnant as to constitute a horror scenario for television. The implementation lacks that feature because horror is the writer’s only purpose. The technology of “Be Right Back” (2013) would have made a better foundation for the episode: An AI trained on data within the user’s control.

The use of the same cookie technology for interrogation is better than “White Bear” (2013) but not by much. The “blocking” (i.e. shadow-banning) relationship drama is worse than “The Entire History of You” (2011). Both scenarios presuppose that we’ll sleepwalk into a torturing surveillance state and not care about it even when we notice. Too cynical.

References here: “Hang the DJ” (2017), “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” (2019).

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Nosedive (2016) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

Social privileges based on highly visible grades, up to 5 stars, set on everybody by everybody.

The opening is good but the hypocrisy is extreme. This seems to be a society without both humour and serious concerns. There are points of contact with plausibility—level-headed brother Ryan and Susan who “used to live for it”—but even they don’t seem to care about how their society works or why. The armed guards don’t suggest cui bono. As in Fifteen Million Merits (2011), the media stars might be the rulers, but this is not clear.

It would have been a better idea to extrapolate from the PRC’s social credit system, still in its infancy in 2016. That wouldn’t have prevented focusing on “aspirational” influencer culture to the point of dystopian allegory.

References here: “Hang the DJ” (2017).

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“Playtest” (2016) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

Maybe a friendly AR game of whack-a-mole.

A cheap imitation of Philip K. Dick and eXistenZ (1999). If the ending means anything, I suppose it’s an attack on some nebulous corporate evil that would knowingly kill its workers in testing an inherently unsafe technology. Maybe this was meant to touch on the gig economy, or the entertainment industry, or capitalism, or whatever the writers thought was trending at the time.

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“Shut Up and Dance” (2016) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

Alex Lawther is very good in this thriller; his character being a teenager helps explain his bad decisions. The technology is credible and blackmail over (non-existent) masturbation videos ostensibly captured by malware on laptop webcams was a trendy form of scam for cryptocurrency in 2019. Also, the episode has “Exit Music (for a Film)” put to good use; bonus points for that.

It’s strange that everybody trying to hide their shame is a man. The bigger problem is the karmic avenger villain trope of Seven (1995), The Bridge (2011) et al. We never get to see the mastermind and they never offer an explanation, but judging by the non-collection of the money and the decision to spill all the secrets despite implausible total obedience from all of the puppets, we must infer that the puppet master did it all just to torture the puppets. This is a short circuit between the writers’ fear of a hacker and their own Abrahamic-style bad conscience and yearning for justice. It doesn’t make sense and it leads nowhere, despite the solid execution. The coincidence of meeting Karen illustrates why a chain of strangers blackmailed via instant messages is not used in real life. It wouldn’t be used for something so theatrical.

References here: Hated in the Nation (2016), “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” (2019).

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San Junipero (2016) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

Love, eldercare and the afterlife.

References here: Striking Vipers (2019).

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“Men Against Fire” (2016) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

Roaches.

Dystopia. Stand on Zanzibar’s eugenics-induced popular contempt for genetic defects coupled with Black Mirror’s recurring phenomenological/AR cybernetics, possibly enhanced with direct editing of memories, and a very vaguely defined future geopolitics where, it is implied, English-speaking troops under a novel V flag expand out from densely populated areas (Britain?) into rural Denmark (or is it supposed to be a thawed Danish-speaking Greenland?) to exterminate heritable diseases in a digestible manner patterned after Aliens (1986). The execution is a bit cheap but the writing is solid.

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Hated in the Nation (2016) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

Internet hate in a more advanced neonicotinoid ecological crisis where robotic bees handle pollination on a UK government contract.

A murder mystery segueing into a techno-thriller. Well executed. The premise is funny; a kind of fairy tale about IoT security, echoing Argento’s Phenomena (1985) with good CGI instead of coffee grounds. There’s some good dark comedic writing helping to set that tone, and Jonas Karlsson speaks adorable Swenglish in his attempt to export Nordic noir. Alas, it is not credible that artificial pollinators would look so much like bees yet be freely self-replicating, magnetizable and strong enough to burrow into a human head, nor would you actually feel that much pain from a bee once it was inside your brain. Even with the GCHQ twist, the reprogramming required for the finale would be difficult; so much so that the incident should not be the first of its kind in this future.

The evil genius can’t handle Exif, can’t destroy a hard drive in a forge and does his programming in Tcl/expect; apparently his targets run DD-WRT. The addition of online polling, a ticking clock, merely phobia-based horror and ostensibly ironic vigilante abuse of government surveillance only hurts the narrative further, with writer Charlie Brooker hypocritically pretending to be interested in the problem of collective responsibility and really shoehorning social media into it, as if to avoid a reasonable and elegant thought experiment. It’s just another implausible avenger as in “Shut Up and Dance” (2016).

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USS Callister (2017) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

The first I saw of Black Mirror. I appreciate the decision to parody the conceitedness of Star Trek (1966) as something truly terrible. Alas, the external reality of this feature-length movie is every bit as nonsensical as the simulation inside: The technology “just works” in whatever way drives the narrative. It doesn’t make sense that DNA is all Daly needs to create exact copies with perfect memories, nor that emptying the fridge would prevent Daly from recreating his copies, nor that the characters can still act in a paused game, nor that Daly would be trapped, and so on. Prefer “Hollow Pursuits” (1990), Star Trek’s own take on the same idea, told from the perspective of the perpetrator’s superiors.

