The fourth season of Netflix’s science fiction anthology series Black Mirror opens with grainy, low quality VCR footage of the fictional sci-fi show Space Fleet. It’s an obvious parody of the original Star Trek from the 1960s, complete with meaningless jargon, corny visuals, and Jesse Plemons doing an impressive William Shatner impression. This first scene also ends up becoming a sort of microcosm of the entire season: it’s formally daring (more so than previous seasons) and consistently well acted and entertaining, but so many of its ideas only run skin deep.
Black Mirror season four consists of six episodes: the Star Trek-inspired “USS Callister,” the coming-of-age story “Arkangel,” the thriller “Crocodile,” the romantic comedy “Hang the DJ,” the horror-tinged “Metalhead,” and the anthology-within-an-anthology “Black Museum.” Just by looking at this episode list, one can get an idea of the kind of genre experimentation series creator and primary screenwriter Charlie Brooker is aiming for. Not all of these experiments work, though. Only two episodes really succeed in integrating sci-fi into their chosen aesthetics: “USS Callister,” which becomes an exciting commentary on the toxic workplace, and “Hang the DJ,” a refreshingly light love story set in the world of app-based dating.
“USS Callister” doesn’t use its Star Trek references for anything other than cosmetic purposes. Given how well respected the original Trek series is today (thanks to dozens of sequels, remakes, and imitations in the last five decades), this episode’s critiques of Trek’s sexism and repetitive plotting feel like weak jabs. But that’s okay, because “USS Callister” reveals very early on that it isn’t really about Star Trek. It becomes a frequently funny drama that challenges viewers’ sympathies, and an imperfect but exhilarating space adventure with Hollywood-quality visuals. And if nothing else, the episode should be remembered for its lead performances. The aforementioned Jesse Plemons is dynamic as the captain of the ship, and Cristin Milioti’s wide-eyed charisma makes her a natural heroine.
Hang the DJ
“Hang the DJ,” on the other hand, channels classic Black Mirror by keeping the spectacle at a minimum. It focuses squarely on Frank and Amy (Joe Cole and Georgina Campbell, respectively) as they participate in a dating program that attempts to find each person’s ultimate match by putting them through a series of temporary relationships. This is perhaps the most accessible Black Mirror has ever been, using Cole and Campbell’s undeniable chemistry (and their characters’ relationship to the dating app itself) to discuss the joys and pitfalls of modern love. It’s brazenly sweet, aggressively likable, and easily the best episode of the season.
Both of these episodes sport a much more positive tone than the series is known for (echoing last season’s acclaimed “San Junipero”), and it seems that Brooker has become more confident with telling optimistic stories. In contrast, the fourth season’s bleaker episodes suffer; they lack strong relationships between their characters and the technology they encounter.
The deliberately spare “Metalhead” features a murderous robot dog as a main character, but the episode doesn’t provide enough detail about the world to make the dog’s interactions with the protagonist carry any weight. “Arkangel” and “Crocodile” see Brooker trying too hard to hit the beats of their respective subgenres, minimizing the science fiction aspect in the process. The parenting surveillance program in “Arkangel” doesn’t add any real nuance to the mother-daughter relationship at its core, while the memory-activated accident verification technology in “Crocodile” doesn’t actually factor into the main story. The relative absence of technology in these episodes wouldn’t have been a big problem if the human beings themselves were interesting, but they’re not. Black Mirror has always had something to say about people’s agency and use of power. Here, Brooker’s insights run thin.
Ultimately, however, it would still be dishonest to write off this season of Black Mirror as a misfire. The show boasts some of the best sci-fi visual effects currently on television and consistently committed performances (even the weaker “Crocodile” features a compelling Andrea Riseborough), and it stands as a potent reminder of what an anthology series can do. Somehow, even the missteps seem deliberate—experiments made with the best intentions. With every episode of Black Mirror, this interconnected universe only gets deeper, most blatantly seen in the forgettable but decent “Black Museum.” Instead of sticking to a formula, the show continues to expand.
So even as this season of Black Mirror fails to be as engaging both intellectually and emotionally, Brooker seems to be attempting to expand the ways that sci-fi stories can be told on TV. Granted, he’s still in the midst of finding a way for Black Mirror’s best qualities to coexist with the trappings of other genres. But if the series gets renewed, and if Brooker continues on this path, we’d be happy to take another trip into his future.
Black Mirror is streaming on Netflix.