Last year, when the results of the US presidential election became hideously apparent, the Twitter account for Charlie Brooker's dystopian sci-fi show Black Mirror (Netflix, now streaming) rushed out a public service message. "This isn't an episode," it read. "This isn't marketing. This is reality."
That actually seemed an important thing to clarify, because Brooker has an unsettling knack for identifying murmurs of genuine anxiety and extrapolating them into contagiously bleak scenarios. The guiding question behind any given episode of Black Mirror – in essence, a tech-augmented version of The Twilight Zone – is a simple one: "What's the worst that can happen?" Now that many of its worries have come to pass – politics overrun by sniggering populism, invasive surveillance run amok, citizens ranked by social media – how is Black Mirror supposed to keep up?
To judge from its six new episodes, the answer is to keep plumbing the darker reaches of fantasy without abandoning the light of hope. Because if previous series seemed like a wake-up call for a society careening towards chaos, this one largely envisions a way to fight back.
The scope of the new series is wide and varied (no two episodes share a director). Some involve Philip K Dick-grade ideas about privacy and technology; from the insurance claims inspector in Crocodile who can scan people's memories and unwittingly stumbles on a murder, to a parental-protection dilemma writ large in ArkAngel (directed by Jodie Foster) in which a nervy mother has her daughter "chipped", allowing her to trace, monitor and even censor the child's experiences into young adulthood.
Brooker's storytelling is often strong, but erratic – one episode, Black Museum, a compendium of half-finished ideas held together with plot twists in a house of horror setting, is eminently skippable. Another, Metalhead, is a chase movie featuring a canine terminator which feels like an experiment in genre. But when the show hits on an idea with real psychological traction, like the stand out episode Hang the DJ and the fantastically enjoyable USS Callister, then matches that ingenuity with arresting design, Black Mirror really delivers.
The first begins as a riff on dating apps, imagining an amiable couple paired together by a near-flawless algorithm, but develops into a stirring display of humanism when they valiantly try to choose their own destiny. The second, with its sly understanding of the misfit males behind GamerGate, divides its time between a simulation game modelled on the utopian kitsch of early Star Trek, and the grim offices of the company that made it. Here, the game’s gauche designer (the excellent Jesse Plemons) creates “digital clones” of his co-workers, forever confining these sentient beings to his fantasy, like hacked, stolen souls.
If there’s a common thread to these stories, one is the theme of rebellion. The space-game prisoners devise their own escape plan; the dating-app couple try to overthrow the strictures of code; and the monitored daughter pushes for a more analogue adolescence.
But another theme comes with a more cerebral tickle: a few episodes encourage you to identify with a synthetic consciousness over a human character, to invest real feeling in the personal drama of artificial intelligence. Perhaps this is what good fiction always does; drawing empathy for unreal creations. But right now, during this starkly unsympathetic episode of reality, being able to see ourselves in the struggles of these digital clones might actually reflects well on us.