By Jack Holmes
“I bet it’s all in her head”, “I bet they’re really in space”, “I bet everyone else is a robot”, half of the fun of Black Mirror is working out just which terrifying sci-fi nightmare, writer Charlie Brooker has created for each instalment. Now published and funded by Netflix you might expect Black Mirror to have broken away from the formulas relied upon in its first two seasons, and in a lot of ways you’d be right. Season three brings new styles, messages and predictions to the table, but the shows reliance on mystery, confusion and being kept in the dark regarding the truth of each utopian and dystopian setting until the last fifteen/twenty minutes of each episode are very much intact.
It’s that formula that becomes one of Black Mirrors greatest assets and worst flaws, all depending on just how each episode plays them. Take the show’s fourth episode San Junipero for example. The episode distances itself from the typical shiny screens and super sci-fi settings Black Mirror has so regularly depicted, instead throws us into a 1987 holiday destination. You know there’s a twist coming, you know there’s some technological aspect to what appears to be a typical love story, you’re just spending your time pinpointing exactly where it lies. Watching that episode back you’ll spot clue after clue about the truth but they’re not obvious, in this episode or most of the other six episodes that make up the show’s third season.
The only downside to this structure is that there comes a point in every episode with a dark twist or secret to reveal where the mood changes from one of dark mystery and to having information unloaded, fact after fact, in an almost overwhelming manner. It works well in some cases, for example Man Against Fire’s final monologue is intercut with some harrowing images, making for one of the hardest hitting moments of the season. But contrast this with the season’s second episode Playtest, which focuses on VR technology, simply feels like technobabble designed to justify the events shown. The rule of thumb on the matter seems to be that if the explanation of the technology involved in the episode has already been shown in its darkest light during the course of its self-contained story line, there’s little shocking material left to offer. Playtest’s key ideas are explained before the thirty-minute mark of the episode, and therefore the shock comes far before the end of the episode, meaning its third act feels a little lacklustre.
It’s not to say that every single episode focuses on revealing the truths of shocking dystopian futures, though, in a move that differs largely from Black Mirror’s previous two seasons, episodes are not entirely soul-crushing affairs (we were surprised as well). The show opens with Nosedive, an episode focusing on the idea of rating other people, think a mashup of Yelp and Facebook, played out in real time, and very publicly. The idea is solid and could very easily have been formulated into a terrifying dystopia where the popular rule and everyone else is forced to beg for approval in a modern coliseum style society. Nosedive instead appears to indicate that the technology is, although active on everyone, not adopted into everyone’s lives as an essential aspect of their day to day activities. The protagonist’s brother for example regularly attempts to convince his sister to ignore the rating system that’s put in place, acting as a kind of plea to viewers when it comes to their use of social media and app-based technology. The episode even ends on an uplifting note as well, a feat no other Black Mirror episode before it had ever even attempted, not overtly anyway.
Speaking of upbeat, there should be a certain nod given to the homages throughout Black Mirror, including a 42 track long playlist that runs through the seasons San Junipero episode. Without ruining the episodes shocking twist, each track gives a little clue as to exactly what the climax of the storyline is going to be. Even the outfits in that particular episode are references to other 80’s classics including Breakfast Club and Rocky. Another notable mention is the Bioshock shout out, in Playtest with a well-timed “would you kindly”, the famous phrase from the series’ first game, that had a similar tone to that of this particular “what even is reality?” episode.
Black Mirror’s third season is a slightly different take on the same tried and tested system of its finest two seasons. Feeling very much at home on Netflix, it brings new aspects to the “fear the future” vibe, adding some well-needed silver linings at times to finally make a full season watchable in one sitting, without the side effect of crippling depression. With only a handful of missteps, the show will almost definitely be returning for a fourth season, should Charlie Brooker have more material stored away in his paranoid, yet intelligent and forward thinking mind. Having watch Brooker speak of technology for years on various panel shows, Screen Wipes and in interviews, we’re sure there’ll be more dystopian horror for you to sink your teeth into before long. Until then, turn off your phone, cover your webcam and give season three a watch.