The third season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, a Twilight Zone-esque anthology TV series about technological anxieties and possible futures, was released on Netflix on October 21st. It’s the first season of the show produced by Netflix, after two three-episode series and a special produced by Britain’s Channel 4. In this series, six writers will look at each of the third season’s six episodes to see what they have to say about current culture and projected fears. Read our thoughts on Episode 1, Episode 2 and Episode 3. **Warning: spoilers ahead.**
In the future, soldiers will go into combat augmented with a range of technologies designed to let them carry out their jobs more effectively. Right now, augmented reality glasses and power systems are being tested, with the expectation that their uses will change as they’re adapted to the battlefield. It’s the perfect situation for military science fiction.
I’m a big fan of military science-fiction stories, and I was excited to see what warfare might look like through the eyes of Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker. The third-season episode “Men Against Fire” does presents a horrifying look at what future warfare might look like. But it also relies too heavily on military cliches that are familiar from other stories.
“Men Against Fire” is set in some indeterminate future where soldiers are augmented with an implant called MASS, which displays information and reinforces approved behavior. A catastrophe has infected some people — Roaches — who have begun to steal food from villagers, which prompt the soldiers to hunt and kill the invaders. One soldier, Stripe, gets into a firefight where a Roach uses a device that makes his MASS implant glitch. When he returns to the field, the creatures he saw as monsters are simply human: the implant has been changing how he sees them to make him and his fellow soldiers more effective at tracking and killing them. This military is essentially mopping up unwanted people in society, using the implants to turn them into monsters to make it easier for the soldiers to pull the trigger.
It’s an intriguing premise undermined by somewhat sloppy execution. The story is structured as a sort of awakening narrative: a soldier goes through terrible things, then realizes the true horror he’s inflicting, and has a crisis of conscience. It’s reminiscent of other science-fiction military stories, like Enemy Mine and Captain America: Winter Soldier. Even the applications of the technology and its implications aren’t all that new. (I recommend picking up Linda Nagata’s brilliant The Red trilogy, which covers some similar ground.) Other cliches are also present: Stripe is the newest addition to the squad, one of his fellow soldiers is fanatical in her devotion to the cause, and so on.
Crisis of conscience is a solid trope, and Brooker does work his way around it with a classic Black Mirror twist: Stripe volunteered for this duty in the first place. After his actions, he’s presented with a choice, once his shrink realizes he’s been glitching out: he can be imprisoned, with the footage of what he really did looping in his head over and over (something Black Mirror has played with in the past, such as with the holiday special, “White Christmas”), or he can have his memory wiped and go on as if nothing has happened. He chooses the latter.
What bothers me about this type of technology is that by necessity, it removes agency from the characters in the story. This doesn’t absolve their actions: they’re still killing innocent people. Brooker’s series famously shows people doing horrible things with their technology, and this episode is no exception. But if the soldiers here have their memories and motivations wiped out, are they really complicit in their actions, or are they victims just as much as the people they’re killing?
Earlier Black Mirror episodes, like “Shut Up And Dance” and “White Bear,” do an excellent job of presenting people as victims in technology’s hands, stuck in horrifying situations. Then they flip viewers’ expectations by revealing that these are terrible people getting some form of perverted justice.
But in “Men Against Fire,” we learn that when Stripe volunteered for the service, he already knew he probably wouldn’t remember the circumstances of his surroundings. That’s a horrifying thought, because the memory wipes leave the perpetrators of terrible acts almost blameless. They weren’t acting on their own agency when they carried out their killings, and they’re left almost completely unaffected by what they did.
What saves this episode is the much more horrifying idea that this government perpetuated a holocaust by literally demonizing its enemies. That feels realistic: in every war, soldiers are trained to dehumanize enemies, to maximize their effectiveness by minimizing the impact of potentially taking another life. In a world where that process can be programmed into soldiers, what’s left unsaid is the way any undesirable can be targeted with the flip of a switch. And this army of the future uses its implants in other interesting ways, like rewarding soldiers with vivid sex dreams as an incentive to carry out missions.
This episode plays with a handful of big ideas which never fully come together. Black Mirror excels at placing complicit characters in situations that makes viewers uneasy, from the fake friendliness in “Nosedive” to the more blatant misery in “Shut Up and Dance.” That complicity in the system isn’t present for Stripe, which removes Black Mirror’s signature brand of horror. There’s plenty of discomfort in the utter control the military has over its soldiers, feeding them images and changing their perceptions of the world to manipulate them. But the script never lands a definitive blow about the program’s larger consequences. The bigger picture, the story of how the government is using technology to orchestrate a genocide, is an abstract, conceptual horror, rather than Black Mirror’s usual more personal, visceral attack on the emotions. While the episode was a solid one, it didn’t hit home in the same way that many of the earlier episode have. It would have been a stronger episode if it had been able to connect those big ideas by funneling them through Stripe’s story, making him more accountable for his actions.
“Men Against Fire” ratings
Relevance: High. As the conflicts in the Middle East have raged on for the last decade, we’ve begun to look at warfare and its consequences differently. The vast changes to the battlefield include everything from drones to the recruitment of soldiers via social media, and this particular episode helps to home in on the scary ways that it can make killing easier.
Aesthetics: Grey. The episode drains out a lot of the color of the world, with a chilly mix of grays, greens and tans, from the uniforms to the base that these soldiers live on. It’s a sterile, minimalist environment that fascist governments seem to like, which makes it unsettling.
Squirm factor: Minimal. Maybe it’s because I enjoy military science fiction, but this episode was never as uneasy as episodes like “Shut Up And Dance” and “Nosedive.”