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Binging Black Mirror Season Four

As soon as Black Mirror hit Netflix I started binge watching it. Well, half an hour after it hit Netflix. I also decided to run with a different experiment: vlog and blog it ‘while’ watching it. I didn’t literally write and vlog while watching it, but I did it immediately after. This does mean the take on them will be more immediate than it might be with some deep reflection.

It’s a new process, let’s see what results.

I’ve not listed the episodes in order of watching but in reverse order of how much I liked them.

It’s worth noting this will involve major spoilers.

The Channel Video

This blog has a companion video on the channel which discusses these same topics no doubt with slight variation!

#6 – Metalhead

Not sure what to make of this one. You can tell by the fact I haven’t even got a representative quote.

Three people go to a warehouse to collect something and return with it. It’s assumed they have some sort of safe compound they belong to and they’ve gone out on an expedition. What this is they’re retrieving isn’t revealed until the end.

This is a world in which AI hunter killer cockroaches have taken over. They’re called ‘dogs’ but they move and work exactly like robot cockroaches. You basically have The Walking Dead crossed with The Terminator.

The problem with the episode can exemplified by contrasting it with USS Callister. USS Callister with 15-25 minutes added on could have been shown at the cinema and I’d have paid my money and I’d have been extraordinarily happy with the experience.

Metelhead feels like a well put together student short that has been expanded out to 45-minutes.

The relentless AI cockroach is very well realised on screen. It gives Maxine Peake a run for her money as the best thing on screen as they engage in their life and death struggle. I found the AI creature fascinating and it is one of the big wins of the episode. A bit like The Walking Dead the main protagonist survives by using some of the ‘rules of such a creature’ against it and it’s a fascinating struggle.

It’s just not enough though.

You can’t help feeling they made it in black and white because they realised this. The episode is also one of the straight up ones. It doesn’t necessarily say anything profound or enlightening it is just a science fiction, post-apocalyptic survival story so it’s like they added back and white to add the art to it.

This is the first episode I could take or leave. It’s quite weak. The great realisation of Terminator Cockroach doesn’t make a brilliant Black Mirror episode.

#5 – The Black Museum

‘I am getting myself a souvenir. Always on. Always suffering.’

The episode is an anthology of stories within an anthology series as we get three tales from the Black Museum in this instalment.

I enjoyed the two tales within the episode, though it did feel a bit more like The Twilight Zone than Black Mirror. The show has always skirted the edge of being a modern version of the Twilight Zone but it usually avoids this by being slightly more relevant and profound in its storytelling. This one is straight up Twilight Zone even down to the twists in the final act. You could argue the stories within the stories are ideas that didn’t feel full on Black Mirror so they ended up here?

I’m not very good at it, but I suspect there is a game to be played in recognising technology from previous Black Mirror episodes in the museum. Have to admit I only realised this was a thing because the device from USS Callister to put the digital copies in the virtual world is in the museum.

I suspect it gets a bit meta.

It is phenomenally well acted, particularly the duet played between Douglas Hodge and Letitia Wright. The way Hodge tells the stories draws you in and as they focus switches over the course of the episode Letitia takes the lead and she is absolutely brilliant.

It was very good TV and it is a very hard decision between this episode and Crocodile. Thy could easily find themselves swapping places.

#4 – Crocodile

‘Memories can be subjective what we do is build up an overall average. A crowd sourced picture of reality.’

In any other TV show this would be a very strong episode. In Black Mirror it ends up being an average episode. There is nothing wrong with it but neither does it really stand out or, I feel, say anything profound.

A young couple go to a party, drive home on drugs and alcohol and kill a man in a road accident. The man persuades his girl friend to hide the incident and they live with this for fifteen years. The woman goes on to get a family, children and a successful life while the man stays a failure and has problems with drugs.

That is until he turns up fifteen years later and insists he has to contact the wife of his victim as part of his recovery, which seemed pretty, bloody selfish the way it came across. At this point I thought the episode might have went towards exploring how we deal with such an event. What could be considered redemption? What is just a perpetrator being selfish and so on.

Alas no, the woman kills her boyfriend of fifteen years ago and it turns into a murder mystery.

The Black Mirror element is the recaller device, which looks like some sort of retro medical device that allows for memories to be seen so a crowd sourced version of reality can be pulled from peoples’ memories. Using this is an insurance investigator that follows memories about an insurance claim to uncover the murder. This then kicks off another series of unfortunate events as the murderer is forced to do more to cover her tracks.

I’m not sure what the recall device adds other than being an interesting McGuffin to connect the mystery. Yes, it plays with the idea slightly that our memories should be private, but not any serious or profound way. We get the dentist taking a photo of a naked man. We have the principle character killing a child because it ‘saw’ her so could be recalled. So you get some of the consequences of the technology but it’s sort of shoulder shrugging and in a previous season focused on unparalleled recorded memory recall much better.

It didn’t help that the twist wasn’t a twist as I saw it coming as soon as they got the Guinea Pig. It as was purchased out of the blue so it was almost certainly going to be a plot device so the obvious device was it was going to be recalled for its memories later in the episode.

It was beautiful shot though. Though even this weakened the episode a bit as while the snow scenes were stunning you couldn’t help but think it was just trying to be something like Fargo.

A solid murder mystery and psychological drama, but in Black Mirror terms a weaker offering.

#3 – Arkangel

‘I am 2000 years old and I remember when we used to open the doors and let the kids be’

I don’t have kids so this is a topic that I often feel I want to pitch in on but feel I shouldn’t as I don’t have to make those choices day after day. Arkangel starts off with what looks like an obvious trajectory the modern need to constantly monitor your kids and protect them.

