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Black Mirror

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6 Be Right Back (2.1)

Hayley Atwell plays a widow who reconnects with her dead husband via experimental computer algorithms. Using her deceased husband's social media and email presence, the computer adapts to develop an approximation of his personality. It's an interesting concept, and the idea of a computer developing a full personality that could be interacted with was an idea widely discussed by Douglas Adams in the mid-80s.
      However, this episode isn't about the mechanics of the piece, or even discussing trivia mistakes, like the husband's "mole" moving position during the episode. Be Right Back is an emotional tale, featuring the first female lead character for the series, and exploring her attachment to her husband's memory. The final twist of the episode is cleverly foreshadowed by an early discussion of how the husband's family used to put mementos of the dead "in the attic", and the pay-off is, for once, understated in a more reflective instalment.

5 The Entire History
of You (1.3)

Although Netflix don't release audience statistics, it's fair to say that the 0.87 million Channel 4 viewers who tuned in to this episode were probably the lowest number for a Black Mirror episode. Attention has turned to it in recent times, as it features Doctor Who actress Jodie Whittaker. Whittaker plays a cheating wife in an innovative setting where memories are recorded and can be accessed at all times. Whittaker's co-star, Toby Kebbell, went on to play the villainous Koby in two Planet of the Apes films in 2014 and 2017.
      The only episode without Charlie Brooker's involvement as writer, The Entire History of You was crafted by Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show/Fresh Meat/Four Lions). Robert Downey Jr. optioned the script for development into a film shortly after broadcast, though any such adaptation has yet to be seen.

4 White Christmas

A 73 minute Christmas Special that is sometimes listed as being part of season two, despite airing over 21 months after the second season ended. With more limited financial resources than Netflix, Channel 4 didn't recommission the series from production company Endemol as much as Netflix have. With this being the final Channel 4 episode, it was just the seventh to be aired in three years.
      There's an argument to be had that the Channel 4 agreement was better from a creative standpoint. The Channel 4 episodes were generally edgier, grittier, and the lower production rate meant the ideas were fresher and strayed from repetition. Channel 4 were predictably upset that a deal was made (reportedly for $40 million) to choose Netflix as the new broadcaster, with Channel 4 Chief Creative Officer Jay Hunt noting "Black Mirror couldn't be a more Channel 4 show [...] it's disappointing that the first broadcast window in the UK is then sold to the highest bidder, ignoring the risk a publicly owned channel like 4 took backing it." Endemol and Charlie Brooker had their own versions of what took place, but what can't be denied is that, for whatever reason, the show wasn't being screened regularly by the terrestrial station.
      As the final Channel 4 episode then White Christmas is the perfect bow out, almost a thematic "greatest hits package", as Brooker once more looks at the consequences of psychological torture in new and inventive ways. A collection of three stories presented in a framing narrative with Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall, it presents genuinely disturbing visions of a technological future and provided festive viewers with Brooker's particularly bleak and harrowing take on Christmas. It was also an instant way to regret that more Black Mirror wasn't being made... due to extensive rights issues being negotiated, it would be almost two years before the series would return.

