Warning: What follows is mostly just spoilers for Black Mirror.
Is it just me, or is Black Mirror substantially less dire and less Sci-Fi than it used to be? I just finished watching Season 5, and every episode in the season seems fairly upbeat, and none particularly care about the technology they reference.
In two of the episodes (“Striking Vipers” and “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too”), the episode ends without any ill effects for the “good guys”. Striking Vipers is about two men who discover a love for doing certain Adult things to each other, complicated by the fact that one of them is married with kids. It’d be trivial to write such an episode such that one of them dies and the other is left in the streets alone and unloved by even his own wife, but instead, he and his wife learn to openly communicate with each other and actively work on their relationship to find a solution that makes everyone happy.
Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too is a standard kidnapped princess-story: Ashley Too is kidnapped by her Evil Aunt, and Rachel and Jack work together to safe her, employing the normal shenanigins. At the end, she’s saved and the Aunt is caught red-handed.
Even in Smithereens, where the protagonist is presumed dead at the end, the protagonist is portrayed as the odd duckling. Society was working out fine, but then something tragic happened to one person and he lost it, and sorta brought the whole situation on himself. At the end of the episode, we’re not led to believe that anyone else in society is particularly injured. Sure, maybe the hostage gets some form of survivor’s guilt (or maybe he’s dead! Why would the writers leave that part ambiguous?).
Across all three stories, as well, the technology in question plays little role to the story itself. Striking Vipers could’ve been rewritten using (to choose an admittidly poorly thought-out analogy) Dungeons and Dragons as the plot point - their rendevouz are acceptable in the context of the roleplaying, which permits them to discover their love for each other. It’s not too far of a stretch. Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too could’ve been just Rachel and Jack, the Ashley Too robot plays no more role than comedic sidekick. The protagonist of Smithereens could go after any number of parties - he could kidnap the person who served alcohol to the driver, he could have instead received a phone call from his long-lost father and could put the blame in him.
In every situation, the story would have played out the same.
Let’s constrast that with a Metalhead without the hunter robots. Here’s the storyline for that: A group of people raid a warehouse for supplies. They get the supplies and go home to their families. They rejoice and build civilization anew.
Or Crocodile without the mind-reading device: After a woman accidentally kills and buries a body, an insurance investigator tracking down an unrelated claim interviews her. The woman successfully doesn’t reveal her crime, and they part ways no worse off.
Or Men Against Fire without the neural implant: Soldiers go around killing members of the Lesser Race. They’re fine with this, and this goes on until Holocaust 2.0 ends. In this case, you might be able to have some similar themes, if the soldiers were just heavily trained to think lesser of the enemy (think the propaganda from World War Two). Some soldiers could realize the folly of this, but the psychological impact wouldn’t be as deep.
Or Nosedive without the rating system: How would the protagonist woman even exist? How could you even write any of her decisions without the rating system? Of course, one could subsitute a different but similar enough parallel with existing modern technology (“Likes” or whatever), so that the woman seeks to get more “Likes”, but that’s not really much different than the technology in question.
You can extend this argument to cover a variety of other episodes: The Entire History of You (perfect memory recall), Be Right Back (AI-driven replacement of loved ones), White Christmas (ability to inject people into simulated realities, ability to censor people), Playtest (ability to directly stimulate brains), USS Callister (ability to put people into simulated realities), Arkangel (the Arkangel system), Hang the DJ (The System), Black Museum (more mind-interface stuff), Hated in the Nation (accessible automated assassination), San Junipero (ability to live forever in the afterlife).
The reason these episodes invent and use the technology varies widely, from philisophically debating what it means for a human to suffer (White Christmas, Black Museum) to making comments on society as it exists today (Nosedive, USS Callister, White Bear) to harbinging about the implications of certain technological advances (Metalhead, Arkangel, Men Against Fire)
Some episodes wax philisophical about other sundry topics, also, the above is not a comprehensive list of topics. (looking at you, San Junipero)
Of course, not all episodes exist in a world terribly different from our own. The National Anthem, The Waldo Moment, and Shut Up and Dance all exist in a world indistinguishible from our own. Each puts a protagonist in a not-so-far-fetched position, then shows the protagonist make what are seemingly reasonable decisions only to end up ostracized by their loved ones and society at large. (before you go off saying I said that watching Certain Videos of underage folk was a “reasonable decision”: I had never considered that the boy had consumed illegal material, I assumed that was setup by the hacker. Not that watching that smut is a “reasonable decision” in general, but the consequences are certainly outsize)
Season 5 has none of these qualities. Smithereens could be construed as trying to make a comment on modern society’s reliance on social media, except that social media reliance plays a very small role in the plot, only being relevant because of the perception of a crazy man. Contrast that with Nosedive, where the reliance is the central driver to the plot.
Striking Vipers makes no comment on society and warns us about no upcoming technology. Maybe the moral of the story is, if you’re having relationship troubles, talk them out with your wife?
Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too briefly mentions the hard life of a stage performer, presumably trying to follow in the footsteps of movies like Rocketman. But at the end of the day it’s still just a rescue-the-princess story: the writers don’t talk about society.