Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’ dystopian show returns – and it’s more of a mixed bag than ever. But one brilliant episode makes it all worthwhile, writes Hugh Montgomery.

It may be focused on the future, but is Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror in danger of feeling a bit passé? After all, its focus on the disrupting and corrupting influence of technology can seem a bit quaint in an era where the somewhat more overarching issues of political collapse and ecological catastrophe loom ever larger. And there’s also the question of just how many different stories you can spin from the series’ chief ongoing obsession: the interplay between virtual and physical realities.

Well, with this fifth series, it justifies its continuation with one astounding episode – even at a mere three episodes long, its variable quality is more starkly evident than ever. What’s more, when you consider that this latest season is shorter than usual because of the time Brooker and Jones had to spend on last year’s throwaway choose your own adventure experiment Bandersnatch, then it can’t be said to be having a good run of form at the moment.

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But let’s start with the positives: Striking Vipers is right up there with Be Right Back and San Junipero among the finest and most soulful, individual instalments the duo have ever produced. Avengers star Anthony Mackie plays a twenty-something man who we first see enacting a ‘sexy stranger’ scenario with his girlfriend (Nicole Beharie) in a club – before indulging in a different kind of role-playing back at home; playing the titular Striking Vipers, a beat-em-up video game, with his best friend (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) into the early hours. Cut to 11 years later, and he’s comfortably ensconced in suburban family life – but an update to his old favourite game proves something more than a distraction.

That is about all that should be said, except for the fact that it has a premise that hits Black Mirror’s absolute sweet spot, being both technologically plausible and richly philosophical. I counted off the homoeroticism of gaming, the pornographic quality of computer game violence, the fundamentally ambiguous nature of sexuality and gender, and the questionable virtue of self-sacrifice in relationships among the themes its raises. But above all, like San Junipero, it is as much invested in timeless human emotions as it is in timely comment on the world we’re ushering in: one of the very best scenes is a simple conversation between husband and wife in a restaurant booth, which thrums with as much as sadness as a John Cassavetes film.

Smithereens by contrast, is a definite case of characters being held ransom to a plotline which is a vehicle for some rather clunky point-making. Andrew Scott, currently best known as Fleabag’s ‘hot priest’, plays a London driver for an Uber-like app with an obvious ‘past’ – and a curious predilection for trying to pick up customers outside the offices of a social media company called Smithereens, not altogether unlike Twitter. When an employee does finally get in his cab, he takes him hostage. This leads to a stand-off in a country field, with the kidnapper demanding to speak to Smithereens’ big boss – a ponytailed tech-bro currently otherwise engaged on a 10-day silent retreat in Utah, naturally.

Taking aim both at the unaccountability and unchecked power of today’s social media giants, satirically it’s about as on the nose as Black Mirror gets. But it also asks, more profoundly: whose ultimate responsibility is it if technology makes us do bad things – creator or consumer? Unfortunately, an interesting discussion point here translates into a rather inert and under-characterised drama. Topher Grace puts in an amusing Jack Dorsey parody, and Scott is a compellingly twitchy, ambiguous presence for a while, at least. But if this is, at heart, a story of a man railing against his own perceived lack of agency, it seems ironic that the scriptwriters should reduce him to such a cipher also.

Smithereens is still pretty watchable, however – something that unfortunately cannot be said for the somewhat excruciating Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too, which is an example of Black Mirror at its most crudely parabolic. Following the likes of A Star is Born and Vox Lux as the latest in a curious wave of films scolding the pop industry, it stars Miley Cyrus as Ashley O, a pink-wigged mega-star whose production-line quality is made literal by the release of a robot doll programmed to talk and act like her. In a parallel plot-line, meanwhile, an adoring and lonely super-fan buys one of these Ashley Too robots, and drinks in its hyper-perky chit-chat and vapid empowerment messages. The question is: with all these proxies out in the world, is Ashley O herself now expendable?

Cyrus’s subdued, spectral performance in the early stages is the best thing about this, as we see the depressed and exploited person behind Ashley O’s stage facade, her own globe-conquering pop career lends these scenes a particular edge, of course, and indeed she has explained in interviews how she fed into the script with her own experiences. But as the episode goes on, and her avatar undergoes a transformation, it becomes increasingly ludicrous and puerile, ending up as a hokey-teen-sci-fi-adventure that, generously, you can only assume is supposed to be a knowing riff on the kinds of films that were churned out in the 1980s in the wake of ET.  

So one good episode to two middling-to-bad ones? It’s not exactly a great hit rate – but then again, one total gem like Striking Vipers is enough to justify the show’s near-certain return for another round.

Striking Vipers: ★★★★★

Smithereens: ★★★☆☆

Rachel Jack and Ashley Too: ★★☆☆☆

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