[Contains distracting pizza deliveries and SPOILERS!!!]
Although I’m a big fan of Charlie Brooker’s work as a satirical critic, commentator, and panel-show presenter… not to mention his priceless contribution to British comedy/culture as the brain-father of Philomena Cunk… I’m a little more ambivalent about his dramatic output, and bailed on the critically acclaimed, multi-award-winning science-fiction anthology series Black Mirror somewhere around the second season. Despite the cleverness of the scripts, and the quality of the casting, it’s just a little too miserable and misanthropic for my tastes… too desaturated and sombre… so I was very confused/intrigued when I saw promo photos for the first episode of the new (fourth) season, suggesting a bright, shiny, retro-styled homage to old-timey technicolour space-operas, such as the original Star Trek series. Of course, I assumed that something horrible and unsettling was going to happen to the eponymous spaceship’s squeaky-clean sacrificial-lambs over the course of the story, but the soppy optimist in me was still blindly hoping that they’d find a way to overcome their ordeal in the end… and, much to my surprise, they did!*
To short-hand it for those who haven’t seen the episode yet, all of the crew-members pictured above, save for their seated Captain (Jesse Plemons), are digital-clones of real people (with all their memories and personality traits intact), unwittingly trapped in a highly-advanced virtual-reality video game, and sectioned off in a custom-skinned pocket-universe inspired by the co-creator’s fave cult sci-fi show “Space Fleet”. In fact, they’re all office-mates who have supposedly “wronged” the petty programmer, who jacks-in every evening after work to role-play as their preening superior, and vent his frustrations on them, via vicious acts of torture and disfigurement, when they don’t behave in a satisfactorily fawning and subservient manner. Using cheat-codes to give himself near-godlike powers, he rules his cheesy little realm with an iron fist, and a painful lack of imagination… until, that is, he makes the mistake of assimilating nerdy new-girl ‘Nanette Cole’ (Cristin Milioti) into his silicon menagerie, and she employs her abundant intelligence to f*ck him up, both in the game-world and in reality. Hurrah! The episode ends on a happy up-beat, with the virtual crew conducting a surprisingly successful and empowering mutiny (which leaves their human tormentor’s consciousness trapped in a trash bin somewhere), and breaking out into an ever-expanding MMORPG universe, appropriately titled “Infinity”. Nanette’s triumphant smile in the final shot, as she settles into the vacant captain’s chair, is both well-earned and extremely uplifting.
As soon as the end credits rolled, my geeky little brain started hopping up and down yelping: “Ooh-ooh! Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a spin-off show, where we got to see their actual adventures, as they explore new worlds, and seek out new life-forms, etcetera?” And apparently I wasn’t the only one, as this Hollywood Reporter interview with episode director Toby Haynes bears out. Is six seasons and a movie too much to ask? Make it so! At the very least, I’d like to see Jimmi Simpson get a few gongs for his alternately hilarious and heart-breaking turn as the ship’s longest-serving/hardest-suffering victim. According to Haynes, the veteran scene-stealer nailed his epic monologue in a single take! Kudos.
[Note: An earlier version of this post included a rambling three-thousand-word digression about Milotti’s eyeballs/brows, but it was removed for the sake of brevity/dignity. Instead of that, here’s a link to an interview in which she discusses her joy at landing the role, and how she summoned up her inner “warrior spirit”!]
* According to the man himself: “This season, the writing of it started in July 2016, so there were episodes being written all through the American election… and everything was looking horrible. I genuinely thought, I don’t know what state the world’s going to be in by the time these [episodes] appear, and I don’t know how much appetite there will be for nothing but bleak nihilism… If you’re living in a dystopia, you don’t necessarily want to look at another one. So I sort of thought, let’s maybe not make them all [depressing].” Amen!