It happens now. We used to set off on our bikes and our parents would not fully know our location for a whole day. No they always know with mobile phones and feel the need to know despite the fact they are probably safer now.

The idea being the episode would show screwed up the kid would get being constantly monitored. It goes to a different place.

Interestingly, when the constant monitoring and protection filter starts to turn the kid into a psycho the episode goes in an interesting direction. They stop using the device which allows the child to grow up over the next 7-8 years or so into a very healthy and well-adjusted teenage. A totally different direction than what I was expecting.

The interesting thing about the second half of the episode is it explores how it can be damaging to know too much about a young adult’s life. After uncovering a lie the mother begins using the device gain and captures her having sex and later tying drugs. The belief being she is going off the rails with a bad boyfriend that is influencing her. The truth is more complex, they are teenage, experimental choices which, while they were not wise, were at the healthier end. Th boyfriend was someone she knew for years, was loving and he gave her good advice. The drugs she wanted to try, he tried to persuade her not to, and is one a one off experiment.

But perception is everything. Needless to say things go into a downward spiral and due to knowing too much the parent makes a fateful and disastrous choice, resulting in her bringing about everything she was trying to avoid and loses the trust of her daughter and runs away.

Fascinating episode, but at the point I watched this USS Callister exists on a totally different level in terms of scale, entertainment and horror. Great story though.

#2 – Hang The DJ

‘Must have been mental before The System. Well, people had to do the whole relationship thing themselves. Work out who they wanted to be with.’

In season three of Black Mirror there was an episode called San Junipero it was brilliant, gorgeous and just a thing of beauty. It was a love story and one of the best ones told across TV and film. As a single piece of TV I’d recommend it to anyone.

Hang The DJ is this seasons San Junipero. Is it as good? Probably not, but by virtue of the fact it came second it has some disadvantages.

Hang The DJ tells the story of Frank and Amy. They are looking for the one, but they live in a world were all the decisions regarding relationships are taking away from them. They are in The System, a mixture of walled retreat and an app know as coach controls their love life until they are decisively paired with The One.

It’s a fascinating journey as the episode questions the nature of relationships and the decisions we make. You see The System decides everything. Your next partner. How long that relationship will be. The style of place you’ll live in the food you’d have on your first date.

The main thrust of events being that relationships are hard, but if we take the choices away then they become even harder. How can a relationship ever work if you know it’s destined to be 2 hours, 36 hours or five years long as you start the first date? Why should you stay in the bad relationship for 12-months? Is The System finding the one or just ensuring you are ground down and willing to compromise so by the time you find it you’re willing to accept it?

It’s a love story which asks questions and it is brilliant.

Even though I said there would be spoilers going into this one I’m not going to reveal it. Did they find the one? Did they end up with each other? What might it really mean in the future when dating algorithms take hold and tell you that you have a 99.8% match?

Find out in Hang The DJ. It’s brilliant.

#1 – USS Callister

‘You are in the bubble universe of an ass-hole God!’

It’s Black Mirror so you know the core of most of the episodes will be the subversion of your expectations.

USS Callister sets things up to be a love story. The love story of an unappreciated CTO, who has lost the respect of his company, everyone from his CEO partner to the intern and receptionist, don’t give him any respect, but a new girl starts who seems to like him for who he is. So it plays with the expectation of the young woman, falling in love with the CTO and making realises he does not need his virtual universe to be respected.

Of course it does not go like that.

What’s actually happening is truly horrific. The CTO isn’t living out an altruistic fantasy life he’s getting revenge in his virtual universe. Not only that the people in the universe are not ‘programs’ that turn off but actual digital copies of the real-world characters who exist for eternity while the game is ‘turned off’.

As one character puts it they are in the ‘bubble universe of an ass-hole God’.

The slow reveal of the true horror of the situation is absolutely brilliantly done. As is the realisation there is potential for them to escape. The show uses numerous Star Trek staples to provide familiarity within the horror. All the generic planet monsters are digital copies he got angry with. The Khan-like arch-nemesis begs to die to end their eternal conflict. The kissing of each of the female characters at the end of each episode is funny in the pre-credit intro, awful when done later once the full situation is revealed.

This is reversed later when the episode plays with the heroic tropes in the virtual and real world hiest they pull off to escape. This includes playing with the Spock-like heroics at the end of Wrath of Khan. Very well done.
The episode also looks gorgeous and is brilliantly acted. It’s probably going to be the case with all the episode but at a runtime of 75-minutes you’re basically getting a great science fiction film that can’t be made for the cinema any more so they are doing this stuff for TV and it’s great.

The ending is, at least a positive one, allowing for the episode to run from humorous adulation, to horror and finally conclude with the digital copies getting to live the life of a true Space Fleet crew with a whole procedurally generated digital universe to explore.

Well, they have some trolls to avoid, but still.

And…Finally

Black Mirror season four is stellar TV. Even when you encounter weaker episodes in the anthology format they are weaker Black Mirror episodes which means they’re still damned good TV and interesting experiements.

Even though Metalhead is last on the list, it’s still a fascinating experiment with a great AI creation.

I do think it’s a series that is substantially more unbalanced than the previous season three as USS Callister is on another level compared to all the other episodes in the season. While five of the episodes are good to great TV USS Callister could be tuned slightly with a few more scenes and be put on the cinema.

USS Callister is simply one of those moments in TV, for me.

About Ian O'Rourke

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