The latest ‘Black Mirror’ season might be a tad off-the-boil, but it still has some great films that honour the show’s inventive, unpredictable legacy of high-end sci-fi and horror; plus, five episodes to get newcomers hooked

The real deal: It’s Salma Hayek, but not as we know her in ‘Black Mirror’.

BLACK MIRROR: SEASON SIX ***1/2 (305 minutes: five episodes) MA
whole series review

It was inevitable that, sooner or later, a show that had set such a consistently high bar over a decade would eventually falter, even if by just a smidge.

Since hitting Netflix in 2011, Black Mirror has, by any fair measure, been the most engrossing, inventive, bizarre, topical and unpredictable offering on any streaming platform.

A sci-fi anthology series chiefly dealing with how humans interact with technology, the show is set mostly in the near future and features stand-alone episodes of varying length with different casts and shifting styles. Some are dark as heck; others have a light touch.

Created by the arguably brilliant Charlie Brooker, who seems to be channeling Twilight Zone maestro Rod Serling (a key inspiration), Black Mirror is an unarguably brilliant exploration of the excesses technology can trigger.

The threats can come from the technology itself or, as is more often the case, from the way people use, abuse and respond to the power it can imbue.

Ultimately, Black Mirror – which takes its name from the effect of looking into a blank computer screen – offers an immensely entertaining and absorbing scrutiny of human behaviour as shaped by digital technology.

One of the show’s favourite themes concerns the wanton manipulation of people via technology and the issue of payback against such people. Going into dark corners no show has ever dared, Black Mirror raises the fascinating, disturbing issue of over-punishment.

Just how far should you go to rectify an evil deed? What if the arbitrary penalty is more heinous than the original crime? Does going too far constitute a new form of evil?

Killer questions from a show that takes the idea of conflicting morality to a new place.

The advent of Season Six offers five episodes. They’re all very good, to be sure, though there are signs of concept fatigue, with some being a little off-the-boil relative to the excellence that preceded them.

One of the most fun – if flawed – Black Mirror episodes to date is Joan is Awful, a lark that tells of hapless nobody Joan (Annie Murphy) who comes home one night to discover her life is now a scripted TV show streaming on a Netflix-like platform called Streamberry, with Salma Hayek – or somebody who looks a lot like Salma Hayek – playing her.

With all her friends and colleagues watching the show she frantically tries finding out what is going on, only to discover she’s ensnared in a comically nightmarish world of deep-fakes, deception and exploitation, all because she didn’t read the Bible-sized terms and conditions contract when she subscribed.

The real Salma Hayek chimes in with a funny supporting role, only the story ends up in getting tangled in a meta mess, with too much self-referencing ultimately making the enterprise a bit
too silly.

And though Black Mirror has made vulgarity part of its signature since the mind-searing first episode National Anthem, the eschatological indulgences here seem to be done for shock value, having the opposite effect.

The series has been a crusader for clever TV, but the shenanigans cross the line into clever-clever. Still fun, though. (58 mins)

Josh Hartnett plays a deep-space astronaut lost at home in ‘Black Mirror’.

In the movie-length Beyond the Sea two astronauts on a deep space mission (Aaron Paul; Josh Hartnett) in 1969 are able to use life-like mechanical avatars to regularly visit home. A tragedy prompts one astronaut to allow his co-pilot to use his avatar and visit his family.

Absolutely great idea, with some strong moments and terrific period recreation – this is not a low-budget show! – but the story slowly becomes something Black Mirror has been acclaimed for avoiding – predictable. (80 minutes)

The show has long had a taste for monsters, but the one that pops up in Mazey Day looks like an all-too-obvious tribute to 1980s horror films.

It’s a rather lame turn after mounting a pretty good story about a guilt-ridden pap photographer (Zazie Beetz) who is persuaded to go hunting for an actress in hiding (Clara Rugaard) in return for a big pay day.

Unfortunately, it’s a bit “meh” – again, an adjective so rarely applicable to anything in the Black Mirror canon. (42 minutes)

In the horror ditty Loch Henry we are regaled with very strong doses of what the series has long excelled at – killer twists and atmospheric dread.

Two budding filmmakers (Samuel Blenkin; Myha’la Herrold) begin investigating the murder mystery that has killed the tourist business in a small village.

Hoping to make a documentary suitable for broadcast, and garnering some high-level interest, they continue following the clues and unpacking the crime to deliver twist upon twist in one of the darkest and most satisfying Black Mirror episodes yet. It’s the second-best of Season Six. (56 minutes)

The best by a decent stretch, however, is Demon 79, a decidedly black horror-comedy, inspired by the style of the cheapo horror films pumped out by the British film industry, most notably from Hammer Films.

Set in 1979 – again, top marks for the show’s ultra-high standard of period reproduction, including era-specific camerawork – we meet Nida (Anjana Vasan), a put-upon shoe store salesgirl, bullied by her racist co-worker and pressured by her boss to stop eating her smelly lunches in the break room and try the store’s basement.

Discovering a Satanic relic, she is casually told by a minion from Hades – who takes the pleasant form of Bobby Farrell from Boney M – that she has three days to kill three people or the world will end. And he shows her.

Often funny, the joking around evaporates when Nida has to do her duty, usually with the aid of a large hammer.

It’s an absolute knockout, unpredictable right up to the memorable finale. Very rewatchable. (74 minutes)

There are some other quality anthology series, such as Tales From the Loop (Prime) and Love, Death & Robots (Netflix), but Black Mirror still reigns, even if the latest slew of stories stumbles more than usual.

For those yet to discover the dark joys of Black Mirror here are five episodes selected from across the series to sample that are bound to get you hooked.

In no particular order, they are:

Nosedive Bryce Dallas Howard stars in the best takedown of social media addiction as an ever-smiling aspiring influencer who just has to be liked by everybody. Amazing, prescient, great finale. (Season 3: 63 minutes)

Shut Up and Dance A teenage fast food worker is blackmailed into doing a series of increasingly horrible tasks on a punishingly tight deadline lest his One Big Secret be revealed to the public. Breakneck pacing. Nerve-shredding tension. Absolutely harrowing. (Season 3; 52 minutes)

USS Callister Jesse Plemons plays a hotshot gaming guru who has secretly developed an immersive Star Trek-like game where he can live out all his sci-fi fantasies as the captain of a starship. Sounds fine until a worshipping employee (Cristin Milioti) stumbles into the game – or at least a version of her does. Clever, funny, scary with pizza delivery serving as a key plot point. A favourite episode of many Black Mirror fans. (Season 4; 77 minutes)

Metalhead Fear of robots has never been so frightening and vivid. Not since The Terminator anyway. Filmed in black-and-white. Totally terrifying. (Season 4; 41 minutes)

Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too The synthetic nature of pop stars and the idolatry they covet gets a great going here as singer Ashley O (Miley Cyrus) is commodified, first as an AI-enabled doll designed to please fans such as Rachel (Angourie Rice), then as a giant, easily controlled hologram. Tech-heads will find the doll adorable, especially with how its eyes register firmware updates. Talk about attention to detail. (Season 5; 67 minutes)