Black Mirror Season Three is Barely Science Fiction

first_imgStay on target Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s tech-tinged take on the Twilight Zone, is the latest British entertainment sensation to break big in America. Now that it has entered its supersized, Netflix-exclusive third season, the sci-fi horror anthology is more popular than ever. Considering how excellent yet depressing each episode can be, binge watching maybe isn’t the best idea. But now that we’ve had a week to watch the six-episode season, I think it’s fair to start analyzing it as a whole.Previous seasons of Black Mirror mined terror from disturbingly logical conclusions to existing technology but extrapolated years into the future. That technique has given classic sci-fi stories their weight and power and meaning for decades. With this season though, the more realistic and current the conceit is the scarier the show is. At this point, at its best Black Mirror is barely even science fiction.Spoiler WarningLet’s start with “Playtest,” an episode I already shared my thoughts on after watching it at New York Comic Con. There’s an underlying fear of apps like Uber and Tinder that connect you to strangers, as well as using technology as a crutch to make up for the failings of human memory, but thrust of the story centers around an advanced virtual/augmented reality gaming device that taps into the player’s own fears. As readers of this site will surely know, virtual reality headsets are a very real and growing segment of technology today. So in that sense, the episode is pretty grounded.However, the horror comes from the personal data the headsets extract by being directly linked to the player’s brain. You can argue that isn’t too different from the massive amounts of personal data we volunteer online. But better episodes deal with tech advances that swallow people up no matter what they choose, not ones targeting half-aware but willing volunteers. Despite my indifference to virtual reality, I don’t fear becoming trapped in a haunted house of my own mind like Cooper because I, and I imagine many others, would never undergo a medical procedure to play a video game.With one other key exception, the rest of the season deals with significantly more plausible nightmares. “Nosedive” takes place in a world where social status is dictated by the ratings people give each other. Even if you ignore how that’s basically every social media service, this exact app launched earlier this year. It’s called Peeple and I reviewed it. It’s garbage. The only thing keeping it from reaching the creepy potential of “Nosedive” is that public outcry caused the developers to defang the app into pointlessness. But if it had taken off, and added Google Glass integration, we’d all be as desperately fake as Bryce Dallas Howard.Meanwhile, “Men Against Fire” features sensory implants that control how soldiers interact with the battlefield. It’s a bit like Metal Gear Solid 4. But all the tool really does is take the unethical ways we mold people into weapons and makes them explicit. Instead of psychologically conditioning soldiers to see the enemy as inhuman others who are easier to kill, the implants handle all of that. Throw in some illusions of happiness like a fake sexy wife waiting for you at your abandoned home, and these brave but duped men and women are fully distracted from the fact the country they are protecting has outright contempt for their agency. This isn’t some far-fetched future tale.The gimmick in “Hated in the Nation” may seem pretty futuristic, and I’ll admit swarms of hashtag-powered robot bees probably aren’t going to kill anyone anytime soon. But be honest. Swarms of random jerks on Twitter harassing people to death is already happening. The randoms jerks just happen to be slightly less insectoid in real life. Who are the real monsters? To quote another famous sci-fi satire, “It turns out it’s man.”“Shut Up and Dance” is about hackers who secretly film people in compromising situations and use the footage to blackmail victims. This isn’t sci-fi. This is literally something happening all of the time today.Finally, there’s “San Junipero,” the key exception I mentioned earlier. This story of love transcending time, space, societal norms, and technological limitations is perhaps the only uplifting episode of Black Mirror. It’s the best episode of this season, and it’s also the one with the most fantastical and futuristic tech. Elderly people link their consciousness to a virtual reality modeled after different time periods, and they can stay even after their bodies physically die. As one character remarks, what is heaven if not uploading yourself to the cloud? Or is it just a cyber graveyard? The ending optimistically opts for the former.It’s easy to view Black Mirror as a cynical show deeply suspicious of modern technology to the point of Luddism. But the creators stress that people are the real problem, and we just make tools that compound those problems. However, “San Junipero” suggests that maybe we should have faith we’ll start to work out those problems in the future. The closer episodes are to the present, the worse the world is, and the tech reflects that. But in a better future, if we will it, technology can, in fact change our lives immeasurably for the better the way it was also supposed to. With tech, we can make heaven a place on Earth. Maybe something good could happen. That doesn’t sound so cynical to me.Black Mirror’s techno-horror probably seems more futuristic to people who don’t work in tech journalism, but when your job involves keeping track of what’s just on the horizon the show basically becomes a documentary. I’m half expecting the upcoming fourth season to just be a live feed of San Francisco. But I’m also hoping for more episodes that show how far we can dream with technology, too. For more thoughts on Black Mirror’s third season from me and other fine Ziff Davis folks, check out our Slack recaps on PCMag.com ‘Black Mirror’ Star Miley Cyrus Says Her Episode Is ‘Dark’ and ‘Out There’Top Movie and TV Trailers You Might Have Missed This Week last_img

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