Charlie Brooker’s award-winning sci-fi series Black Mirror is like a new generation’s version of The Twilight Zone (which is also returning to television soon), but with a modern, technology-driven twist. The series’ dark, ominous stories examine what might happen if technological development, and our seemingly innocuous digital habits, were taken too far. Surprise endings or terrifying awakenings are at the core of every episode, so it’s no surprise that each of the short but compelling seasons has mesmerized viewers and, with everything going on in the world right now, occasionally hit close to home in unexpected ways.
In 2015, Netflix outbid the U.K.’s Channel 4 for the Britain-born series, commissioning 12 episodes that were to be divided equally into the third and fourth seasons. Season 3 debuted in October 2016, and season 4 was released in December 2017. The series earned two Primetime Emmy Awards in 2017, and in March of that year, the streaming platform announced it had renewed the series for a fifth season. Before the arrival of season 5, however, Netflix released a full-length feature in December 2018, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, which took an innovative, interactive approach to its mind-bending narrative.
After having indulged in all 19 thought-provoking episodes and one movie to date, we’ve selected the cream of the crop – the 10 best stories, which we’ve ranked from 10th to our absolute favorite Black Mirror tale. Note: There are a lot of spoilers ahead.
10. USS Callister
Season 4, episode 1
When you start watching the first episode of the latest season of Black Mirror, you might initially think you selected the wrong series when this Star Trek-inspired episode begins. It’s a departure from what Black Mirror fans are used to, featuring comedic elements and special effects. But don’t be fooled: Dark, sinister undertones are still at the heart of the story.
The episode looks at what happens when a reclusive and bitter tech programmer and video game company co-founder uses a secret, simulated world in his game to become the powerful man he wishes he was in real life. Everyone who has crossed him becomes a digital clone in the virtual world, unable to escape this alternate life of torture — they are his digital slaves whenever he decides to plug in and “play.” The episode has been so popular that it has led to talk of a potential spinoff series.
Season 4, episode 2
How much use of parental controls is too much? We get a glimpse in this episode, directed by Jodie Foster, when a mother signs her young child up for an implant with the intention of being able to locate her if she gets lost. But, like plenty of technology today, she gets caught up in those seemingly harmless added features, including livestreaming the child’s point of view, filtering out inappropriate or frightening images (ranging from brutal violence and blood to a menacing dog), and even checking vitals like an amped-up activity tracker. As the episode rapidly moves through time, mom finds that having the control at her fingertips is too much to resist, and her meddling backfires in more ways than one.
8. Hated in the Nation
Season 3, episode 6
Every action should have consequences, and that also applies to the internet, where people often hide behind a cloak of anonymity. A seemingly harmless Twitter hashtag, #DeathTo, becomes far more sinister when someone decides to take the tweet requests literally. It’s a horrifying “I’ll show you” wake-up call for those who view the internet as a place where they can post harmful content without consequence — something that has become a hot-button topic in recent years.
7. Fifteen Million Merits
Season 1, episode 2
Ever watch reality TV “stars” and think of them as mere hamsters in a celebrity cage who do whatever is necessary to get their so-called 15 minutes of fame? Their misfortunes and mistakes are turned into ad-fueled spectacles, and this episode takes this notion and runs with it. In this warped depiction of society, people are literally trapped in an enclosed space with constant screen stimulation, and forced to ride stationary bikes to acquire “merits” that can be exchanged for necessities and niceties. When they finally make it onto an X Factor-esque reality series, two of these people get something they weren’t expecting.
Season 3, episode 1
Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, this episode offers a terrifying look at what could become of our obsessions with social media approval and attention. In this new world, social ranking, including how many “Likes” you get, not only influences how you think about yourself, but serves as actual currency. Everyone from the man who serves you coffee in the morning to your Uber driver and co-workers can make or break your social “rating” based on their interactions with you. Your overall score can affect a job promotion, where you shop, or even live. Consequently, it creates a Stepford Wives-like society where no one is comfortable showing their true feelings.
5. White Christmas
Season 2, episode 4
If technology could literally remove people from your life by making you unable to physically see them, and trap a person within his own consciousness, this episode reveals what that might look like. Not only is one such man a prisoner of his own mind, but he’s stuck reliving Christmas Day, and a moment where he realizes he has killed an older man and caused a young child to die. Look out for Jon Hamm in a key role.
4. San Junipero
Season 3, episode 4
Universally lauded and the winner of two Emmys, this touching episode explores the idea of life and death, as well as existing in a simulated reality. While much of the story follows two very opposite young women in the ’80s exploring their romantic love for one another, the underlying theme is that of “life” after death. Both women are actually elderly, one a quadriplegic, but experiencing this “life” virtually. They’re faced with a tough decision: Do they vacate their ailing human bodies and join one another in a simulated reality, living out “life” through their conscious minds after death?
Released between the fourth and fifth seasons of the series, this stand-alone movie ranks among the best Black Mirror entries to date not just for its fascinating story of a young computer programmer attempting to adapt a sprawling fantasy novel while battling his own psychological demons (real and imagined), but also for the way it tells the tale. Bandersnatch is presented in an interactive, “choose your own adventure”-style narrative that lets viewers influence the main character’s actions and determine how the story unfolds. A myriad of plot twists, recursive story elements, and diverse endings await the film’s audience, and much like the series’ best episodes, Bandersnatch breaks new ground in ways that keep you thinking about it long after the story ends.
2. The Entire History of You
Season 1, episode 3
Imagine being able to record everything you see and hear. A “grain” implanted behind the ear in this fictional world does just that, allowing you to play back an argument, conversation, childhood memory — pretty much anything — at any given time. While it might seem fun and useful at first, such power can lead to unfortunate events. One man in this episode discovers how what might sound great in theory can quickly turn very dark.
1. Be Right Back
Season 2, episode 1
Big brands can devise entire profiles of us based on the personal information we share online, what we like or comment on, and even how we interact with others via social media. This episode explores just how much of “you” can be discerned from this massive database of information that’s being stockpiled online. When a man dies, his wife tempts fate, first by using technology that simulates his voice and personality on the phone, then eventually upgrading to a synthetic android likeness of her dearly departed. Can we really artificially re-create a person, and all of his quirks, based on algorithms?
Bonus: Black Museum
Season 4, episode 6
This episode, which beautifully caps off the latest season, deserves an honorable mention. It includes its own mini-anthology, along with tons of Easter Eggs from previous episodes. A young woman happens upon a Black Museum run by a clear sociopath, and featuring a variety of old technologies gone wrong. As she scans the room, she eyes some familiar devices, including the DNA scanner from the latest season’s inaugural episode, USS Callister, the tablet device from Arkangel, and an autonomous drone from Hated in the Nation. It also brings together many of the themes of past episodes, including the woman’s reference to putting old people in the cloud, a call back to San Junipero, and the tiny, circular-looking devices that plug into peoples’ heads to do everything from copy consciousness to store memories.
It was a fitting end to a great series that will eventually return for a season 5 at some point in the hopefully not-too-distant future.
Updated on January 3, 2019: Added the stand-alone movie Black Mirror: Bandersnatch to the list.