All the best episodes of Black Mirror – the anthology sci-fi series from Charlie Brooker that focuses on the unanticipated pitfalls of near-future technologies – introduce a new concept and the likely social, ethical, and physical ramifications of it, before driving up the horror in an insidious fashion which either culminates in a smart late twist that magnifies it, or effectively call backs to an earlier moment.
That’s true of the Jon Hamm-starrer “White Christmas” episode, or last year’s biting social media commentary in “Nosedive”. (The Emmy-winning “San Junipero”, which focused on an inter-racial couple living in a digital afterlife, remains a lone exception to this rule.) But there are times when this approach fails to deliver, because the build-up is too slow and unconvincing, the late twist defies belief, or the episode fails to properly identify its themes.
Black Mirror’s season four – which is out Friday, December 29 – is a mixture of both, with some episodes coming up short, while others execute their nightmarish visions in bloody, spine-chilling ways. Unfortunately, there are no happy stories in this new crop of six episodes, though there are some laughs scattered across, including a scene where someone grabs a teddy bear by the neck and threatens it.
The most awaited of the lot has been the Star Trek-inspired “USS Callister” – the only episode in season four to have been co-written by Brooker with William Bridges, with every other episode having Brooker as the sole credit – which stars Jesse Plemons (Fargo season 2), Cristin Milioti (The Wolf of Wall Street), Jimmi Simpson (Westworld), and Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum) among others. Owing to Netflix’s stringent spoiler guidelines, we can’t say anything about the plot except that much of it is set in space.
Because of that, “USS Callister” is easily the most expensive episode this year, with the level of production and costume design required for authenticity, along with the cost of CGI for delivering spaceship scenes, Trek-style beam technology, and alien creatures. The episode also directly references the presence of the original Trek series – the opening sequence is even shot in 4:3 aspect ratio, and edited to match the 60s film stock – but skips any legal hassles by calling the show and its crew ‘Spacefleet’ instead of Starfleet.
It’s not a direct space story per se; this is Black Mirror after all, and the episode uses its setting to talk about topics such as power fantasy, social exclusion, virtual consciousness, and privacy. Though Plemons is the captain of the Callister, he’s the kind of overbearing authority that Hollywood has slowly begun kicking out of its stable in the wake of widespread sexual harassment allegations. Brooker’s work has never been decidedly political, and “USS Callister” is only tangentially about female empowerment, with its focus being how technology enables creeps.
The disappearance of privacy is also central to the Jodie Foster-directed “Arkangel”, which takes the concept of helicopter parenting to its logical extreme. After her daughter Sara goes missing at a local park, as in shown in the trailer, the physiotherapist mother Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt) opts to have an implant installed in the child’s head, which allows her to keep a track on her always. It’s like the iPhone’s ‘Find My Friends’ app, except there’s no turning off and it never runs out of battery.
“Arkangel” takes place over several years, following the daughter as she grows up with having a tracker inside her head, and the consequences of Marie’s impulse decision to protect her child. Her father, the daughter’s grandfather, even voices his protestations and says that children grew up fine without any kind of monitoring. As Sara becomes older, Marie consents to not use the tracking abilities, but Sara’s teenage rebellion phase results in a series of escalating situations that lead her mother to snoop on Sara’s actions.
Even as the episode tackles important privacy vs security topics, it falters on multiple levels, be it the few leaps of logic required to make its central technology work, the restrictive nature of tracking and lack of any parental controls, and a big moment towards the end that feels entirely unconvincing, and feels shoed in to drive the plot. Plus, the events in “Arkangel” could easily have been told in a short film, making the almost hour-length unnecessary.
That’s also the case with season four’s take on near-future dating apps in “Hang the DJ”, which focuses on two primary characters played by Georgina Campbell…