Very rarely are television shows able to legitimately dub themselves as ‘unique’ in this day and age. Everything is either a sequel, spin off or remake of an existing property, or at the very least, has a similar narrative or tone to something familiar to us. Satirist Charlie Brooker breaks this mold with his anthology series (an already uncommon genre) that takes a look at the world we live in and warns the audience that the direction of the future might be bleak if we aren’t careful. In the same way that every episode is totally different, series four is a bit of a mixed bag for me. While I loved many elements, some episodes show Brooker taking a few too many liberties with the already fantastical future tech and leaps into what almost seems to be self-parody. That said, the good certainly outweighs the bad and the show remains as compelling as ever, it just isn’t quite as tight as it was in series one or two.
Series four kicks off with a really strong opening episode that perfectly characterises what ‘Black Mirror’ can and should do with its anthology format; give us something unexpected. I almost wish that ‘USS Callister’ hadn’t been included within marketing materials so the surprise factor would have had more weight, but in the social media world we live in, that was never going to happen. For me, this is the strongest episode of the series, brilliantly blending a dark message about losing yourself within a virtual world rather than taking responsibility in reality with a frankly spot on parody of ‘Star Trek’ that injects some well needed humour and levity into the show. The tone of ‘Black Mirror’ has always been dark, but this is taken to extreme levels this series. Whereas the bleak and hopeless tone of ‘Metalhead’ feels earned as it sets itself up as a dystopia where humanity has all but died out, the brutal and frankly mean spirited ending of ‘Crocodile’ feels completely fabricated and is written as such simply to keep the series ‘shock value’ reputation afloat. You might call me a prude for this opinion, but whereas previous bleak entries such as ‘White Christmas’ or ‘White Bear’ expertly built up to a sinister climax with continuous strong plot reveals and adept social commentary, ‘Crocodile’ clumsily trudges along and is at times, quite boring, only to take a massive 180 turn at the end, almost to make up for the lack luster content of the second act. There are some lovely shots of Iceland though, so there’s that I suppose.
Technology remains firmly weaved into the DNA of the show, with every episode again tackling a potential new piece of tech that has could ruin the users lives. That is, apart from ‘Crocodile’ which recycles a lower tech version of the memory viewing software seen in series one’s ‘The entire history of you.’ Thankfully, episodes such as ‘Hang the DJ’ and when you get to the core of it, ‘Metalhead’, present a more hopeful view of humanity, showing us that Charlie hasn’t quite given up on us yet. Brooker once said in an interview that his intention is to ‘worry us, not warn us’ about the encroaching effect of machinery on our everyday lives and for the most part, each episode does just this, acting as a cautionary tale for how something first seen as good, could end up profoundly changing the way we live for the worse. This is seen accumulating in ‘Metalhead’, the beautifully shot, entirely black and white grindhouse flick of the series. If theorizers are correct and the show does indeed take place in one all encompassing universe, then this episode must be the latest instalment in the timeline. The dystopian wasteland presented in the Scottish highlands leaves more questions than answers and allows the viewer to fill in the blanks. Perhaps the robotic dogs were another invention of TCKR, the company that produces many of the futuristic tech that we’ve seen so far. It would make sense that they finally produced something that went too far, going full ‘Skynet’ and becoming self aware with an innate desire to kill humans. Brooker did however allude to an original ending that saw a human controlling the dogs though, so who knows.
The most polarising episode of all is the finale; ‘Black Museum.’ One of the most macabre episodes produced yet, it follows an anthology style format, almost identical to ‘White Christmas.’ While this episode is quite obviously inferior to the excellent (and so far only) Christmas special put out, I still found it to be an enjoyable, if silly affair. The technology presented in the second and third sub stories are laughably ridiculous and over the top. I would also like to point out that the idea in section two, where a man ends up with his deceased girlfriends consciousness inside of his brain is pretty much word for word the suggestion for a movie that Karl Pilkington proposed in 2006 on the ‘Ricky Gervais show’ which he called ‘The love of two brains.’ It was literally the plot of this section and was to star Clive Warren (he meant Owen) and Rebecca De Mornay (who I had to google to find out who she was). It’s hilarious that one of the cleverest shows around has legitimately used an idea presented as ‘a terrible idea for a movie’ in a serious manner and it shows here as it’s clearly the weakest idea in the episode.
Stronger episodes include ‘Arkangel’ and ‘Hang the DJ’, two very different stories, one far more hopeful than the other. ‘Arkangel’ is a bit heavy handed and predictable, but has a strong lead cast and a very interesting piece of technology, that is probably the most realistic of everything presented this season. ‘Hang the DJ’ I feel is a bit overrated, but has some wonderful acting and a really optimistic message about humanity vs technology. It’s actually one of the more heart-warming moments that the show has offered us so far. Its no secret that the show is inspired heavily by ‘The Twilight Zone’ and this series seems the most akin to its Rod Sterling roots. ‘Black Museum’ could almost be a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode with its lead character Rolo an over the top and Faustian character that tempts down on their luck customers with deals of fate, except, as its ‘Black Mirror’ these are all new pieces of tech designed to improve their lives. Despite the aforementioned stories being pretty damn silly and the ending just being ridiculous, I loved this homage to the shows roots, it really felt like Rolo was the Crypt keeper or Burgess Meredith’s devil as he manipulated his clients into taking his tempting fruit.
All in all, series four is certainly worth a watch. ‘USS Callister’ is far and away my favourite, but I have a lot of time for all of the others with the exception of ‘Crocodile.’ Its mean spirit and slow pace really leave you on a downer after watching it, so I highly recommend having a comedy on standby if you decide to go with it. That said, all of the episodes are beautifully shot and the creativity on display here is hugely commendable. There really isn’t anything else like it on television at the moment and as someone, like Brooker, who loves the old anthology horror/mystery/thriller shows like ‘The Twilight Zone’ it’s great to see a show like this for our generation.
My scores for all of the episodes of series four are as follows:
USS Callister: 9/10
Crocodile: 3/10 (just SO MEAN)
Hang the DJ: 7/10
Black Museum: 7/10 (Probably because of nostalgia for TTZ)
We love ya Charlie.