This review first appeared in The University of Edinburgh’s The Student TV section Tue 19 Feb 2013
Channel 4, Monday 10pm
Charlie Brooker’s 2011 Black Mirror trilogy featured the Prime Minister of Great Britain (sadly not David Cameron) having sex with a pig. However horrific that might sound, there was so much more to the trilogy than shock tactics. It was a sharply satirical, bleakly funny, dystopian look at the not-too-distant future, a future that could well become a reality if, Brooker suggested, the human race isn’t careful.
This year’s trilogy-opener ‘Be Right Back’ continues in this vein, set a short time in the future when iPhones are wafer-thin and iPads can be controlled by simply using your hand to manipulate the air surrounding them. Hayley Atwell plays Martha who has just moved into a country cottage with her social media-addict boyfriend Ash (Domnhall Gleeson). When Ash is killed in a car crash, Martha is left alone and utterly devastated.
At Ash’s funeral, a friend mentions a new invention to Martha, a computer programme that can recreate the voice of a deceased person using every comment they’ve ever written on Twitter, Facebook etc. At first, Martha is horrified, but when she discovers she is carrying Ash’s baby she becomes emotionally unstable and seeks solace in the programme.
This is where Brooker’s social satire comes into play. As Martha becomes more and more addicted to chatting to ‘Ash’ on her phone, giving the programme access to all of Ash’s videos, emails and photographs, the danger of sharing too much online becomes increasingly apparent. Ash has given so much of himself to Facebook, Twitter etc. that his whole personality can be reconstructed from his comments even after his death.
When ‘Ash’ tells Martha that the programme can move up a step, she jumps at the chance. A body with artificial flesh is delivered to her door, which she places in a hot bath, sprinkling electrolytes into the water like fish food. The body becomes Ash, missing only a mole on his chest and facial hair. It even has his sense of humour. He can’t feel sexual urges – as this was never recorded online – but he can switch his erection on and off, delivering more sexual satisfaction to Martha than the living Ash ever did.
Except, as Martha quickly realises, there are some things that a computer programme simply cannot replicate. The iAsh is maddeningly compliant and sedentary, and this is one of the most powerful insights made by Brooker: it’s not just the humour and acquiescence of our loved ones that we miss; it’s their bad traits too.
As in the last series, the resolution is far from uplifting, but it’s powerful, thought-provoking and wickedly clever. Black Mirror showcases Brooker’s increasingly assured ability not just as a satirist but as a bona-fide screenwriter.