Mirror Image: Black Museum vs. Tempting Fate
Christy Smyth brings this battle of two TV titans to a close, with Black Museum and Tempting Fate getting it on in the final round.
Here we are, the final week of Mirror Image, where we compare and review episodes from two of the best shows out right now, Inside No. 9 and Black Mirror. As it stands, the two are neck and neck, meaning that we’ll see a definitive winner at the end of this article.
Initially, I wondered whether Black Mirror would have had the advantage when looking at the shows in this way. Inside No. 9, though generally more consistent, rarely reaches the highs that Black Mirror has proved itself capable of in the past. That was true when I started, anyway, but now that we have twelve new episodes, is it still the case?
Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge) is the proprietor of the Black Museum, an institution made to house ‘authentic criminological artefacts’ (similar, it seems, to the real life Black Museum of Scotland Yard). This episode sees Haynes take solitary visitor Nish (Letitia Wright) on a tour of the morbid exhibits. As such, Black Museum becomes an anthology in itself, presenting to us three stories based around three of the museums artefacts.
When details about the episodes were first announced, this was the one I was most looking forward too. It’s a great idea in theory, and came with promises of being one of the darkest episodes yet.
I guess it wasn’t a complete let down.
The first, and best, of the three is based on the unpublished Penn Jillette short story, Pain Addict. We hear about Dr. Peter Dawson (Daniel Lapaine) who, after testing an experimental neurological implant, is able to feel the physical sensations of others, allowing him to experience and more accurately diagnose his patients. The visceral horror this leads to makes this segment the closest to what I was expecting from the episode. Jillette’s concept is a good one, and with it being condensed into this short format, it doesn’t have a chance to overstay its welcome, or to become more senseless in its violence than needed.
As for the other two narratives, one is daft and the other, forgettable. The former is the story Carrie (Alexandra Roach) who, after being hit by a car, is able to live on by having her consciousness implanted into the brain of her husband, Jack (Aldis Hodge) (interestingly, both this and Pain Addict are very similar to ideas proposed by Karl Pilkington during The Ricky Gervais Show) and the latter is about Nish’s wrongly convicted father (Babs Olusanmokun) who, in exchange for money to support his family after his death sentence, agrees to sign away his consciousness. This ends up being used as a hologram exhibition in which visitors are allowed to repeatedly electrocute him.
There’s a lot of individual aspects that work in this episode. Though the Haynes character is a recurring annoyance, Letitia Wright is good as Nish, as are many of the actors within the individual segments, particularly Daniel Lapaine. At least two of the stories are good in theory, but there’s only the one that really works in practice and is ultimately underwhelming. The end result is something similar to Inside No. 9’s Riddle Of The Sphinx, if Riddle Of The Sphinx wasn’t half as good as it was.
Keith (Steve Pemberton), Nick (Reese Shearsmith), and Maz (Weruche Opia) are council contractors, assigned to clear out the cluttered flat of a dead hoarder (Nigel Planer). When they find a small hare statue and a vhs cassette in a safe, they think they’ve come across the key to the whereabouts of the deceased Frank Meggins’ vast lottery winnings. The truth, however, is much more sinister.
Weruche Opia does something here that’s rare, in overshadowing Shearsmith and Pemberton in her performance as the group clown, Maz. Shearsmith seems to take on a more expository character, who conveniently knows enough about the occult to explain what it is they’re dealing with, while Pemberton, along with his MS suffering son, provides the motive for the characters actions in the flat.
The episode itself is good. Close to great, but not quite. Like Black Museum, all the parts seem to be there, but never enough to reach the heights that we know the shows can achieve. Shearsmith and Pemberton are good, but not great. The Nigel Planer cameo is good, but not great. The twist is good, but not great.
The real quality here is in the story itself and in the dynamic between these characters who work better together than they ever would independently. These aspects of the show pay off in a great way, and make the episode one that, in spite of its flaws, is certainly still better than average.
The winner in this case, and indeed the winner overall, is Inside No. 9. And to be honest, at the end of these series’, I’m not all that surprised.
Even when the Black Mirror episodes were better, it was only slightly, or it was because there had been an uncharacteristically weak episode of No. 9.
It’s been a fantastic series for the winner, one that delivered some real highlights for the show as a whole, from the fantastically choreographed Zanzibar to the relentlessly dark To Have And To Hold. Shearsmith and Pemberton seem to become more willing to take risks as they go, and seem to have no trouble coming up with new and interesting ways to tell a story.
Black Mirror, on the other hand, seems to be stagnating. This could be down to the pressures of having such a successful show with such a dedicated fan base to appease. It could be down to the very formula that once made the show so great wearing thin. Whatever the cause, the problem seems clear to me, that Brooker seems to have run out of things to say.
Now that I’ve seen it, I feel as though I could have done without a fourth series of Black Mirror, and in hindsight, there hasn’t been any episodes that stood out as brilliant. There were just ones that were better and ones that were worse.
All of this shouldn’t detract from Inside No. 9’s victory though, regardless of the fact that it was a weak series for Brooker, it is also true that it was a particularly strong series for Shearsmith and Pemberton, and it shows. I’ve never heard so many people talking about No. 9 as I did after this series began, and it’s great to see such a brilliant series getting the recognition it’s always deserved.