USS Callister , the standout of series 4

The most recent batch of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s largely dystopian anthology series of tech gone wrong, has finally been released onto Netflix and this group of six episodes is just as varied as the previous batch. The trouble is the Netflix model may already be showing some cracks.

(spoilers below)

When the series first started on Channel 4 in the year that was 2011 it was a simple three part series with each lasting a mere 45 minutes at most and the following series was the same when that came along in 2013. The small episode count combined with the longer period between episodes allowed Brooker, who was largely the sole writer bar one episode, to carefully craft his tales into truly unique pieces while the curated running time meant that the resulting ideas really were cut down of any chaff and instead only what was really needed to be put in got through. And the results really did speak for themselves with even the weakest two of that first run (The Entire History of You and Be Right Back) still being incredible short films while the strongest have come back to be seen as almost prophetic, especially The Waldo Moment.

The Christmas Special that followed in 2014, a good almost two years later really though, was an anthology all by itself but already the extended running time that would become synonymous with the Netflix series was showing its major downsides on the series. While the major stories of the episode involving Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall felt well done the backstory of Oona Chaplin being turned into a subservient house-AI felt notably undercooked and almost forced into an episode that could’ve done without it. The rest of the episode’s story featuring a man effectively giving his confession worked a treat and successfully overshadowed that small misstep but it’s one that probably shouldn’t have been overlooked.

Metalhead, a short but confusing ride

In the time between this and the next series Netflix successfully outbid Channel 4 when it came to hosting the series and instead ordered a 12 episode run over two series of 6 each, with the first arriving in late 2016. The resulting product was a group of strong in ideas and style but very hit and miss in execution, though thankfully more hit. While episodes like Hated in the Nation and the surprisingly uplifting San Junipero would go on to be critically acclaimed others like Nosedive and Shut Up and Dance would do less well while Men Against Fire was simply best forgotten. As previously mentioned though the longer time between the earlier special and this new series did a good job of allowing the increased workload to still be done to a great standard overall even with some weaker entries.

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Now however we arrive to the second batch, released barely over a year later, and the effect of asking a single guy to write six episodes by himself, many of which are now longer than 45 minutes, in under a year have really started to show, with Brooker having cut other commitments to make time for the writing. The first episode, USS Callister, which stands out probably as the best of the series as a tale of ignored genius that descends into a dystopian tale of online bullying and MMO games, still feels like it goes on for too long at a running time of 76 minutes. The almost as strong Hang The DJ, a tale of the perfect dating app, feels bloated at 51 minutes long, with frequent montages that don’t really add anything to the story or characters while having a feel they’re only there for titillation.

Hang The DJ, an episode that could’ve been a few minutes shorter and far closer to greatness

Many of the other episodes all share that feeling of being badly undercooked however with stories that quickly say what they had to say and nothing more, such as the episode Crocodile which quickly descends into a woman just killing more and more people to cover up previous killings, or don’t really say anything to begin. Metalhead, which comes in at a very short 40 minutes or so, is unique for its black and white filming style but gives the viewer nothing to go on for what is actually happening or who any of these characters are as people. It’s a damn shame to see as all of these episodes had something of a great idea there but all are ones that needed more care and attention to come to fruition and therefore feel sadly wasted in potential.

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Series 4 as a whole is still miles better than many other shows around, a modern day Twilight Zone, that sees it tumble through six very unique tales each filmed with a different style and filled with unique characters but compared to the previous three series before it is very easily the weakest. A combination of rushed production time, lack of secondary oversight to quality control each script, and too many items in one batch have seen it pushed out the door too soon. There’s no doubt in my mind that Netflix will order a series 5 sometime in the future but if it does then clearly something will need to shift back to the Channel 4 model which saw a smaller but far better product emerge.