Black Mirror Season 3, written by Charlie Brooker (Netflix, 2016).
Score: guilt-tripping and fearmongering.
People have a weird relationship with science and technology: they trust them but they don’t bother to try and understand them. People complain about things their phones do or won’t do without realising some of those are for their own safety, or that they aren’t using the phone correctly. I worked for three years in tech support and you’d be surprised at how many people assume the manufacturer is obliged to back up all their personal data without even asking for permission and at the same time defend that 1234 is a perfectly good password. Bothering to understand the most basic things about computers and handheld devices is for nerds and millennials, and that really is a shame because technology is an incredibly powerful tool.
So, what do you do if you want to warn society about misusing such a mighty instrument? Wave your arms around, wail that the end is nigh and point fingers at everyone, of course. Black Mirror’s villains are unbelievable and boring because they’re all the lovechildren of Dr. Evil and Nolan’s Joker. Its allegories are ham-fisted, short-sighted and unoriginal. Even when it criticises technology directly, it’s really misguided.
What if phones, but too much, indeed.
But, for some reason I can’t start to wrap my head around, there is one episode in this season that it’s actually good, and not only for Black Mirror standards: “San Junipero”. Probably because it drops the edgelord act and actually examines an issue, with its good and bad aspects. Also, it bothers to create characters who actually have human, understandable motivations, which one would think would happen more frequently.
Here are my six rants for the six separate episodes:
Not terrible, but not inspired either. It’s not really a comment on social media or vanity, but actually on social class and mobility, only money and privilege are swapped with social media ratings. The thing is, money will always be money, no matter how much we love our social networks. There was no reason for using social media ratings as a metaphor for money: the episode would have worked exactly the same if the characters had obsessed over gummy bears or two by fours. And it’s not inspired as a social commentary on inequality. Just like so many stories similar to this before it, it sounds like a bad case of sour grapes.
This one makes me angry because most of it is rock solid but then, to honour tradition, Brooker decides to give it one twist too many. The allusions to videogame culture and gothic horror enrich the episode, from “Will you kindly?” to the Resident Evil-looking mansion, though maybe “The Raven” was too hackneyed? Probably the most interesting thing about it was how it appealed to deep, adult fears. Once we got the spiders and the bully out of the way, we get to the really interesting fears: is my health in danger? Did someone I know and trust hack my credit card? Are these people playing with me? Am I going to get Alzheirmer’s earlier than I expected? I feel guilty about not confronting my mom.
The technobabble was making no sense at all but as we were unraveling layers of the dream that was okay because Cooper wouldn’t make up coherent explanations for his nightmare anyway. But am I supposed to believe that they accidentally killed him because they left a mobile phone lying around? Is this videogame company made up of a bunch of legally irresponsible imbeciles? Are you telling me that you make this guy sign an NDA and you don’t lock up his phone while you’re in the test? You have the bloody phone lying around and you leave the room so he can pick it up and start taking pictures of all your secret shit? Even if you were dumb enough to do that, while you were developing the hardware and software, didn’t it occur to you to test if there was interference with mobile phones? We’re not talking neutrinos or tachyons, we’re talking devices all your potential customers are carrying around in their pockets the whole time. I mean, things that people are supposed to wear or consume are tested in vivo and on animals first, you need to make sure the damn thing is not going to kill you if you sneeze before you actually test it on a person. I know the dramatic value is supposed to be high but out of the window went my suspension of disbelief along with my briefly regained respect for Brooker as a writer. Last but not least: “All his brain synapses went off at once”. Comedy gold.
