Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, broadcast at the tail-end of 2011, was as satisfying as it was disturbing. Three hour-long episodes, in which the only recurring character was the theme of techno-doom, wove darkly satirical yarns of talent show dystopias, eyeball-mounted smartphones and Prime Ministerial pig-shagging. It was an angry thesis on our species and the technology to which we are now inextricably wedded, and its conclusion, broadly, was: “we’re all fucked”.
We continue to be fucked in Black Mirror‘s return, a comeback which could not be more welcome in the current plodding TV landscape. Last night’s premiere, ‘Be Right Back’, boasted perhaps the series’ most intriguing concept to date. Martha (Hayley Atwell) is shellshocked when her husband Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) is suddenly killed in a car accident. Stricken by grief, Martha signs up for a futuristic new service which creates an artificially intelligent replica of a lost loved one, using their Facebook statuses or Twitter updates as contributing data. Add old home movies and a synthetically-constructed body to the mix, and you have yourself have a clone almost smart enough to pass the Turing test – the measure by which computers can be believably human.
Like earlier episodes, the fictional reality presented is near-future rather than Futurama, with smatterings of small but recognisable advances in existing technologies, making the experience all the more effective and – as is no doubt intended – unsettling. Brooker’s satire is a bleak and cursory warning, extending today’s trends to their darkly logical conclusion.
As before, there’s an implicit comment on our desperate over-reliance on technology. Martha scolds Ash at the start of the episode for having his head buried in his phone; later, she becomes obsessed with her own phone when it offers an artificial version of her late husband. But there are also deeper, philosophical ideas about what it means to be human; that our imperfections and foibles could never be matched by the cold unblemished rigidity of machines.
‘Be Right Back’ is probably the series’ best entry yet – thoughtful, engaging, and sad, a melancholic romantic drama with technology as the unworthy shoulder to cry on. Brooker’s script is matched with the sort of directorial elegance and cinematic grandeur (from Owen Harris, whose credits also include the excellent Holy Flying Circus and a few Misfits episodes) that the material demands, and assisted no end by a brave and vulnerable performance from Hayley Atwell. Television is seldom this affecting or intelligent. Get Black Mirror in your life.