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Black Mirror, San Junipero still
Black MirrorCourtesy of Netflix

Has the world become too dystopian for Black Mirror?

The show’s sixth season is being released this summer – but as reality gets increasingly bleaker and more surreal, are we past the point of satire?

Black Mirror has dropped a teaser for its sixth season, which will be arriving in June. Ever since it was acquired by Netflix in 2016, the show has drawn high-profile Hollywood actors, and this upcoming season is no exception: the cast will include Salma Hayek, Michael Cera, Josh Hartnett, Rob Delaney, and many more. The trailer doesn’t give much away in terms of plot, but it looks more lavish and cinematic than ever before and decidedly dark in tone – even by the standards set by previous seasons. Speaking to Netflix’s Tudum, Charlie Brooker hinted that we can expect something different: “Partly as a challenge, and partly to keep things fresh for both me and the viewer, I began this season by deliberately upending some of my own core assumptions about what to expect,” he said. “Alongside some of the more familiar Black Mirror tropes we’ve also got a few new elements, including some I’ve previously sworn blind the show would never do.”  

Like all anthology shows, Black Mirror has always been hit-and-miss, and every season has featured a couple of dud episodes. But at its best, it can be genuinely powerful and movingStill, I’m not sure whether it will land the same in 2023, when reality is so absurd and on-the-nose that satire feels redundant. In a way, the show is the victim of its own success – it’s almost been too prescient, which makes it harder to imagine where it can go next. From its first season, it was always responding to things that were happening at the time, and didn’t “predict” the social trends it was satirising, be that smartphone addiction or cancel culture. But a disturbing number of its fictional technologies have since come into being, as though engineers watched the show’s nightmarish visions of the future and come away thinking, “that’s actually a pretty neat idea!”

The creator of AI chatbot Replika, for example, was directly inspired by 2013 episode Be Right Back, in which a grieving woman creates a facsimile of her dead husband based on his internet footprint. While it’s yet to provide a walking, talking robot, one South Korean company has created a service titled Re;Memory, which recreates the voice of your dead loved ones and allows you to chat with them. Similar to 2017’s Metalhead, in which survivors of the apocalypse are hunted by evil robot dogs, San Francisco’s police department recently came under fire for a proposed policy of allowing robots to kill suspected criminals. Samsung is developing a set of contact lens which allows you to record your experiences; a technology which didn’t work out great for the protagonists of The Entire History of You (2011). While the Metaverse currently looks way too shoddy to shoddy to resemble the virtual reality landscapes depicted in USS Callister (2017), it’s a step in that direction. And of course, much like the plot of the show’s debut episode, former prime minister David Cameron – allegedly – fucked a pig

More broadly, the sense of alienation the show captured in its early seasons, which felt quite fresh at the time, now seems so obvious and pervasive that it’s barely worth pointing out. Throughout history, dystopian fiction has often been a response to utopian ideas, a way of unearthing the latent darkness in visions of progress. Among other things, Black Mirror was critiquing the idea that the internet would make us more connected, that it would create a more harmonious world. At this point, everyone knows that idea is bunk – is it even worth any further discussion?

That said, things look dramatically different since the last season aired in 2019, so there’s a lot to work with: aside from the pandemic, we have seen the meteoric rise of TikTok, cryptocurrency and AI, all of which have inspired new cultural anxieties. I’m not sure what a Black Mirror episode that skewered NFT bros would look like, but it’s something I’d like to see. And while the show has often been caricatured as a vehicle for ‘what if phones but too much’-style cultural commentary, it was always at its best when it veered away from straightforward moral judgements about technology. Episodes like “San Junipero” or “Striking Vipers”, for example, are much closer to utopian than dystopian, more concerned with human relationships than speculative doom-mongering – it would be great if you could live out your retirement in the most idyllic memories of your youth, or fuck your best mate inside a video game. (In the real world, virtual reality sex technology is coming on leaps and bounds, so it’s just a matter of convincing a friend.)

A lot of the time, the show wasn’t really commenting on technology itself: “Black Museum”, one of its best and most harrowing episodes, uses a sci-fi concept (“what if your consciousness could be replicated?”) to examine the way that Black trauma is served up as entertainment: the disembodied mind of a man wrongfully executed for murder is electrified again and again; his agony turned into a souvenir trinket for racists. This is not a commentary on some far-flung future. Sometimes, the horror that Black Mirror depicts is existential, rather than satirical: in a number of episodes, characters find themselves trapped in consciousness for eternity, while having no agency in the world. In “Black Museum”, a woman in a coma has her consciousness transplanted into the mind of her husband, who quickly gets sick of her and downgrades her into a cuddly toy monkey, capable only of saying “monkey loves you” or “monkey needs a hug.” When her son grows tired of the toy and abandons her, she is trapped inside it, thinking, feeling and suffering but unable to act. It evokes a kind of terror that goes way beyond technology.

So even if our reality feels dystopian enough as it is, the new season could still surprise us. And Charlie Brooker, if you’re reading this, please give me a call: I have an excellent idea for an episode about how the Chinese government is using TikTok to make young people queer!

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