During the week leading up to Halloween we can expect a collection of film and TV outlets to clamour for our attention. It’s officially the most deliberately horrifying month of the year, yet the most frightening thing you can watch this week is undoubtedly the third series of Black Mirror. As if Charlie Brooker’s enviable way of packaging up how we live and communicate through a worst-case-scenario lens wasn’t already brilliant, on Netflix everything’s that little bit bigger, bolder, sharper.
There was some mild trepidation that leaving Channel 4 for Netflix might soften the sinister undercurrent that made Black Mirror feel as if it was quietly clawing at your soul. A solemn, cynical Britishness that ran through its veins. It’s true that series three has a more global feel, but anybody who was concerned must have forgotten that it’s Charlie Brooker’s baby. Nobody with such well-honed observational skills was going to sacrifice the very grit and darkness that made the show so internationally successful. And besides, with our relationship with technology at the very core of this third offering of scarily believable stories, the themes are those the modern world as a whole will recognise and identify with.
The series both begins and ends by ripping the skin off our collective infatuation with social media. Though the opening, Nosedive, couldn’t be more different in tone to Hated in the Nation. Episode one places us in a bright, hyper-real, near-future where our social media ‘Likes and Loves’ have evolved into a scoring system for every social interaction. Our ratings appear in front of us in real-time. Every photo you post, each awkward conversation in a lift, any mild form of public aggression is scored by those around us. Reach the high 4.0s and you’re winning at life. Stop playing the game or even try too hard and you’ll find yourself a pariah. It’s not about who’s happiest or the most successful, it’s about who gives the best curated impression of it to keep their score up. Everyone gets a little too compliant and a touch too afraid of speaking their minds in case of damaging the number that denotes their social currency.
It seems preposterous, but it’s the game we all take part in to some extent or another from the moment we grab our phones in the morning. In 2013, Charlie Brooker caused controversy when he suggested during How Video Games Changed the World that Twitter was the globe's number one video game. Here, he shows the game at play. Nosedive follows Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard) as she experiences what might happen in this not-too-distant world when oppressed authenticity builds up and has nowhere to go. I got a laugh out of accidentally hitting the wrong button on my Xbox controller and swiping to give it a Five-Star Rating instead of moving on to the second episode. It was deserved, but ratings take on a whole new meaning after watching.
In contrast and back in a bleak British setting, Hated in the Nation closes the series by anticipating the consequences of the social media witch hunts that play out on a daily basis. There are, of course, already consequences for what we produce from behind the comfort of a keyboard, we just rarely see the emotional damage it does or we ignore it when it’s shared. Whether it’s the professional trolls who make careers of tormenting others with outrageous views sure to cause upset (you know who I mean), or campaigns of collective hate that rapidly snowball with the help of a simple hashtag, the episode leaves us thinking carefully about what our words really mean online. The tone might be different to episode one, but similarly, we’re all a little complicit.
Playtest, possibly the easiest to place in the horror box, follows a stranded tourist who agrees to take part in virtual reality game testing in order to earn some quick cash. The results of which have us wondering what reality actually is and considering what the repercussions could be when we offer our minds up for others to play with. Unsurprisingly, it highlights that our deepest fears are the things we rarely talk about. The bits we stuff right down. Men Against Fire, too, takes a blistering look at mind control, though concentrates on the intensely current topic of losing our compassion for others by choosing to stay blind to atrocity. We probably all know someone who needs to watch the metaphor for modern life that is episode five.
Most grim is Shut Up and Dance, where anonymous messages and instructions begin appearing on the phones of people who’ve had their online activity hacked and monitored. It’s a seemingly endless nightmare so devoid of hope for humanity that, while it raises important issues on security, judgement and punishment, it can leave you feeling bilious and deflated. Thankfully, it’s followed by one of the most beautiful hours of television I’ve ever seen. And what’s even better is that Charlie Brooker took full charge of writing San Junipero himself. In a series built to terrorise us with our own thoughts on what exists around the corner, episode four flies the flag for love and hope while still giving us plenty to contemplate. It induced an ugly cry that I had no choice but to let sputter everywhere. Each of the six chapters work best when you don’t know too much about them, but San Junipero – with its time-hopping and strangers crossing paths – really does just need to be fully absorbed right up until the final piece of music. It’s a masterpiece. And in truth, I could write thousands of words on each single hour of Black Mirror. There’s so much detail to pick apart, so many quiet fears about our future to admit to, such stunning writing, direction and performance. It warrants all the praise and conversation it instigates.
For centuries, the way we communicate with each other and the advent of new technology has both enthralled and petrified us. Great works of fiction, academic studies, the media and now social media have and will continue to act as spaces for debate on where we go next. Black Mirror is a time capsule of our current worries. In her 2015 book, Personal Connections in the Digital Age, Nancy K. Baym points out that motor travel, radio and television were all initially met with suspicion. In her New York Times Style Magazine column earlier this year, Molly Young said of the trend for staying home at the weekend, “Every generation’s fear is that the next generation has found better ways to avoid the risks of being human.” 2016 has given us repeated evidence that our levels of humanity and compassion are under threat. Series three of Black Mirror may be difficult to stomach in places, but it’s an opportunity to pause for serious thought and possibly adjust our own behaviour. The fact that it does that while still being so thoroughly entertaining and emotionally rousing is down to Charlie Brooker and his team’s admirable talent. All TV should be this good, but if it was we might never leave the house again. And there's a starting point for series four.