Thursday October 1, 2020

For now we see through a glass, darkly

The third season of Black Mirror deepens Charlie Brooker's writing into a complex exploration of tech's effects on behaviour

Emmet Ryan

Technology Correspondent

3rd November, 2016
Charlie Brooker. Pic: Getty

Before we get into the important bits, this column contains spoilers, lots of spoilers.

In fact, just assume it has all of the spoilers. If you haven't watched the third season of Black Mirror on Netflix yet, don't read on.

Well, watch the third season as soon as you can then come right back here and read this. Since debuting on Channel 4 in 2011 Black Mirror's central theme has been technology and its influence on society.

The crucial message with writer Charlie Brooker, almost always, isn't that the IT itself is bad but that we as a society find ways to make it terrible.

Oddly, Brooker's finest work in the new season of Black Mirror actually moves away from this theme somewhat. San Junipero (episode four) is one of the best works to appear on any kind of screen in 2016. It's bound to win a heap of Hugo awards and likely an Emmy or two but far more importantly it represents a departure from Brooker's usually dystopian view of the future.

The story is great but Brooker's ability to make it about how people use technology, in his usual Tales of the Unexpected style, without everything ending miserably is a massive departure.

The concept of heaven as cloud storage is something that was waiting to be written.

Black Mirror finds a way to tease out the challenges of such a concept while pushing through the human aspect.

It's the first time the series has ever managed such a tale without everything ending terribly. Two well-written characters brilliantly performed help but the role of IT here is probably at its best in the series. It's a concept around which the story is built rather than a rifle on a wall.

That's the problem with the two episodes that are essentially dedicated to mind control or alteration.

Playtest (episode two) and, to a worse degree, Men against Fire (episode five) are both a little too connected to the tech within to give room for the story to breathe.

While Playtest is just a mediocre attempt at a good old-fashioned horror, Men Against Fire is a victim of that Tales of the Unexpected predictability like no other episode in the series. Being able to see from the off how everything is going to end terribly is fine so long as the story is worth following. That made Tales of the Unexpected's better episodes, and Black Mirror's in kind, watchable, despite twists blatant from the off.

Neither episode gives its characters enough beef to be really worth following. This puts the weight on the tech to carry the story.

Augmented reality as horror could work but the very nature of the tech relies on the people using it being interesting.

We don't get that with Playtest.

Men against Fire, which uses implants to trick the mind, has the same fate and frankly doesn't do enough about the potential pervasion of such tools in the military. Contrast these with the series opener, Nosedive, where the ills that will befall Bryce Dallas Howard's character by episode end are obvious from the start.

However, the journey there and the way people interact with such a social rating-driven society makes it compelling viewing.

It's how people live on the grid, what happens to them when they go off, and the societal pressure exacerbated by technology that make this episode work.

That blend, allowing the characters to lead and the IT to support, is the sweet spot for Black Mirror. While inhumanity is at the core of Men Against Fire and Nosedive, it's probably given its rawest appraisal in Shut up and Dance (episode three). The antagonists are people who never seen or heard, communicating only via text.

Removing that context of voice allows the viewer to imagine it for themselves, in much the same way as reading a text message in ordinary life.

That builds a connection with the story and the tech within as their lack of identity makes them fascinating. The obvious hints that none of the protagonists are innocent are less relevant. The viewer wants to see how the mental torment plays out through texts and drones.

Although lacking the strength of episode four, Hated in the Nation (episode six) probably gives the greatest insight into the future of drama as we know it.

Brooker's stories are all about how humanity changes as new technologies become mainstream.

Here he delivers a fundamental detective drama with an eye to what this form will have to deal with in the future.

The core tech at the heart of the tale, autonomous robot bees that are used for murder, might be a little out there but the data analysis, criminal grade hacking, and government surveillance themes were well explored.

Again, it undoubtedly helped having an actress as strong as Kelly MacDonald, but the human interaction with tech was well explored. The room provided by Netflix to make episodes of such varying length, coupled with the budgetary boost, helped Brooker's storytelling in this series. Humanity adapting to technology still felt a touch rushed as a concept in one or two episodes but on the whole this was a big step forward for Black Mirror.

Its ability to be more than simply dystopian, only really glanced at previously in the second season opener Be Right Back, added much-needed depth. Brooker's goal is far from saying something as blunt as people are bad so technology makes us worse. He's trying to present a complex series of visions around the questions that face society as we learn to use new tools in the future.

Despite two poor episodes, this latest season does so well.

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