Black Mirror: Season 4
This sharp new series of Charlie Brooker's twisted anthology show features tales about an exacting dating app, a post-apocalyptic Britain where robot dogs roam the streets and a macabre museum filled with creepy pieces of tech
Ignoring the irony that Black Mirror, an anthology series about the ubiquity of technology in our modern lives is now streaming on a ubiquitous piece of technology, the show's move to Netflix has been a shot in the arm. In the first two series made for Channel 4, Charlie Brooker’s cautionary tales imagining our dystopian near futures tended to come off as smartarse rather than smart. The first episode, a hectoring warning against the ills of social media that saw a David Cameron-like Prime Minister being pressured into having sex with a pig by people on Twitter, happened to be the series’ nadir. (Admittedly this episode got a boost in retrospect when it was alleged David Cameron once had relations with a severed porcine head as a college student.)
Each of the first two series could claim at least one cracker (The Entire History of You from series 1, White Bear from season 2), but that works out as a less than impressive 33% hit rate. The show’s resurrection on Netflix, however, saw a considerable rise in consistency along with the budget, and we’re happy to report season four, which arrives on Netflix 29 December, is similarly winning – it's the sharpest season so far.
It opens strongly with the Jodie Foster-directed Arkangel (★★★★), a quietly heartbreaking tale of an overprotective mother who can’t quite cut the apron strings. And it’s hard to in the future, when you can keep tabs on your progeny 24 hours a day with a new implant that broadcasts what they're seeing directly on to your iPad. What makes this episode so winning is not necessarily the idea (the tech is basically a reheat of the implant from The Entire History of You), but its focus on the characters and its lived-in aesthetic.
With each new episode of Black Mirror a different future is imagined: some are sleek brave new worlds of glass and chrome while others are dusty apocalypses. We see both kinds in season 4, but Arkangel is one of those rare sci-fi worlds that’s shown to be identical to our own save for this new experimental tech for helicopter parents. It’s also the first Black Mirror episode to tell its story over many years, so that we see the concerns of Rosemarie DeWitt’s nervy mother change as her daughter grows from toddler to teen.
This isn’t the only episode to feel fresh; eclecticism is the word to describe this new series. There’s the Hitchcockian Crocodile (★★★), which plays out in a Nordic looking country in which driverless cars deliver your pizzas and your short term memory can be harvested by insurance companies to investigate claims. If we ignore the most unlikely strangulation in the history of onscreen murders, it’s a nasty little thriller in which two seemingly unrelated stories satisfyingly converge.
Similarly taut is Metalhead (★★★★), the most stripped back of this season’s offerings. Shot in black and white, it's a fat-free chase movie with the spirit of a scuzzy exploitation cheepy, save for the CGI effects that bring to life its unstoppable antagonist: a robot canine that’s as relentless as Arnie in The Terminator. Maxine Peake plays the unlucky schmuck being pursued through a blasted future where humans seem to be barely surviving by salvaging from abandoned homes and warehouses. The gripping episode doesn’t put a foot wrong until its crushingly sentimental final image – we advise switching off 60 seconds from the end to avoid toothache.
If it’s sweetness you’re after though, you’ll find it in Hang the DJ (★★★★), this year’s romantic number. While it might not reach the heart-soaring heights of season 3’s standout episode San Junipero, this study in future dating comes very close. The scary tech at the heart of this installment is an advanced version of Tinder called Coach, which not only sets you up on dates but decides when they’ll come to their conclusion. Maybe your new relationship will be a 12-hour one night stand, a week-long fling or a long-term cohabitation – just tap Coach, a circular button you keep in your pocket, and it’ll tell you how long you and your new partner have got on the clock. You’ll probably guess where this one is going early on, but the real joy is the chemistry between Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole, the seemingly star-crossed lovers whom Coach keeps trying to wrench apart. Even those who are sceptical of online dating might consider swiping right after this adorable episode.
Challenging Hang the DJ for season 4’s standout is USS Callister (★★★★★), the most twisty and – given the year we’ve had – most relevant of these new episodes. We begin in an obvious parody of Star Trek on the deck of the titular spacecraft, with Jesse Plemons as the ship’s derring do Kirk-like captain who’s adored by his crew. Not is all that it seems, however. We quickly discover this is merely a simulation created by a sad sack tech genius who can't get no respect from his Silicon Valley employees. This is the most gorgeously shot and richly detailed of the episodes on offer here, and thanks to being released on Netflix, director Toby Haynes has been permitted to stretch this one to feature length.
There are no stinkers in season 4, but final episode Black Museum (★★★) does fall short of the season’s overall high standard. Like season two episode White Christmas, it’s a portmanteau, with three mini-tales of tech gone wrong told within a framing narrative – in this case set within a macabre museum in rural America displaying objects of misery. “There’s a sad, sick story behind everything here,” says museum proprietor Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge) to his first visitor of the day (Letitia Wright), a young British tourist who’s killing time while her car battery charges in the baking desert sun. Obsessive Black Mirror fans will enjoy the little references to episodes past that are lurking in Haynes’s display cabinets, but as was the case with White Christmas, these bite-sized stories don’t really satisfy.
Brooker’s show owes a lot to seminal 60s show The Twilight Zone, and it looks like Black Mirror's popularity has resurrected audiences' thirst for mind-bending tales of the unexpected. A new series of Rod Serling’s show is reportedly in the works, with Get Out director Jordan Peele at the helm. It’ll have to go some to oust Black Mirror, however, as season 4 suggests Brooker’s mind is as imaginative and twisted as ever.
Released 29 Dec on Netflix