Review: Black Mirror Season 5

– by J.W. Fox –

One of the most innovative science fiction shows gave us three new episodes this summer. Thought-provoking, well-written, well-cast, and creating brand new fears of technology, Black Mirror occupies a mostly vacant hard science fiction space on TV despite the massive glut in new programming coming from streaming services. But I’m not here to complain.

So does it deliver yet again? In terms of quality, yes…for the most part. In terms of quantity, there’s a problem. When you are given only three 1-hour episodes to consume, that tends to jack up expectations. If it’s only three, they chose only the three most awesome ones right?

Unfortunately, no. I’ll organize the reviews in the compliment sandwich, a useful corporate-speak tool. One good one, one bad one, then another good one.

Let’s dig in:

WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW

Smithereens

Smithereens is about a Lyft driver in London who camps himself across the street from the headquarters of a huge social media company, an analogue for Facebook. The driver, played by the exceptional Andrew Scott, is deeply introverted and appears upset by the fixation we have to cell phones. He grimaces in a popular restaurant when he notices every customer have their eyes glued to their phone.

Things get serious when he pulls a gun on one of his fares, an employee of the big evil social media company that makes apps for cell phones. Things fall apart farther when the police chase him through rural England until his car dies in a field, creating a stand off. He demands to speak to one of the founders of the company or he’ll kill his hostage.

The driver, named Chris, is a widower who lost his fiance to a car accident. As some may have guessed, the accident was not the result of a drunk driver as is explained earlier in the episode. Chris was looking down at his phone when he veered into the other lane. The accident was his fault.

The episode presents a great story but is thematically identical to the movie Seven Pounds, a movie that will make you cry a whole lot more. Distracted driving has been a thing for over a decade, not something in our near-future as most Black Mirror episodes tend to cover. After school specials, movies, and TV have all touched on this in one way or another. While Andrew Scott delivers a tremendous performance as the tragic Chris, the story feels a little dated.

There were some neat glimpses of the power of social media platforms.  They conduct their own investigation that gets to the bottom of the situation faster than the British police or FBI. The private corporation has greater access to personal information as well as an impressive surveillance network, all things that are true today.

However, the controversies surrounding Facebook and other platforms has been in the news and in public discourse for years as well. While interesting, this is an episode where Black Mirror seems to have gone reactive instead of proactive. A good but not great.

 

Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too

This one tries to do too many things at once and fails at most of them. Rachel is an insecure 14-year old starting at a new school. As these stories often go, she struggles to make friends, has an absentee single parent, and a not-so-helpful sibling, older sister Jack. The one thing Rachel loves is Ashley O, a pop singer played by Miley Cyrus. As part of her growing entertainment empire, Ashley O begins selling small robots called “Ashley Too,” which claims to be programmed with her personality using the latest in artificial intelligence.

The story unfolds with Rachel becoming attached to her own Ashley Too, while the real Ashley becomes disenchanted with her celebrity life. An overbearing aunt is her business manager who uses manipulation and pharmaceuticals to keep Ashley belting out hits. The aunt and her henchmen have all prospered thanks to Ashley, and they’ll do anything to keep it that way.

Things fall apart for Rachel at school, including a talent show performance that goes wrong. On Ashley’s side, she confronts her aunt about her methods only to be drugged into a coma.

As it turns out, Ashley Too isn’t just a programmed toy, it actually possesses Ashley’s consciousness, albeit heavily restrained to be only the perky, bubble-gum, bullshit 4 percent of her personality. 100 percent complete Ashley minds were being copied and transferred into little robots. The manufacturer reduced the intelligence capacity to make it a more marketable toy.

Sadly, instead of an examination of the robot Ashley and its sentience, we get a “let’s rescue the real Ashley” ending with robots and humans teaming up in a somewhat comical teen adventure. The episode ends with the real Ashley singing the classic NIN song Head Like a Hole in a heavy metal bar while robot Ashley head bangs away. Black Mirror normally doesn’t do happy endings, which is what made this one jarring, in addition to its weak youth rebellion angle.

Another interesting, but underdeveloped Black Mirror concept, was a brain scanner that could extract what Ashley was thinking of while in her coma, specifically the music that she was creating inside her head. Despite her state, her aunt and henchmen are able to extract new songs from her niece and incorporate into a holographic Ashley that she calls Ashley Eternal.

The procedure of extracting the music is an interesting rape metaphor. One of the songs they extract is an angry, shrieking melody as if Ashley is neurologically resisting the invasion of her mind. A technology that can penetrate one’s mind in this way was definitely something with a lot of potential but was ultimately bypassed for teen adventure time. The episode moved away from it after one short scene.

