Black Mirror’s fifth season was released on Netflix yesterday, with three episodes, to a widely anticipating global audience. The new season has bigger stars – Anthony Mackie, Andrew Scott and of course, Miley Cyrus but the episodes overall douse the excitement that awaited the new season.
Striking Vipers (2/5)
The first episode Striking Vipers resonates the theme of a previous episode, USS Callister from Season 4. Two high school friends discover they are gay through a virtual reality video game years later, in their mid-life, with one being married with a kid. All they every shared, until then, was friendship and a video game featuring duels, called Striking Vipers. Karl, decides to gift Danny (who is married) with a VR version of the game on his 38th birthday. They both plug in the microchips on the very night and try reliving their characters of Roxi and Lane, in ‘their own way’ inhabiting the characters’ mental and physical sensations. Only minutes into the duel, Danny’s character is kicked into submission by Karl’s Roxi, and then they suddenly start making out. Things get awkward, and they ‘exit game’. Thus begins, a serious affair between the now gay couple, in different exotic locations in the video game.
The episode shares much resemblance to USS Callister, where the CTO of a gaming company creates a VR game of his own, in which he likes to vent out his frustration at his fellow colleagues and also enjoy his sexual fantasies by exploiting the girls on his spaceship, in a parallel universe similar to Star Trek. But USS Callister still keeps up the ‘Black Mirror’ image of being bleak and nihilistic and is very much ‘into the future’, unlike Striking Vipers, which is very much ‘of our times’. VR versions of video games are not something of the future, even pornography can be now experienced in VR.
Striking Vipers also tries to explore theories of sexuality and gender fluidity, because Karl, in the video game takes form of a female character while Danny takes form of a male character, and they discuss the same, in the video game. Danny’s character ask Karl’s what is feel like to experience sex being a woman, and Karl replies saying ‘the passion feels much stronger’. But that is all that is to the episode, which fails to link up the scenes very well, thereby distorting the context for the audience. For example, the episode starts with Karl, Danny and his to-be-wife, Theo, and with Danny and Karl playing Striking Vipers. There is not the slightest hint of anything beyond brotherly love between the two, but jump to 11 years later, “that’s us, gay now”. Less dystopian, overtly sentimental and too realistic for the Black Mirror image, Striking Vipers is a highly disappointing start to the season but only indicative of what is to come thereafter.
Smithereens is the next episode of the season. Andrew Scott, who is immortalised on the small screen as Jim Moriarty, plays the role of a modern age cab driver Chris, struggling with the mental trauma from his fiancé’s death in a road accident. He’s a modern version of Travis Bickle, but he doesn’t have much to say about the society, although he has a confession to make and which he decides to make in a most absurd way – by kidnapping what he thought was an employee of a social media company Smithereens, with his main motive of talking to Brian Bauer, the CEO of Smithereens.
The first half of Smithereens is fast tracked and exciting, and the anticipation for the confession is well built up. Smithereens breaks from the Black Mirror tradition of ‘tech is doom’ and also tries to take into account the everyday human failings, which a movie or TV series can barely afford. You never see Tom Cruise’s operation going wrong because he forgot to switch on a device or misread the instructions on how to work a device – that never happens in a movie or TV series, where every human action is coordinated and perfect, even imperfection is perfectly coordinated. But Chris’ kidnapping goes horribly wrong, and for human all too human reasons. He kidnaps an intern mistaking him to be a top employee of the company because he was wearing a suit and carrying a suitcase. He later finds out that the he was wearing a suit only because it was his first week at the office and was carrying a suitcase for some top executive who would arriving at Heathrow. Later on, when Chris tries to get someone from Smithereens on call through the intern’s phone, he finds out that he left the phone in his cab, before changing cars. All human failings, funny but not absurd, and errors which are frequently amiss from the all too perfect world of cinema.
After holding the intern hostage for a while, Chris finally manages to get Bauer on the line, and then begins his long awaited confession, and also his ransom for the release of the intern. He confesses that his fiancé was killed in the car crash not because the other driver was drunk, but because he was too addicted to Smithereen, the social media app, and because he decided to have a quick look at one of the notifications that had popped up. Bauer offers consolation and explanation, and begins on a rant as to how his app is no longer what it was meant to be, how the motive of corporate profits drive such tech companies, and they do nothing but lure people into being addicted to their devices so that they can make an extra buck. But Chris refuse to listen, he only had a confession to make, and let Bauer know, and tells him that he doesn’t care about his explanation. The episode ends with a sudden struggle in the car between Chris (who decides to release the intern and then shoot himself) and the intern, followed by a gunshot at Chris. Technologically not-so-dystopian, too real for the unreal and the episode fails to finish off and give the audience the much built up anticipation of the confession. The message, although clear and simple, that us being so glued to our devices is harmful for us, perhaps required a different storyline than a kidnapping. The episode ends on a derivative note.
Rachel, Jack and Ashely Too (2/5)
In Ashley O (played by Miley Cyrus), we have the most sensational pop-star of her generation, whose social media following is always exploding, whose concerts are always sold out, and who now presents to the world an AI powered caricature robot, Ashley Too. On the other side of the planet, in the gutter, is a struggling introverted teenager Rachel, who worship Ashely O, and for her 15th birthday, is gifted an Ashley Too. It’s surprising that Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, now in the fifth season of Black Mirror, has come up with the idea of a Siri and an Alexa.
Rachel finds a great friend in Ashley Too, much to the chagrin of her elder sister Jack, with who she share the room, and who thinks that Ashley Too is toxic for Rachel. The father, a widower, a rodent inspector, is just too ambivalent to even be in the episode at all. Outside the gutter, Ashley O is struggling with the human inside her, and with her aunt, who is her manager. She is depressed and frustrated at the way her life is controlled by her aunt and by the constant thirst for social validation and money. She rebels by not taking the hallucinogens prescribed to her by the aunt’s doctor, only to face her wrath. The aunt empties the stockpiled hallucinogens into her food which creates a severe chemical reaction, leaving her in a chemical induced coma, for quite possibly the rest of her life. But the aunt is all set to find her replacement – a brand new holographic version of Ashley O, who is streamable, scalable, and of course, as sexy as she can get.
In a quick turn of events, and this is what still remains unexplained and also, rather impossible, Rachel’s Ashley Too goes bad, and to fix her, Jack plugs her into their dad’s computer, only to find a bug inside her. They delete the entire system memory of Ashley Too, awakening the streaming consciousness of the real Ashely O inside the doll, which required further explanation, as it still seems all too absurd. Then of course, Rachel and Jack along with the doll, try and save the real Ashley O who is in a coma, in her home, and once she’s rescued, they all drive to the stadium where Ashley O’s aunt is featuring her ‘next big project’ and crash it.
Again, the last episode really finishes the ‘nosedive’ that this new season has taken, with its derivative and its human all too human, real all too real content. The season overall, fails to capture the imagination of the universe it itself created in the minds of its audience. What we saw was not the Black Mirror universe, but a much more documentary-sort account of the status quo of technology. This was the same Black Mirror which once predicted Donald Trump, although in a slightly altered and more horrifying (if that is even possible) way. But this season has become all too realistic, and the creators have failed to imagine the future and its absurdity and its bleak uncertainty, which Black Mirror has until now, shown to the world.
Dan Icazua is a student at the California Institute of the Arts.