The feature-length episode is presented in a three part Treehouse of Horror-style anthology, with Matt (John Hamm) and Joe (Rafe Spall) swapping stories in an isolated, snowy cabin. It all starts off light-heartedly enough with a flashback of Matt as a virtual pickup artist, guiding the socially awkward Harry though an office party, and literally seeing through his eyes. By essentially Facebook-stalking the potential ‘target’, and with a small audience of online voyeurs along for the ride, Brooker highlights just a few of the uneasy implications of this use of technology (as well as pickup artists in general). Despite this, it all works out a bit too well, and things start to get crazy; it turns out Harry isn’t the only one with voices in his head. With gadgets like Google Glass now being a reality, the overall concept doesn’t seem like much of a stretch, and the ‘Z-Eye’ optical implant is uncomfortably plausible.
Before returning to that idea, the second story addresses the ethical issues surrounding Artificial Intelligence, an idea explored recently in Spike Jonze’s excellent film Her, as well as the upcoming Ex Machina. Is there a difference between human consciousness and an AI’s, and can you sympathise with something which is just a string of code? These lofty questions are raised when the assumedly rich Greta (Oona Chaplin) undergoes an operation to create a copy of her consciousness, which is then installed in an egg-like device to control her home. The irresponsibility of creating an AI slave of yourself simply in order to make your toast is disconcerting enough, but seeing it from the copy’s perspective is even worse: an infinitely empty white space, with nothing but a control panel for stimulation. It also touches on our ignorance when it comes to technology; we don’t tend to care how something works, just so long as it does - even if that involves the torture of your digitised self.
As interesting as these two plots were, immediately afterwards I didn’t think their conclusions were as hard-hitting as has come to be expected from the show. But then we get to the third act, and it all made sense as a whole; these aren’t just self-contained stories, and the ultimate pay-off is as disturbing as anything we’ve seen before in Black Mirror.
The ultra-severe criminal justice is reminiscent of Series Two’s intense White Bear, with Matt being permanently ‘blocked’ from the rest of society and Joe experiencing the most horrific and cruelly ironic use of ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ you’ll ever see. Hearing the same five Christmas songs on loop in Tesco’s has got nothing on a few million sleepless years of Wizzard, surrounded only by your worst memories. Hamm is perfectly cast as the smooth, charismatic American, but it’s Spall as the tragic Joe, the “good man who’s done bad things”, who we sympathise the most with by the end. The directing is also top notch and suitably nightmarish; a single blue flashing light takes on depressing significance, and the image of a blood-smeared snow-globe pretty much sums up the episode. It’s not relentlessly bleak however, with a lot of wit and moments of dry humour.
Although the first part doesn’t fit into the overall story as nicely as the rest, and it personally doesn’t quite reach the heights of Series One’s ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ (though not many things do), it’s hard not to feel satisfied once the multiple story strands eventually converge. Black Mirror isn’t so much techno-paranoia as it is a cautionary tale of what we’re capable of when certain technologies are at hand. Like all good speculative sci-fi, it presents an exaggerated version of our own world, and what we could be heading towards if we’re not careful. It’s the kind of ideas-based, stylish show we really need to see more of, especially with the untimely loss of Utopia. It’s one of the most thought-provoking programmes on TV, and with new technology constantly changing the way we live, there’s certainly no shortage of inspiration for more dystopian stories. The future is broken – Merry Christmas…