“Shut up and dance”
What is this episode trying to save us from now? Does it want us to put a sticker over our webcam? Does it admonish us against websites where you can watch films for free? Or does it just wail at the moon that some men just want to watch the world burn? The second act is quite enjoyable, really. It manages to get you interested in whatever the blackmailers are plotting and wonder when Kenny and Hector are going to snap. But, like always, it takes one step too many into the territory of the ridiculous. A criminal network seeking to blackmail people into robbing banks sounds plausible and interesting. Anyone going to such pains just to watch from a drone as a kid and a pedophile fight to the death is nonsensical and therefore not scary. On an unrelated note, suddenly charging Kenny with being a pedophile right before the end doesn’t work for me at all. His being nice to kids and not answering when he’s asked how old they were in the pictures, along with only having footage of him masturbating just doesn’t cut it. His mother says “they’re saying it’s kids”, like she didn’t see proof of it. Proof like that would be very easy to forge, once they have access to his computer. So I don’t know if Brooker just loves these mood swings to the death or if viewers really want someone to lynch, but I’m a proponent of the innocence of Kenny.
Masterful use of Trollface, though.
I have to say I let out a sigh when the credits started rolling and Brooker hadn’t ruined this wonderful episode with a ridiculous twist. Seriously, it’s a really neat episode and my favourite one since the one with the pig back in Season 1, right over the one about the guy whose wife replayed conceiving a child with her lover while they had sex. It gives out information at the right pace, has interesting and believable characters and, more importantly, it reflects on universal themes: fear of death and banality in hedonism. It’s not preachy, which is a rare quality in a Black Mirror episode, but instead balances different motivations and sets of moral values. Kelly is torn between loyalty to the memory of her husband and the suspicion that she might be too scared of commitment to actually embrace her love for Yorkie. Why shouldn’t she give it a try? You can bail out and meet the void any time you want.
But who would want to, when you get to wear such killer jackets every Saturday.
“Men against fire”
The setting is as follows: marine-types are fighting a guerrilla against something they call roaches. Since you’re watching Black Mirror, this guarantees the following is going to happen: a) roaches are actually human, b) roaches are actually the good guys or an oppressed minority, c) the marines are the tool of a fascist establishment and d) the main character is going to learn about all of the above the hard way, probably by becoming a roach himself. It’s not fun when I can guess the whole plot by having watched the first ten minutes.
It’s I am legend, Ender’s game, Verhoeven’s Starship troopers, District 9, The forever war, it’s been done to death and “Men against fire” doesn’t add any meaningful new ideas.
“Hated in the nation”
If someone killing people with remote control bees isn’t hilarious, I don’t wanna know what is.
I also love how they go like: “we can’t control all the bees we have, that’s logistically preposterous. But we do have a map that tells us were every single one of them is, down to a few metres”. First things first, there is a name for military-grade cryptography: cryptography. Cryptography is meant to protect data and, if it’s good, the information will be deleted before it is accessed. Although in this case, access to the hardware is as easy as going outside with a butterfly net. You could erase the bee and feed it a killing-idiots-who-think-trolling-has-no-consequences software, and the difficulty would only depend on how complicated the bee hardware is. Anyway, impossible to control the bees, ever. Until the bad guy hacks the system and drives the bees individually and in groups. So much for logistically preposterous.
Furthermore, bees that get damaged by bumping into a car are at the same time capable of burrowing into a human ear, all the way through the internal auditory meatus (which is about 5mm wide, while the bees look much bigger) and up the dorsal posterior insula. They have bone-shattering bees, and they wasted them on pollinating flowers. Go figure.
Soft science-fiction is okay, nothing wrong with it. But if you’re going to explain something, make sure you do it right. The scene would be perfectly fine if it went: “Hey, we think one of your bees killed a person.” “What the hell? They shouldn’t be able to do that, we’ll look into it.” If you start waving technobabble around, you’re bound to get caught. After all, nerds are kind of likely to enjoy science-fiction.
It goes downhill from here. I could go on forever on how nearly all of the technological aspects of the episode make exactly zero sense, but there’s no point. Much in the vein of “Shut up and dance”, the protagonists are haunted by an all-seeing, all-knowing chaotic evil villain. It’s plain, old fearmongering: technology is bad because it gives power over your life to a faceless, almighty psycho, and we should all be scared of it. Also, no half-joking death threats on the internet, it’s really tasteless.