Black Mirror has a problem, and because it’s still such a clever show it’s already aware of this problem. With modern fan culture filling the internet with increasingly intelligent (and the other kind) and culturally savvy analysis and opinions of every popular show or movie, creators have to dig a little deeper in order to surprise. One of the most high-profile instances is the second season of Westworld being delayed because clever fans predicted plot points. Since Black Mirror is an anthology about the horrors of technology, it’s easy to forget that creator Charlie Brooker is a skilled analyser of media patterns himself.
Season four of Black Mirror has Brooker acknowledge the increasing familiarity that comes with a multiple season show like Black Mirror. Despite it’s anthology status, the strings are beginning to show with how many original takes on certain stories can be attempted before fans feel like Brooker is repeating himself. Of the six episodes, only “USS Callister” feels like a true original. Starring Jesse Plemons as a tech mogul that creates a simulation of his favourite Star Trek clone TV show, but it’s populated by copies of the work colleagues that have insulted him, or not given him the attention he thinks he deserves. These copies are self-aware prisoners of the simulation that must treat their Captain like a god. It’s a brilliant concept that analyses the god complex we feel through gaming, how we let our worst impulses get the better if us if we make the rules, and a few affectionate digs at Star Trek.
After the premiere, season four is a re-tread of many ideas that Black Mirror has done before. That’s not to say that these episodes are bad, though they aren’t great. What keeps things from becoming too stale is familiar ideas channelled through a different context. Archangel, which is directed by Jodie Foster, and stars Rosemarie Dewitt, plays like a maternal, and one-sided version of “Secret History of You”. The premise is a simple escalation of being an overprotective parent. Dewitt’s character chips her daughter, meaning she can track her location, filter her experiences, and see through her eyes. It’s a neat idea, but like a lot of this season, what was once surprising now feels inevitable.
The same can be said of “Hang the DJ”. Like last years brilliant “San Junipero”, this is the middle romantic episode. The premise has a cold, clinical, and instantly compelling hook: is dating easier if we let a scientific algorithm decide who “the one” is? Like Archangel, this is a very Black Mirror type of technological escalation, and it’s charmingly brought to life by the main couple, played by Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole. Yet “Hang the DJ” pales in the too-easy comparison to San Junipero. It’s a solid episode, but if it was trying for classic status it doesn’t quite reach it.
Like most anthology shows, there are weaker stories. Both “Crocodile” and “Metalhead” suffer from a lack of a clear message. “Crocodile”, which is anchored by an admittedly excellent performance from Andrea Risborough, takes nearly half the episode to get to the techno heart if the story, and the final reveal, or two, is so brutal, and silly at the same time that it undermines the visceral tension that’s been built up. “Metalhead” is more of a straightforward pursuit story, with Maxine Peake being pursued by a cyborg known as the dog. It’s a slick piece of horror, rendered in stark black and white by director David Slade, but it fades from the memory as soon as the credits role.
Lastly, we have “Black Museum”, a sly winking parody of what Black Mirror is. A mini anthology in itself, with some deeply disturbing ideas, Black Museum even has its own Charlie Brooker stand-in, played by Douglas Hodge. While it won’t be for everyone, especially the first story, Black Museum has Brooker holding his hands up and admitting that Black Mirror has a formula. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Brooker has acknowledged that he may need to work a little harder to shock us in the future.