3 Bandersnatch

Rumours of Bandersnatch's nature and release date leaked weeks before its December 28th 2018 launch. An interactive, feature-length edition, it centres around Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), a young programmer trying to make a computer game based on a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book. Set in 1984, with striking recreation of 1980s shops and styles, viewers get to select Stefan's choices throughout, deciding his fate.
     As can be gleaned from the summary, it's probably Black Mirror's most "meta" episode yet, with characters constantly questioning the nature of free will, and the viewer's role in events. Despite discussion of "divergent story paths, parallel realities...", many of the "decisions" the viewer has to make do little to change the course of the plot, and offer only superficial differences. This is partly the point, as one of themes of the episode is the illusion of free will and predeterminism.
     While many of the scenes are repeated (sometimes with subtle, almost unnoticed changes) there are genuine narrative strands that can be accessed, more near the end of the game... er, movie. The beauty of the experience is that each viewer will be seeing something different, but a particularly underwhelming ending has a psychiatrist (Alice Lowe) questioning how dull choices have made things, with a cynical "If this was entertainment, surely you'd make it more interesting?"
     This "branching" idea almost doesn't pay off, as some of the more intriguing subplots are missed out, leading to some underwhelming resolutions. Such things are commented on by a TV games reviewer within the narrative ("Two and a half stars out of five... disappointing.") while others reveal far more sinister motivations to characters, as well as playing with the concept of the unreliable narrator. Particular "dead ends" are met with the viewer having the chance to go back and replay decisions.
     Possibly the best ending - certainly the bleakest - appears to be only accessed through a wrong step, where the chance to go back is given. This time, rather than repeating a choice, an entirely new option is given, and what was previously an immutable event is now able to be changed.
     A Bandersnatch is a creature from Alice Through The Looking Glass, and there's a fair bit of Alice symbolism involved, including (in some versions) a trip through a mirror. However, the interactive element can distance the viewer from the episode's characters and psychological plot, more concept than substance.
     It's far from the first "interactive movie" - it was initially tried, with far more limited parameters, in Czechoslovakia's 1967 film Kinoautomat - but Bandersnatch is not only more involved, it also opens the format up to a mainstream audience. There are said to be at least 5-6 different endings, of which five have been seen here at The Anorak Zone. However, some sources suggest there may be more, and that the varying different scenes allow for a "trillion" possibilities... which does seem unlikely, but remains to be seen.
     Ranking this episode is hard. It's clever, and self-referential, though maybe lacks true intent behind the cynicism. Ultimately maybe it's reliant on which episode you've actually sat through... while these endings have only been alluded to so as to avoid spoilers as much as possible, some of them lead to just an okay episode. Without giving too much away, the ending which secures its high place here involves Laurie Anderson's 1981 hit "O Superman".

2 White Bear (2.2)

Black Mirror is often compared to the original Twilight Zone and regarded as a modern-day, English take on the format. Where the two are very similar is that many of the "twist" episodes sometimes lack rewatch value. Whereas the journeys of characters can be revisited, episodes like White Bear are all about the twist.
     Such things scarcely matter for a first time view of White Bear, a psychologically horrific episode that taps into the perversity of those who like to study murderers as well as the murders themselves. The science fiction element of the piece is a terrifying proposition, and Lenora Crichlow is excellent in an episode that calls for manic intensity throughout.
     To say more would be to spoil events, though it's an episode with many conflicting elements. Viewers are called upon to sympathise with someone who later turns out to have engaged in a wicked act, and accordingly are made unwitting voyeurs in psychological torture. Perhaps it's this element that makes White Bear such a divisive episode, leaving the audience feeling complicit and uncomfortable, whereas most television is merely there to entertain.

1 Fifteen Million
Merits (1.2)

Fifteen Million Merits is, without a doubt... probably... the best episode of Black Mirror. Taking in class, culture and the need for substance, it's one of the stories with the most to say, and the most world-building. Featuring a culture where youths are kept in cells and forced to monotonously ride exercise bikes in order to survive, its "reality show" trimmings are there just as a framework to hang ruminations on the disenfranchised and lowly employed.
      It's also the episode that has had the largest number of "call backs" in the following four seasons. While Brooker likes to put in "Easter Eggs", linking stories as a bonus for viewers, it's debatable if all the Black Mirror episodes could occupy the same world. In Black Museum this isn't the case, where Fifteen Million Merits is read by one of the characters as a graphic novel.
     The most referenced element of the episode, is, of course, the heartbreakingly beautiful "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)", which is performed by Jessica Brown Findlay as part of the "Hot Shot" talent contest, then, as ironic juxtaposition, the original version by Irma Thomas plays out over the end credits after Bing (a superb Daniel Kaluuya) has betrayed his principles and sold out. Amazingly the song wasn't a hit when it was released in 1964, falling short of the top 50 in its native US, and not charting at all in the UK. Charlie Brooker clearly loves the song, as it has received call backs in many later episodes, specifically White Christmas, Men Against Fire, Crocodile and Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too.
     The episode was co-written by Kanak Huq, better known as Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq, Charlie Brooker's wife. It's perhaps more than coincidence that the year before she'd been a presenter on the behind-the-scenes X Factor series The Xtra Factor. Huq's only other writer credit to date has been on the 2014 short Ahmed & Mildred (from a story by Sarah Cohen). It's a shame she hasn't written more, as both works show great promise.