Then there’s the social commentary on the trappings of fame, which is played out but still relevant. The cold, parasitic relationship between pop stars and the people around them has a long history yet audiences seem to forget every time a new boy band or teenage starlet appears. They are adored and worshiped so long as they stay cute and drama free. As they get older and begin to act strangely, they steadily lose fans and become punchlines.

It is only when they are older, washed up, and their careers often irreparably damaged that we learn of the tragic tale of their upbringing, which often includes sexual abuse. Greedy families, record labels, production companies, agents, and everyone else is ready to profit from youth and has demonstrated they do not give a single shit about what happens next. This was the most compelling part of the episode. Ashley’s aunt is the worst, made more so by her access to cutting edge technology allowing her to extract anything she wants from her niece.

Sadly, this episode wastes a lot of time on Rachel’s awkward relationship with the lobotomized Ashley robot, which ends up going nowhere. Miley Cyrus does a solid job as Ashley O, although it is probably because all she had to do was play herself.  Including NIN songs was a neat touch but you can’t get much farther from Trent Reznor than Miley Cyrus. It doesn’t matter how well she can act, it sounded and felt like karaoke.

Throwing in a shot of Ashley’s pop fans being terrified of her new persona was a fun moment. Something us metalheads like to see but not worth anything to a show like Black Mirror.

Striking Vipers

This was easily my favorite episode. Two best friends find themselves growing apart as one gets married and starts a family (Danny played by Anthony Mackie), and the other just wants to play video games and sleep with hotties the rest of his life (Karl played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). As they both approach 40, Karl gives his family man buddy Danny a new video game for his birthday. It is a new VR fighting game where you hook yourself up and go into the game. No controller, no need for TV.

The two best buds are enjoying a fight when something weird happens. Karl fights as a female character named Roxette, the family man Danny chooses Lance. As the fight gets heated, the two are rolling on the ground pounding away when Roxette kisses Lance (Karl kisses Danny). Danny disconnects immediately utterly confused as to what just happened. Not only did Roxette (Karl) kiss him, but he kissed her (him) back. When he tries to go to bed his wife notices he has an erection.

The two fully heterosexual guys try to play it off like they were drunk and the new VR carried them away. Well, the two start a new fight but instead of mortal kombat, the two end up having VR sex. Soon they are getting online and having VR sex every night.

At this point, the story could have had the VR game bring Karl to an epiphany that he’s actually bisexual and in love with his best friend. He chooses to be Roxette every time and absolutely loves the virtual sex as a woman, declaring it the best sex he’s ever had. Danny struggles with what it means for him as well. Is he bisexual? He is having sex with a virtual woman but fully aware it is really his best friend Karl.

Only the story didn’t take that route. Karl admits he’s experimented with various VR partners as both male, female, and even has sex with the polar bear character just to understand what is happening to him. None of it is the same. In the real world, he has zero interest in men. That’s right, Karl is a heterosexual man who loves having VR sex as a woman, but only with Danny.

Is this believable? Some might think Karl is in denial or that the writers didn’t want to write a story about sexual discovery. Or maybe this is not about sexual orientation at all but how VR can transform personal connection between two people in profound, unexpected ways. It might not be the ending everyone wanted because it places the emphasis on the technology not the real lives of the two men.

When the two try to kiss in real life there are no “fireworks” but in a virtual realm where you can be someone else, including someone with different sex organs, things are different. Could VR do this to a human brain? Could we respond to physical stimuli in VR that doesn’t stimulate us in the real world? Our brains can certainly be rewired by constant use of technology but we’ve never considered if it has the capacity to actually alter sexual orientation.

Fascinating story, and a question that is on the horizon. For example, do men often choose female characters in MMORPGs? If so, why? We know they will cross species boundaries as well, but what about race, culture, etc.? Can game interface, mechanics, graphics actually impact us in the way we see in Striking Vipers? Could this be a way of generating empathy by placing people in someone else’s VR shoes?

Great story, although we don’t get much insight of Karl’s conflict or inner turmoil. You’d think a guy like him would struggle with enjoying sex with a man in VR as a woman. He seems to accept it without being a threat to his heterosexuality.

 

In Summary…

There was one strong episode with a couple average to mediocre installments that were just not Black Mirror quality.

Great casting and acting? Yes.

Solid production values? Yes.

Is there drama? Yes.

Were they stimulating and thought-provoking?…kind of, I mean… one of them for sure.

Were they innovative? Well….no, at least not nearly to the same extent as previous seasons.

 

J.W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls under the pen name Jacob Foxx. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works for a small biotech company in Raleigh, North Carolina.