Dystopian science fiction has spent more than a century in the popular imagination, but the more popular it gets, the more it confronts a major existential dilemma: making people fear a dark future is no longer a useful tool in preventing it. Dystopian futures have never been more piercingly relevant. We live in an era when many of the genre’s most far-reaching prophecies have come true, from radical inequality and authoritarian doublespeak to irreversible climate change and unsettling breakthroughs in AI. Dystopian fiction is inherently political, but it also gained steam because it was good entertainment, an escapist adventure into the frightening hypothetical consequences of human frailty. But when the real world is so thoroughly exhausting, it’s hard to get any kicks from such a deeply cynical format: a genre that predicts steadily worse conditions on the horizon.
This watershed moment is particularly evident in the evolution of Black Mirror. Since its 2011 debut, Charlie Brooker’s techno-horror series has been heralded for its unsettling ability to both predict and inform our technological future in unusually bleak ways. But as the show has grown over time, its familiar pattern of “What if phones, but too much?” narratives are becoming predictable. Black Mirror needs to evolve. Over the past two seasons, Brooker has shown a willingness and even a tendency to change and grow, but if he wants the show to stay relevant, he will need to abandon his worst impulses and go even further in complicating his original, brutally dismal premise. Eventually, that may mean reshaping how dystopian fiction functions.
Black Mirror first arrived in 2011, as social media companies were taking off, consumer tech like cheap tablets and voice assistants were making futuristic lifestyles more tangible than ever, and audiences were begging for a fresh look at the future of technology, no matter how dark. The series’s initial two seasons on Britain’s Channel 4 garnered so much attention that Netflix purchased the series and immediately doubled its yield. The show’s third season took a slightly different approach, moving beyond bleak tales of synthetic grief clones and cartoon bears becoming politicians to more ambiguous and even redemptive endings. The digital afterlife romance “San Junipero,” in particular, enjoyed a wave of critical and fan praise for its happily ever after ending, even winning two Primetime Emmys for its writing. For some viewers, “San Junipero” signaled a move away from what made the show effective in the first place. With this shift, Black Mirror’s third season attracted new audiences who might not have already been dystopia fans, but who nevertheless could still get something profound out of it.
The show’s fourth season, which hit Netflix in December, officially established that pattern. While half the episodes — “Crocodile,” “Arkangel,” and “Metalhead” — end badly for their protagonists, in the tradition of the show, the other three — “Hang the DJ,” “USS Callister,” and “Black Museum” — offer more optimistic conclusions. Instead of simply using futuristic technology to torture their characters, these brighter episodes took a more robust, nuanced view, suggesting that while we should indeed be nervous about what’s coming, it’s possible to overcome our worst impulses, to connect with one another in a terrifying landscape. These episodes didn’t placate the anxieties of their darker counterparts. They just offered something most of our recent, more prescient dystopias have not: the possibility of surviving even worse future horror shows than the one we’re living now.
With the even split unmistakable this time, the season’s mottled messages polarized audiences, launching fans and critics into an existential argument: What should Black Mirror be? Have we outgrown its foundational macabre outlook? If it opts to throw a few less-than-bleak endings into the mix, is it still Black Mirror?
The real question is whether the Black Mirror we knew could survive any longer. Given that we’ve created the future that authors once envisioned in their metaphors for critiquing their present, it’s clear the dystopian genre hasn’t had its intended warning effect on society. Early seasons of Black Mirror did jolt people from their comfort zones, making them think twice about binging on schadenfreude or relentlessly pursuing total recall technology. But in 2018, Waldo has won the presidency. The news is as terrifying as the scariest speculative fiction stories about the AI singularity or women being reduced to incubator slaves. The realities of our daily lives are evident in every strong response to Black Mirror’s latest offering, from those who claim the comparatively upbeat endings of episodes like “USS Callister” do the series and its original gloom a disservice, to those who believe dystopian fiction is useless to a populace living a dystopian reality.
Even if the world wasn’t a nightmare, there’s still the problem of originality. Black Mirror can only play so many variations on its terrorizing theme before it falls into the Chicken Little trap of becoming repetitive, reactionary, or worse, boring. Brooker may have a knack for correctly predicting the worst, but even the most masochistic audiences can only appreciate “I told you so” so many times.
It’s clear from the strong responses to the show that audiences want to keep tuning in to Brooker’s imagination. The challenge is how to keep earning that fandom in new ways. The only approach that allows for variation is to lean further into those messier, often less depressing endings, to paint a vision of the future that portends not simply a tech-assisted hellscape, but a way of living in, and through, that world.
Black Mirror has already offered some early examples. In “San Junipero,” the unsettling prospect of uploading human consciousness is softened by a story of a dying woman readily choosing that option to give herself the chance for love and happiness. In “Arkangel,” the monitoring program a woman implants in her young daughter is ruled too invasive and is quickly outlawed. “Hang the DJ” shows the upside of the chilling personality-copying technology seen in “USS Callister” and “White Christmas.” (The possibility of real soulmates is measured by how likely we are to resist the technological oppression of algorithmic matchmaking.) “USS Callister” takes it a step further, with these digital copies finding peace on their own. And in “Black Museum,” most of the horrific technology depicted has already been justly banned, and its one remaining proponent gets his just desserts. In all these stories, the technology is still profoundly discomfiting, but the characters stuck with it find vindication anyway. Where their Black Mirror predecessors surrendered to the basest cruelties their future tech encourages, these characters rise above it, choosing their better natures. The most positive episodes in seasons 3 and 4 suggest that there are ways to rage against the machine beyond simple technophobia.
Dystopian stories didn’t become a powerhouse in the ‘90s and ’00s because they paralyzed audiences into terrified surrender. Those bleak outlooks are meant to make us analyze our present choices, then spur us to act to prevent the world from going to hell. There is no point to a horror movie if we can’t believe the protagonists have some chance of survival. Why bother creating a terrifying future at all, if not to communicate that we still have some time to prevent it?
Even Black Mirror’s triumphant endings can still make viewers uneasy. Technology that can run a thousand tiny digital copies of you through a thousand different simulations is still deeply unnerving, even if it’s ostensibly designed to serve you. But ambiguity and a little faith in humanity is a more promising, helpful choice than straightforward unhappy endings and endless cynicism. In its fourth season, Black Mirror periodically suggested that while the future no doubt has many nightmares in store, we can make worthwhile choices and survive in spite of them. That’s the message that will save Brooker’s series — and maybe us, as well.