Modern dystopia has been branded with the unfortunate presumption of poor writing and thoughtless concepts, and this is mostly down to the recent decline of quality in episodes of British Netflix original Black Mirror. The show’s format of disconnected plots leads itself to diversity in quality, but its recent season five has been met with mediocre to poor reviews. During the show’s residency on Channel 4 (seasons one and two) it was met with a much more positive reception and universal praise – so what’s changed?
The show’s first ever episode The National Anthem was a bold statement. The Prime Minister awakes one morning to a television broadcast of Princess Susannah strapped to a chair, the footage addresses him directly and informs him she has been kidnapped and will be killed if he doesn’t have sex with a pig on live television. The episode is carried by powerful performances, and with a plot so simple it affords focus to the characters struggling to fight their way out of a devastating situation. Technology is a main theme in the series, and while it takes an involvement in the story, the focus remains on the Prime Minister and the potential end of his career and dignity – along with its parallels to front-page rumours that surfaced years later of David Cameron’s sexual involvement with pigs during university.
Compare this with the latest season; episode Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too in particular feels the polar opposite. It begins with a nervous schoolgirl trying to find popularity at school, but it twists into a tale of two sisters struggling to get along, and then tries its hand at being an action-packed heist story with a tonal shift harsh enough to give you whiplash. The story is muddled and confused, struggling to keep itself contained and focused on the human elements of its story. While Black Mirror once presented technology as a facilitator for the worst side of regular people, it now becomes the central focus of the story and overshadows your only chance of connecting with its human characters.
The second episode of Black Mirror’s fifth season titled Smithereens makes an attempt to subvert this, in telling a story entirely about a man kidnapping an intern of the titular tech company in London, and his emotional connection with the company. The motivations of the lead character are certifiably insane, and the viewer is relied upon to sympathise with a lead character with a penchant for kidnapping. The episode is bogged down in trying to both prove technology is bad for pushing lead character Chris to kidnap intern Jaden, and also that it’s a benefit to the powers that be, as his social media presence is used to identify him and attempt to bring him to justice. Smithereens is confused and has no idea what message it’s trying to send. Not only has Charlie Brooker lost his ability to write a convincing story, but has also lost his ability to write convincingly in the concept he himself developed. The limitations of one man helming the show was once a good thing, making Black Mirror streamlined and leaving it to serve as a direct link to his fears for the future – but he seems to have since run out of ideas. To introduce new writers might change the formula slightly, but new minds could introduce some new and more detailed ideas to the series, something that Brooker has shown himself to have lost in series opener Striking Vipers.
The episode manages to make some interesting commentary on sexuality and male unwillingness to address emotion using video games as an interactive allegory for pornography, but it totally fails to capture VR as a medium – despite somewhat exploring the idea before. Season three’s Playtest explores penniless Cooper’s deepest fears as he is exploited by video game company SaitoGemu’s malicious attempts to make VR as real as possible. The effectiveness of this episode came with its release as the VR medium was in its earliest days in the hands of the public, and intrigue was running high pertaining to its capabilities. Brooker timed the release perfectly so that it would scare and equally intrigue his audience, baiting them with an exciting video game experience (despite the subsequent death the playtest causes). Striking Vipers fails to carry the torch for VR-based episode as the ship has sailed on the public being left in the dark of the new-age video game systems’ capabilities, and at this stage, it’s old news. Changing the themes from fear and isolation to sexuality don’t make the topic much more interesting, and the episode had no chance of evading a feeling of familiarity because of its recycled nature.
Black Mirror, once upon a time, was revered as a highlight of British television and a shining example of a quality dystopian drama. The episodes of its latest season, however, have left much to be desired. Similar to season four in delivering on contrived and dull plots, as well as interactive dud Bandersnatch failing to interact with its audience thanks to its repetitive nature and convoluted plot points. A series that once had something to say has tied its own tongue, and unless there’s big change on the horizon in terms of Brooker’s writing, it could well remain that way.
by Joseph Kime