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“Arkangel” (2017) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

Monitoring a child through cameras in its eyes.

The peripety is not very well conceived or executed but the strong premise carries that weight.

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“Crocodile” (2017) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

“A crowd-sourced picture of reality.”

I appreciate the effort to take some of the franchise motifs, along with a more general extrapolation (self-driving cars), and show how something as prosaic as an insurance claims investigator would do her work. This rounds out the worldbuilding very nicely, even though the way she does her work turns out to be a cross between telepathic television and a Voight-Kampff test. The monitor looks like an old CRT for no reason; there’s no indication of a variable-voxel-density hologram, brain-like photogrammetry or other way to get near a human sensorium. There’s also the peculiar circumstance that not having your mind read in an investigation of somebody else’s accident is a crime, which is a strangely off-handed dystopia for the sake of plot convenience; that should have been shown as a lie.

The information that Shazia is looking for could conceivably be encoded to a useful extent without being accessible to conscious recall, even if the technology for extracting it is implausibly light. I especially like the detail of the lime-green coat turning yellow, clearly illustrating a known weakness of a technology that is evidently useful in spite of its weakness. This is a good way to distinguish it from hypertech-as-magic.

The murders are boring, even superfluous, apart from the twist of watching the watchman, and the technological incentive to kill even the toddler and the pet.

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“Hang the DJ” (2017) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

Involuntary dating and co-habitation for arbitrary lengths of time with round smartphones.

Another one of Black Mirror’s single-premise future dystopias based on specific social trends. I guess this is the satire on dating apps as a dystopia: A world ruled by zero-input Tinder. This one is closer to reality than Nosedive (2016) yet requires a physically closed society like Fifteen Million Merits (2011) to enforce its rules. The premises are extraordinarily lazy, so much so that people should just be shouting cui bono, unmollified by Coach’s insistence that “everything happens for a reason”.

Coach’s reason exists and is as stupid as I expected. The two major characters, whose actors are both very good, do speculate on how the system works and rebel against it to go “over the wall”, but this only raises the usual question: Given that the reason for their ignorance is external to their diegesis, and the simulation also explains why people don’t seem to work and why they live in a closed society, why is the simulation so inefficient and so tortuous? It is the premise of White Christmas (2014) again, with the same flaws, multiplied by 1000, cross-bred with the ending of The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and recast as a romantic triumph. It’s hard to watch, from start to finish.

References here: Rick and Morty (2013).

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“Metalhead” (2017) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

Civilization, brought down by unknown means, is kept low by robot dogs very similar to Boston Dynamics products.

Post-apocalypse. Very simple and not terribly clever, but an unusually relatable, reasonable and relevant extrapolation for Black Mirror. The dogs are a lot less intimidating than the one in Snow Crash (1992) or the slamhound that opens Count Zero (1986), but I suppose that’s part of the point. They’re just good enough and their flaws are not ours. Whatever brought down civilization did it on the cheap.

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Black Museum (2017) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

Simple, conservative horror, not unlike Hell Girl (2005). The first story has a good middle section culminating in an inferior Brainstorm (1983), but it spirals into grotesquerie instead of going the distance. The only good thing about the second story is that Rolo Haynes briefly notes the procedure became illegal and the ACLU put him out of a job: A rare glimpse of sense and credibility where the show is normally cynical about democracy and popular sentiment. The third story fails yet again to distinguish between simulation and reality, repeating the evident punitive fallacy of “White Bear” (2013). The suffering of a copy of Rolo Haynes is supposed to be a triumph, or somehow double-edged, but it’s just suffering, and it doesn’t make sense as a technology. The allusions to previous episodes imply a coherent future history the writers never try to deliver.

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Striking Vipers (2019) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

College buddies reconnect inside the first fully immersive VR fighting game.

There are three major ideas to this narrative: The story of an ordinary life, well told; the typical implicit tension of contemporary fighting games as a genre and, finally, what you might call the “Ben & Gunnar” thesis, that any intimate friendship, with the example of male bonding, is essentially love and has a latent romantic dimension.

These ideas are run through the particle collider of extrapolative near-future hard SF with a layer of insulation for the players’ sense of identity. The collision is fruitful. A couple of scenes do flirt with the psychological naïveté of Mazes and Monsters (1982) and the execution is not as smooth as San Junipero (2016), but given the technology, it makes sense to me that players would have experiences similar to this in the early stages, presaging a cultural shift. I appreciate the naturalism and the complete lack of horror, cynicism and bitterness attached to Danny’s crisis.

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Smithereens (2019) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

Drama without SF or horror. Empty.

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“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” (2019) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

Two school girls accidentally remove a “limiter” on a digital copy of a starlet’s personality, which is a marginally more rational version of the technology of White Christmas (2014). Meanwhile, the real starlet composes music in a simulated coma because show business is pure evil.

This episode should have been patterned after Phantom of the Paradise (1974), not an after-school special about morality and self-confidence. The didactic first half lacks the emotion of “Shut Up and Dance” (2016). The last half is incoherent all the way from the overarching plot—where the idea is to charge live-performance prices for a ubiquitous recording—down to the smallest details, like the mouse-trap engineer and his daughter both thinking that voltage makes an electrocution lethal, and the arm restraints that seem designed to cause bed sores.

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