Since its gruesome, pig-fucking 2011 premiere, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has single handedly become shorthand for every time you’re even slightly suspicious of your computer. Over the years the show has evolved significantly, casting a wide (although consistently nihilist) net when it comes to the freaky possibilities of technology. But Black Mirror Season 4, while occasionally thrilling, suggest the series has worked itself into a corner when it comes to creatively dreaming up new horror stories.
Aside from the fact that most of this season’s episodes end in largely unearned twists, the sinister thread running through most of this new season is the nightmare that you are no longer in control of your existence. Consciousness, like the “cookie” introduced in Black Mirror’s special “White Christmas,” can now be uploaded to the Cloud like a file. And considering that file can create a thinking, feeling copy of another person it is, unsurprisingly, ripe for abuse.
The season’s first episode “USS Callister” sets the tone, focusing on a power-hungry video game developer played by Jesse Plemons, who creates a secret game inspired by his favorite Star Trek-y television show. In the real world he is a mealy-mouthed, subservient nerd, but in his game he’s the demanding commander of the ship. And he has assembled his crew by essentially 3D printing his co-workers into the game, using pieces of their DNA to create fully cognizant clones that he can torture into playing along.
Digital cloning via DNA is one way to copy a person this season, but you can also just sell your consciousness, as a convicted murderer does in the season’s finale “Black Museum.” He lives on as tourist attraction via hologram, forced to experience his death sentence over and over for sadistic visitors. Or you can let a dating app create a copy of you to run through thousands of hyper-realistic dating simulations in order to find your perfect match, as two people do in “Hang the DJ.”
In other episodes, computers and apps hijack memories and minds: a helicopter parent wires her daughter with GPS, parental filter controls and the ability to see what she sees in “Arkangel”; in the exceedingly cruel “Crocodile,” an insurance claims investigator using a computer that can watch a person’s memories accidentally uncovers a past murder in someone’s brain. In a subplot of “Black Museum,” a woman’s consciousness is actually implanted in her husband’s brain until he grows sick of her constant input on his life and sticks what is essentially her soul into a stuffed animal.
Again and again this new season of Black Mirror asks, what if you were not the only person with access to your mind, your memories, your personhood? It’s definitely a relevant question, given how much data and personal information we all willingly give to websites and corporations daily. But it’s also something the show has asked before, several times, with similar technology. We know memory-mining can break up a couple from “The Entire History of You,” or that turning your eyeballs into a screen that can filter violence is destructive in last season’s “Men Against Fire,” for example.
I won’t deny Black Mirror a connected universe; pieces of its own tech can obviously resurface in different episodes. But the sticky ethical questions here don’t just echo past episodes—they’re largely the same across this season. It’s why I found the presence of “Metalhead,” a beautifully shot black-and-white dystopia about the terror of militarized technology and drones, particularly thrilling. It is a bolt of energy and throwback sci-fi that is unusual for Black Mirror, but its focus on the future dangers of capitalistic hyper-surveillance feels vital.
It seems like Brooker looked at the success of last season’s “San Junipero,” a love story in which two women meet in a virtual playground for the dead, and wanted to toy further with ideas of letting one’s consciousness live on. But for a television show about the future, Black Mirror has barely moved forward.