April 18, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Black Mirror returned to our screens this Christmas with a new season of six episodes eager to script our nightmares and consume our conversations.

Black Mirror returned to our screens this Christmas with a new season of six episodes eager to script our nightmares and consume our conversations. For those not familiar with the show, Black Mirror is a technological dystopia created by Charlie Brooker. It is comprised of several episodes across which plots and casts standalone but themes and concerns are shared. The common thread is technology: what we can do with technology, and what technology can do with us. Season four sticks to this formula, and each episode teases out various plausible and not-so-plausible futures. The Twilight Zone, unsurprisingly, is a major influence. The new technologies on display this season include, among others, portable militarised robots capable of tracking and targeting specific people, next-gen surveillance devices which prove irresistible to worried parents, and a dating app resembling Tinder on steroids.

As with all other seasons of Black Mirror, some episodes are more accomplished than others. Arkangel is an exploration of the perils of overparenting in a digital age, but its intriguing premise is let down by a weak script. Crocodile is a grimly stylish thriller that makes haunting use of a memory-reading device. However, the polished Scandi-noir aesthetic cannot compensate for gaping plot holes. Hang the DJ, which takes the trends of modern dating and extrapolates into the future, has a terrific script, making its sentimental, mushy ending all-the-more disappointing. The fifth episode, Metalhead, a black-and-white thriller about small robotic ‘dogs’ set in a post-apocalyptic world, has divided critical opinion: a startling fact, considering how dull it is. The design of the robot is interesting, and avoids the usual temptation to anthropomorphise, but its 41 minutes are best spent elsewhere.

The season is redeemed by its first and last episodes. USS Callister depicts a Star Trek-esque world, with a sadistic twist. This episode has rightly been highly praised, for its dark humour, its wit, and its tense climax, and is already generating rumours of a possible spin-off. But it is Black Museum, with its interweaving of seemingly unrelated flashbacks into an ending of real power, that emerges as the strongest episode of the season. Its depictions of the uses and abuses of neuro-tech thrive as arresting tales in their own right (and one segment is based on a Penn Jillette short story), and it manages to pack a lot into its 69 minutes running time without feeling forced.

Despite this, I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed; the season felt rushed, though this is perhaps testament to just how accomplished some of the earlier episodes have been. If I had to rank them, The National Anthem, The Entire History of You, and Hated in the Nation form the must-watch trilogy from the earlier seasons. From this latest offering, only USS Callister and Black Museum even vaguely threaten to knock these off their podium. In season four, hardened fans of Black Mirror will find an uneven but worthy successor to season three. But newer viewers are advised to start with the earlier seasons of a show that aims to give us a premonitory glimpse into the brave new world of the future of technology.

Jordan Hindson is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London

Banner Image: Dystopian Metropolis, Emil Eklund / Flickr