If you’re not freaked out enough already, there’s always Black Mirror. Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi anthology series about our twisted relationship to technology has always been bracingly dystopian, and its fourth season, which arrives on Friday, is no exception. When Netflix sent out synopses of the new episodes, it described one in particular as “quite nightmarish.” Seeing as most installments of the series can be described in this fashion (and without the qualifier), I steeled myself. But the episode in question, “Metalhead,” a gripping, claustrophobic battle between woman and machine, is not even the third-most nightmarish episode of the season. (The award for most nightmarish goes to “Crocodile,” a chill-inducing psychological carnage-fest filmed in the style of Scandinavian noir that I would happily unsee, if such a nefarious technology existed, thank you very much.) As ever, Black Mirror takes technological advancements and presumes something approximating the worst. More immersive games, dating platforms, parenting tools, and medical devices are someone’s idea of better, but that someone is a dupe, a villain, a capitalist—and, maybe, you and me.
Four of the six episodes are varying kinds of grim. In addition to the very good “Metalhead” and the very punishing “Crocodile,” there’s the wan “ArkAngel,” directed by Jodie Foster—ahem, the first woman to ever direct an episode of the series—about a woman who implants her young child with an obviously misguided technology, and “Black Museum,” a series of nestled stories relayed in tabloid high spirits that gets progressively more twisted as various early adopters turn into tech-age Tantaluses. But the influence of last season’s breakout episode, the rare, uplifting “San Junipero,” in which love triumphs over time, space, the ’80s, and death is also in the air. “Hang the DJ,” a rom-com also indebted to the small film Timer, does not have the sweep or depth of “San Junipero” but at least smuggles its devastating and sour lines of thinking—what’s with our idiotic, self-punishing, unimaginative devotion to algorithms?—into a lighter tale about the ultimate matchmaking service. There’s even a happy ending.
And then there is “USS Callister,” the best episode of the season, and the one that Brooker thinks stands the best chance of being a “San Junipero”–style breakout. The episode is both a sendup and embrace of Star Trek that stars Jesse Plemons in what initially appears to be the sympathetic role of a bullied, sad-sack tech genius, who frequently escapes to a virtual world of his own creation where he can be something like Captain Kirk. But “Callister” has Gamergate on its mind—and maps very neatly onto the ongoing controversy about Star Wars. The bullied man is revealed to also be a reprehensible bully, and the true hero of the story turns out to be a heroine, played by Cristin Milioti. “Callister” skewers the unimaginative online fandom that thinks wanting to be captain of something like the Starship Enterprise (or a master of the Force) is a male prerogative, diminished when it becomes more inclusive. It’s a provocation to bad fans (of which Black Mirror may have a few)—a male fantasy that gets disrupted by women and people of color—that is also very funny, very well-plotted, and questions and celebrates its Trekkian source material with great wit. The moment when “Callister” basically becomes a giddy Star Trek romp is the most purely (only?) joyful moment in the new season.
There is, as ever, lots to chew over and choke on in the new episodes. But the show is less incisive than it was. This season contains no episodes that take place in the world we currently live in—nothing like the pig-sex opener “The National Anthem,” the Trump-predicting “The Waldo Moment,” or the horrifying blackmail sequence “Shut Up and Dance”—but it also doesn’t have any episodes that feel like they could take place in a plausible near future. Rather, the episodes and the tech feel like they belong to some slightly alt near-future, where tech has advanced in the total absence of individual tech skepticism. No one in Black Mirror worries about her relationship to technology. No one even worries that he checks his phone too much. But tech anxiety is a huge part of our relationship to our devices—to say nothing of Black Mirror’s success—even as we continue to embrace and rely upon new technologies. This apprehension’s absence is not only a missed opportunity, it reduces the reality of the show’s imagined world. I think an episode about the person trying to stay off her phone could be great, but at least give the parent about to permanently implant a chip in her kid’s brain a moment of pause.
The tech itself does not help. Brooker has become more enamored of an idea that was first introduced in “White Christmas” (which “Black Museum” is a kind of companion piece to) in which we possess the ability to make digital copies of our own consciousness. In “White Christmas,” in order to make our own lives easier, a character literally enslaved a copy of herself. In the new season, characters are enslaved by other, bad actors. Brooker can’t resist this idea because it fulfills his thesis: For the sake of convenience, pleasure, or profit, we are willing to sell ourselves to a screen. When it comes to tech, we are already in chains. But as provocative and to the point as Black Mirror’s speculative technology is, it keeps the new episodes from exploring more flawed developments that might make for more interesting episodes. The early, great “Be Right Back,” in which a grieving woman sent off for a loved one programmed by his digital correspondence and social media presence, is so powerful because the copy of her lover is imperfect—because we can’t live forever, because our Facebook profile is not us. Brooker’s fears about what is possible may prove correct, but they are too far ahead of our moment. There’s scarier stuff nearer at hand.