There’s a point in the life of many shows where they start to become extremely self-referential. The X Files, Lost… and in most cases, it means that they’ve at least crouched down to jump over that shark. Black Museum, an anthology episode of an actual anthology series packed full of references to previous episodes, could easily be seen like that.
But I don’t think we’ve reached peak Black Mirror just yet. True, it is odd to have a portmanteau movie in a series that’s already an anthology; but this was presumably inspired by the classic 60s and 70s anthologies produced by Hammer and Amicus, some of which are genuine classics.
It was certainly structured like them, with its trio of linked stories that eventually fed into the framing narrative – think Vault of Horror, or Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. Here though, the stories had a very Black Mirror set of preoccupations about human interaction with tech. As usual, humanity didn’t come off looking too pretty.
Although the ep was written by Brooker, the opening story of a doctor who gets a tech-enhanced rush from others’ pain is actually based on a story by fellow misanthrope Penn Jillette. It’s not much of a surprise that Jillette fits rather well into Brooker’s world; neither has a rosy view of mankind. The piece was brutal, its earlier dark humour giving way to the kind of self-destructive horror that might get classed as Hostel-style torture porn. But this was underpinned by a more cerebral fear – as the increasingly deranged, mutilated doc started in on an ill-fated homeless guy with a drill, it was clear this owed more to Abel Ferrara’s dark Driller Killer than Eli Roth’s dismembering of photogenic teenagers.
Indeed, the trio of horror tales – for that was unquestionably what they were – became more cerebral each time, focusing on the show’s very dark view of what near-future tech might do to us. There was no gore or self-mutilation in the second tale, in which a comatose woman had her consciousness transferred to the unused parts of her partner’s brain. But the premise was, if anything, more existentially horrific – obviously he’d want to move on and find a new love, and equally obviously that would be pretty awkward with his ex squatting in his head.
It was bad enough that he became able to “turn her off” for increasingly long periods of time. But her final fate, trapped inside an unfeeling teddy bear capable of expression with only two basic phrases, presumably forever since her tech-preserved consciousness couldn’t die, was the sort of horror that only gets worse the more you think of it. True, the show’s been here before, in one of the triptych of tales in White Christmas (oh yeah, that was an anthology episode too), but this felt worse somehow.
The final tale, of a death row inmate whose consciousness was cloned so he could die over and over again for people’s entertainment, may have been the bleakest thing this show’s done (and that’s saying something). But it was also the most predictable; who didn’t see the twist coming that the nice young girl who’d unintentionally dropped in on the museum was the man’s daughter out for revenge?
To be fair, I think the script played with that obviousness, with great big signposts all the way through to the ultimate fate of Douglas Hodge’s slimy, unscrupulous former tech researcher. The recurring theme, the possibility of replicating or transferring human consciousness through technology, has been something of a preoccupation of the show in the past. Indeed, Letitia Wright’s Nish specifically compared it to the tech used in San Junipero (to rather less horrific effect), and Hodge’s creepy Rolo Haynes confirmed that the San Junipero facility was named after the hospital his research was done at – Saint Juniper’s.
Charlie Brooker has hinted before that the Black Mirror stories might be taking place in a shared universe. Black Museum pretty much confirmed that, with shot after shot packed with easter eggs from previous eps – Michael Smiley’s mask from White Bear, one of the robot bees from Hated in the Nation, Daly’s DNA cloner (complete with little boy’s lollipop, which was surely taken away) from USS Callister…There was even a glimpse of a comic called Fifteen Million Merits, a story that would otherwise have been hard to tie in to the same universe. For a fuller list, check out this article.
So ok, every Black Mirror ep takes place in the same world (although some of them are fictional stories within that world). I’m not sure whether that really makes sense, given the near-apocalyptic possibilities of virtually every scenario. But I’m prepared to give Brooker, a comics fan like myself, a pass on that one. After all, I used to try and reconcile The Bill, London’s Burning and Casualty as taking place in the same universe. I even planned a few crossovers in my deranged mind.
It’s not quite been business as usual for this fourth outing of Black Mirror, with the usual depth complemented by more straightforward tales like Crocodile and Metalhead (albeit with the same basic themes). That’s a good thing – it means Charlie Brooker is trying new things rather than repeating previous successes. Yes, some of them might not work, but evolution in a TV show is a must if it’s not to get stale.
I enjoyed this season’s romantic effort Hang the DJ, but I can absolutely understand the criticism that it’s a pale imitation of the acclaimed San Junipero and a sign the show might be starting to repeat itself. I’m not sure if, or when Black Mirror will be back; I can’t see Charlie Brooker churning out production line TV on demand. I hope we do get some more, but I also hope (and am fairly confident) that he’ll take the time to produce more stuff of real quality, rather than trotting out endless Xeroxes of past glories to chase ratings for Netflix.