Two out of the three episodes of Black Mirror season 5, Smithereens and Striking Vipers, are underwhelming in terms of the terrifying effects of rapidly advancing technology that make Black Mirror the show that it is. Both these stories are a big departure from Black Mirror’s dystopian future or parallel present core as they are very much about the here and now.
While Black Mirror’s highest rated episodes like San Junipero and USS Callister dive deep into the fantastic possibilities of our digital future, this season seems to rest on topics that we are already familiar with.
The show’s creator and writer, Charlie Brooker’s narrative this time is more focused on inter-personal relationships and the drama arising out of technological dependencies than edge of the seat, unpredictable, mind-blowing twists and turns that made us fall in love with the show. And that requires a major shift in expectations when going go into this new season.
In Smithereens, an unhinged rideshare driver (Andrew Scott) abducts an intern (Damson Idris) at a social media company (on the lines of Facebook and Twitter) in order to force the company’s founder, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), modelled to a large extent on powerful tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Jack Dorsey (Twitter), into a one-on-one phone conversation.
Smithereens has some strong performances, especially Scott, and a few edge of the seat moments, but it is a predictable storyline for those who have watched the earlier seasons of the show.
Last year Sean Parker, one of the founding members of Facebook who quit the company in 2005, said that Facebook’s architects exploited a “vulnerability in human psychology” and whenever someone likes or comments on a post or photograph, he said, “we… give you a little dopamine hit”.
We have also read several news stories of people caught in accidents thanks to taking selfies in dangerous situations and checking their mobile phone notifications while driving.
Smithereens combines these two aspects and creates more of a hostage drama than the sc-fi story. This episode at best is a hostage thriller/drama.
What this episode does is explore the question, ‘How much accountability do tech companies assume for the complicated and, at times, damaging ways in which their products affect consumers?’ This is an important question we need to find an answer to as we move forward.
Striking Vipers is a game on the lines of Mortal Kombat and Tekken set not too far from the future of VR ( virtual reality) open-world gaming. It takes the current VR games catering to converting hand gestures and other movements into actions in a virtual world a step further into a more immersive experience where you can actually feel everything you do in there.
Just like porn addiction, VR could also lead to a dependency on virtual experiences for sexual pleasure, becoming even more gratifying that real-life relationships. It could also bend gender norms.
The confusion that it creates in our minds as to whether we should embrace technology, discard it, balance it or just go for the ride and evolve as a race is at the centre of this plot.
Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Theo are married and on their way to having another baby, when the return of Danny’s college friend Carl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) leads to Danny rekindling his old love for the game Striking Vipers, albeit with new completely immersive upgrades. Their gaming relationship takes an unexpected turn, opening up a whole new world.
Rachael, Jack and Ashley Too
In comparison to the first two episodes Rachael, Jack and Ashley Too is a lot cheekier, taking on the topic of where the relationship between onscreen stars and their fans could go in the future.
Anything is possible with technology as idols who can talk back and be best friends with fans. The result is more humorous rather than intense.
This episode talks about technology taking the place of actual human beings. In a bid to be the ideal version, or as Ashley’s manager Catherine puts it in the episode, “Pitch perfect. Bringing her A game” kind of version, we forget that we are all flawed as human beings and that’s the beauty of it.
Miley Cyrus’ Ashley takes us back to the Hanna Montana days as she portrays a pop sensation worshiped by kids and teenagers. And she is in her element as an actor. Her manager Catherine has a strong hold on her creative output, stifling her inner desires to do a different kind of music.
On the other hand two young girls, motherless and friendless, get involved with the life of Ashley to an unhealthy extent.
The problem with this episode is that it takes on too much: decoding a person’s dreams, uploading a person’s whole brain into a device, using their voice codes to actually create a song, hologram impersonation of a person and many more.
There’s tons of humour there, but little meat - a broader and wilder take on a story, compared to the other two episodes.
Overall, Black Mirror season 5 is more focused on interpersonal relationships and the drama that comes with it rather than the possibilities of mind-blowing digital advancements, and shocking twists and turns in the tale.