Your next dose of dystopia is here: season 5 of Black Mirror was released on June 5 on Netflix, consisting of three episodes. In the first, ‘Striking Vipers’, we meet buddies Danny and Karl, who meet up after a decade or so to play their old favourite martial arts video game – but this time in VR. Instead of fighting, however, the two soon end up getting physical in a different way… WIRED Black Mirror fans Matt Reynolds and Victoria Turk debrief after a rather steamy episode.
Matt Reynolds: After one-and-a-half years since season four – and only ‘Bandersnatch’ to fill in the gap – Black Mirror is back. Do you think the season opener was worth the wait?
Victoria Turk: I enjoyed it. I wouldn’t say it’s up there with the top Black Mirror episodes, but it’s worth a watch for sure. And boy is it *raunchy*.
We’ve seen virtual reality in Black Mirror a few times now, but I thought the focus on relationships/sexuality/gender identity was quite refreshing – without getting too bogged down in worthy social commentary. You weren’t such a fan?
MR: I liked it, but I felt we’d been here before with Black Mirror. The whole premise – people living out their romantic lives in virtual reality – had an obvious parallel in season three’s standout episode ‘San Junipero’, and I think it was explored in a more gripping way there. The video game scenes were great fun, but I wish we’d got to understand the characters a little more, and dug into their motivations and conversations. The episode is an hour long, but we didn’t really get into those difficult conversations that could have been at the heart of the story.
VT: That’s true, although I think it could have got quite boring if too many of the questions were vocalised. Enough was shown for me to raise the most interesting theme: these two men are attracted to each other, but only when they are playing their respective virtual characters (one of which is female). I thought the scene where they kiss in real life to see if they feel anything was great: it showed that their attraction to each other only existed in the virtual world. That said, it only works between them – Karl says he’s tried it on with a bunch of other avatars (“I even fucked the polar bear”) but the sex didn’t feel as good. It’s like VR offers a whole new facet to their sexual identities – not just a new outlet for something already existing but closeted.
MR: A whole new facet that Danny allows himself to indulge on one night every year. Birthday treat!
The ending was a bit unusual for Black Mirror, in that it seemed to neatly resolve the tension at the core of the episode. Theo gets to pretend she’s unmarried for one night, Danny has virtual sex with Karl, and Karl seems satisfied with a cat and a beanie. I’m used to Black Mirror endings leaving me with a little more unease. Do you think things would have got too chaotic if the episode tried to unpack things a little bit more?
VT: Yeah, the ending was a bit… meh. Actually, the whole broader world in which the episode was set seemed rather old-fashioned when it comes to relationships. Aside from the fancy folding phones and talking dishwasher (which still makes you rinse the plates before you put them in lol), everything seemed rather lacking in innovation. Instead of any attempt to integrate this new experience into their lives, Danny and Theo just give each other permission to cheat one day a year while staying in the traditional hetero monogamous marriage with two kids and an annual family barbecue. It felt like a very old-fashioned solution to a new problem. Also, we only really see these characters, but surely they would be far from the only people who have figured out VR sex? I wanted a bit more of the broader picture – how is this tech affecting society in general? Maybe that would have taken too much time. What did you make of the tech itself – the VR head-button thing?
MR: If there’s one thing that Black Mirror is good at, its scenes where people stick a small glowing button to the side of their head. We’ve seen versions of the same tech in ‘San Junipero’, ‘Crocodile’ and ‘USS Callister’ so we should definitely have a name for it by now. In classic Black Mirror style, ‘Striking Vipers’ doesn’t really get into the nuts and bolts of the technology, preferring to jump straight to the implications rather than lingering on how the devices might work. I like that approach – it means that we stick with the humans, which are always the most interesting bit of any Black Mirror episode.
Right at the beginning of this episode, Danny sidles up to his girlfriend, Theo, in a bar and pretends that they’ve just met. It’s cute, and the role-play leads to the first (of many) of the episode’s sex scenes. But it also sets up this idea that the desire to be someone a little different is a completely human thing, and 11 years later nothing has changed except the technology to act on that desire has gotten better. It got me thinking about how games can be a powerful tool for people who want to experiment with a side of themselves they might not get to explore in their normal lives.
VT: True. The tech does seem a little too perfect doesn’t it? I agree we don’t need to know exactly how it works, but you do have to suspend disbelief quite a lot to accept that this magic button can create this perfect, glitch-free VR world where you can feel every touch. Some of my favourite Black Mirror episodes are where we see more of the limitations of the tech. I did appreciate the Street Fighter-style game world though.
Still, it’s a long way from what we know today as VR, and especially VR porn, which, let’s face it, is just bad. One of the main questions in the episode seems to be: is VR porn cheating? The episode comes down pretty clearly on the answer being ‘yes’. But at least at the moment, VR porn is hardly comparable to actual sex (and can we just eye-roll for a minute over that awful, corny, trope-y line about sex being ‘the full orchestra’ for women compared to men’s guitar solo). I guess it’s more clearcut here because Danny and Karl know each other – there are elements of an emotional affair there. I guess what I’m getting at is: at what point does tech-mediated sexual activity count as cheating?
MR: Well this is the interesting thing isn’t it? Because – without getting too graphic about it – there was nothing physical going on when Karl and Danny were in the game so like you say, what made it feel like cheating was that each of them knew that there was another human in the simulation with them. When we hear about sex and technology in the real world, it’s often about porn or sex robots, neither of which really involve an interaction between two people. This episode is all about the difficulties that arise when you know it’s a real person that you’re interacting with. Is it more transgressive to have actual sex with a sex robot, or virtual sex with a real person?
I don’t have any good answers here. But I am intrigued to see where the season goes next…
VT: Indeed! Especially as the next one stars Andrew Scott, one of my favourite actors right now. I think this was a middling Black Mirror episode – highly watchable but not particularly memorable. I’m hoping at least one of the others is a real banger.
Need more dystopia? These are the best Black Mirror episodes, ranked for you to disagree with
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