If anything, the dystopian world Charlie Brooker created to show us how we will misuse benign technology until it destroys us all, is a little too convincing. I know this because I’ve just watched the latest series, and it would appear that Black Mirror has finally fallen into a black hole of its own making.
The consequences of excessive tech use might have been a tough sell in 2011 but Brooker’s contrasts of the frailty of the human psyche against relentless, uncompromising technology have become as much a part of popular culture as the smart clutter you’re reading this on. The fact that the odd notable episode was mirrored in an increasingly confusing (porcine) reality merely served the myth.
Television is a very different landscape today. For a start, speculative fiction is now a legitimate genre rather than a starstruck, vaguely confused cousin of science fiction. This is important. In science fiction, anything goes. Spaceships, purple women, monsters, wobbly props and blond handsome captains can all be employed in science fiction and no one is allowed to laugh because it’s tradition. In speculative fiction, extrapolation of existing scenarios into possible outcomes is more appropriate and monsters manifest themselves as existential crises. Very few of us are able to resist the buzz of dopamine we receive when someone likes that picture of a dog you put on Instagram and it isn’t even a stretch to those with minimal imagination to see how a universal rating system could become an obsession.
It was for this reason that I was mildly concerned when the first episode of Black Mirror: Series 4 opened with an homage to Star Trek, a show my Gran recorded on her VHS every day while I watched Grange Hill on the other side. Over the course of an hour it transmogrified into a lesson on how dangerous it will be to casually discard litter in the near future and the utterly glorious Michaela Coel was turned into a monstrous swamp beast for arguing with the aforementioned captain, so it’s fair to say I was satisfied.
I struggled to put my finger on what was bothering me until episode 4, Hang The DJ. A sophisticated dating service pairs people for set periods of time and uses the data it gleans from their experiences to find their perfect match. Without ruining it for you, about two thirds of the way through, the female protagonist takes a moment to explain precisely what is happening to her companion.
They warn you about this in writers school. If you have to use your characters to explain situations rather than dialogue and action, your narrative is too complicated and you need to simplify.
At some point over the last few years, the extrapolations between reality and the future have had to extend themselves in order to stay relevant and the series is straining into territory it can’t traverse within the confines of its current format.
If the excessive exposition been confined to this one episode, the example might have remained an anomaly in an otherwise great series but once you start to look for it, the filler between the cracks is obvious.
Each instalment; the Jodie Foster directed story about a mother and daughter that fails to emotionally engage with the audience; an increasingly hysterical killing spree that dresses up like Nordic Noir because if you filmed it in Reading it would look like an Alan Partridge pitch and a Walking Dead post apocalyptic-esque mission that goes a bit Cujo (without the excessive spit) in places, suffers a narrative that feel like its been overworked to accommodate the tech it uses to make a wider point.
Nowhere is this more evident than Black Museum, the final episode of series 4. Starring Letitia Wright, whose presence in Channel 4’s Cucumber and Banana was notable for its understated ownership of the scene, visits the aforementioned museum which houses artefacts of notable tech fails for the paying public to ghoul over. It’s three stories in one and while the device of conveyance in this case (museum owner narrating flashbacks) is comfortable, a significant period of dialogue explaining what is happening is still required.
There’s been talk of spin offs and while several of these stories might benefit from more time to convey their point better, this isn’t the positive reinforcement of a series well done, but more of an indictment that the vehicle selected to convey the story was the wrong one in the first place.
There came a point when the conveyance of information via flashback and sweaty museum guide started to weigh more heavily on the story, to the point where its knees began to tremble with the strain. Three different threads; a doctor who develops a device for reading his patients’ pain, a man who has his wife’s consciousness implanted in his head after she is killed and a convict on death row offered a digital lifeline, compete for space to articulate themselves effectively but can’t do so within the confines of the episode.
For me, this series of Black Mirror indicates that Charlie Brooker is having to reach further into the future to find functional extrapolations of existing tech. That’s logical, he can’t keep telling the same story over and over again. It’s necessary even, because why would he want to?
But in ranging further out, the connection between his viewer and the proximity of their fate is broken. Without that proximity, it’s merely life, Jim. Just not as we know it.