Episode 2.01 Writer: Charlie Brooker DIrector: Owen Harris
THE ONE WHERE A grieving woman is invited to sign up for a new piece of software that allows users to communicate with a digital facsimile of a lost loved one, a copy constructed from their internet, email and social networking history. Although initially reluctant, the shock news that she’s pregnant drives her into the virtual arms of boyfriend 2.0…
VERDICT Charlie Brooker’s techno Twilight Zone returns with a bleak tale that brings Truly, Madly, Deeply kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The afterlife in “Be Right Back” may be digitally rendered, but it’s also hauntingly plausible – it’s really not too much of a stretch to believe that some e-entrepreneur might one day develop a piece of software that can take your digital footprint and use it to build a virtual replica of you. It’s also a chilling premise that really makes you think about how much of yourself you willingly put out to the world on the likes of Facebook and Twitter.
It’s the first half of the story – before the arrival of a full-on walking, talking doppelganger – that proves most effective, as Brooker (who’s written all three of this year’s Black Mirror stories) displays near-textbook understanding of standalone short-form storytelling. There’s the opening act that tells you everything you need to know about the relationship between doomed lovers Martha (Hayley Atwell) and Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) in a matter of minutes; the fatal off-screen car accident gradually revealed by Martha’s dawning realisation that something isn’t right, and confirmed by the appearance of the police at the door; and then Martha’s first reluctant experiments with the “resurrecting” software, and gradual acceptance of the disembodied but familiar voice on her smartphone.
Atwell’s performance – in these scenes especially – is magnificent. Not only does she express her character’s sense of loss and pain brilliantly (those tears seem really heartfelt), she completely convinces despite spending most of the episode acting opposite a phone or computer screen rather than a person. There’s something incredibly moving about the way she lets her barriers down as computer algorithms raid Ash’s emails and social networking accounts to hold conversations with his voice, using his turns of phrase. Despite her inevitable misgivings (and fears she might be losing her mind), she wants to believe it’s him so much that you can’t help but sympathise – on one level using a computer to talk to the dead seems ridiculous, but put yourself in her position and say you wouldn’t do the same if presented with the same opportunity.
“Be Right Back” loses its way slightly in the final act, when Martha is invited to take her user experience to the next level by uploading Ash’s consciousness into an anatomically correct automaton. It’s undeniably a handy plot device for hammering home how a computer is incapable of capturing a human being perfectly – not only does digital Ash struggle when it comes to recreating the intimate moments that (most) people don’t put online, his complete lack of physical imperfections make him literally too good to be true.
The problem is that it’s a stretch of plausibility too far. Having spent the entire episode painstakingly establishing a near-future where the technology is clearly beyond our own but still realistic (safety sat-nav for cars (the irony!), huge, curved computer touchscreens), introducing a perfect replica of a human being comes so far out of leftfield that it wrongfoots you completely. Aside from a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it TV news story at the beginning of the episode that talks about the invention of intelligent synthetic flesh, there’s no hint that this kind of technology exists anywhere else in this world – so finding out that it’s possible to make a more convincing human replica than Data or Roy Batty is something of a WTF moment. The “some years later…” coda – with Martha and Ash’s daughter going up to see her digital daddy in the loft – is similarly off; a tonal shift that feels at odds with the way the story has unfolded previously. As icky as it is, it’s a little too… well, happy.
Still, an impressive return for the show. It’ll be interesting to see what Brooker has up his sleeve next….
BEST LINE Martha: “You sound just like him.” Ash 2.0: “Almost creepy, isn’t it? I say creepy, I mean it’s totally bat shit crazy I can even talk to you. I mean, I don’t even have a mouth.”