It’s hard to believe that Black Mirror is already in season five. After the wait for this season, it’s also a little disappointing that there’s only three episodes. Like most anthologies, Black Mirror has always been hit-or-miss with its stories. From previous seasons, Nosedive, San Junipero, and USS Callister are some of the best it has to offer. How does Season 5 fare?
Episode 1: Striking Vipers
Two buddies, Danny and Karl, are now thirty-somethings, one married and the other single. When they were younger, they played a fighting video game. Now, the virtual-reality version is available, and Karl gifts it to Danny, the two men enjoying the trip down memory lane as they plug into the Matrix-like interface and square off against each other. Danny’s avatar is a a male martial artist, channeling Ryu from Street Fighter, and Karl’s is a female who looks at home in the Tekken universe. Their first fight ends with an in-game kiss, causing Danny to freak out
If you’ve read Ready Player One, you’ll recognize a theme where players assume avatars of the opposite sex in online games. In RPO, one of the big moments occurs when Wade discovers his best male friend is very different in real life than his avatar in the Oasis. This was a great moment in RPO. In Striking Vipers, however, it’s a bit unclear what the writers are shooting for. Even Danny and Karl don’t know. We’re not sure if Danny is confused by his friend’s ultra-realistic in-game transformation to a different gender or if both men are unhappy in their heterosexual relationships because they have always had romantic feelings for each other. If the story question is about a relationship where there is a gender change, it reminds me a bit of the Star Trek The Next Generation episode “The Host” where Beverly Crusher has a relationship with a Trill (the symbiotic species featured as Dax in Deep Space Nine). When the male host of the Trill is mortally injured, the Trill ends up transplanted first into Riker and then into a female host, at which point Beverly discontinues the relationship.
The Black Mirror episode is the opposite of this, using the gender change as an enabler for the relationship. There is also a subtext about whether things in the fantasy context of the game (or the Internet) matter, if they are not real. Kudos to Black Mirror for tackling the theme.
On the positive, the visualizations of the video game’s fight sequences and environments were fun (in a Scott Pilgrim kind of way). Overall, not a bad episode - just one that needed to pick a path and commit.
Episode 2: Smithereens
A taxi driver blames himself and a Twitter-like social media app for the death of his finance. The driver kidnaps an intern from the social media company and holds him hostage, demanding to speak to the company’s CEO. His plan is to tell the CEO his story, then kill himself. That’s pretty much the plot.
Smithereens was pointless. There’s the usual hostage drama of a police standoff with an armed guy in a car, and phone calls to/from the car. For some reason, the episode chooses to make the driver, Chris, the protagonist. In his backstory, Chris got bored while driving his sleeping finance and started surfing on his phone, crashing and killing her. Now Chris blames the Internet. He states how the app is designed to be addictive with its notifications. He’s not a very sympathetic character. A better choice would have been the poor intern, Jaden, thrust into this life-or-death situation. Jaden even risks his life to try and prevent Chris’s suicide. You can imagine an improved version of this episode told like the movie Collateral, where the hostage, Jamie Foxx, is the everyman and the bad guy is Tom Cruise. Smithereens seems to forget that Chris is the Bad Guy.
I said it was pointless, but it’s more accurate to say that it misses its own point - the responsibility of social media CEOs for companies like Twitter and Facebook to keep their apps from being tools for evil. There is more than a splash of truth about the engineered-in addictive qualities of these apps. Facebook, in particular, is constantly experimenting with you to increase your eyes upon itself, and this was Chris’s point. The CEO in Smithereens isn’t even the bad guy; he genuinely wants to save both men and admits that his own company has slipped out of his control. In the episode’s end, everyone just goes on his way after the events unfold. Nothing has changed and nothing was learned (which, based on the character’s indifference as they read the news notifications at the conclusion, is actually the dark point of the episode.)
Episode 3: Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too
A teenage girl receives an AI doll which emulates her favorite pop star, Ashley O. When the real Ashley O falls into a coma, the girl realizes the doll is actually a copy of Ashley’s brain. She also discovers the real Ashley is not the chipper, empowering-messaged version portrayed in the media, and that Ashley’s coma is not what it seems. A team consisting of her, her punk sister, and the foul-mouthed AI set out to rescue the real Ashley.
This is the most enjoyable episode of the three. The AI doll has an Alexa-like quality, and the CG used to animate it is eerily seamless. Miley Cyrus is the perfect selection for the part. Later in the story there’s a full-body scan and digital replacement of the comatose Ashley - something which sci-fi has tackled before, and which modern cinema dabbles. In movies, it makes me think of the somewhat-obscure 1981 movie Looker, whose plot involved scanning (and then murdering) models to use as digital actors in commercials.
In modern times, we have the recreation of both Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia in Rogue One.
Although the themes aren’t as obvious as the other episodes, the plotting is more traditional with a quest and a bad guy, and the story has fun doing it. As a result, it’s the most enjoyable to watch.
There are no USS Callisters this year, but episode 3 is fun and episode 1 merits points for posing difficult questions. All three episodes suffer from pacing issues, and could use shorter running times, but the season itself feels more polished than previous. Where previous seasons offered episodes which were, at times, more sketches than stories, this season has full-fledged stories. Not a bad Black Mirror, and definitely worth bingeing.